Calligraphy is highly revered as an art form by both the Japanese and Chinese. Many of the calligraphic inscriptions on the gyotaku pieces are four-character idiomatic expressions, known as yojijukugo in Japanese or chengyu in Mandarin Chinese. Before the 5th century, the Japanese had no writing system of their own and the written characters, introduced from China and called kanji in Japanese, served as Japan’s first writing system. Many Japanese yojijukugo are adapted from Chinese classical literature and sayings; others are taken from Buddhist literature and scriptures. There are thousands of these four character idioms and many express a profound idea or sentiment in only a few words. However, the literal translation of some may not make immediate sense, just like the English idiom “a piece of cake”, meaning "easy".
Some of the expressions are distinctly Chinese because of the unique play on words provided by different characters that have the same spoken sound in Chinese (see, for example, Every Year Have Fish, Gallery 8). Others are undoubtedly uniquely Japanese. More often than not, the expressions are shared; many of the Chinese and Japanese versions have the same or similar meanings. As a consequence, in the narratives accompanying the gyotaku pieces, the translations include Japanese pronunciations for some, Chinese for others, and both languages for a few. Despite the different way the characters are spoken in the two languages, they are written the same and usually have the same meanings.
In addition to the classic four-word expressions, some pieces contain excerpts from the Chinese classic, the Tao Te Ching, and a few have short poetic expressions or titles I have composed myself, some of them in Chinese syntactic form (simply because I am more familiar with spoken Chinese that Japanese).
Long ago, the infusion of Chan Buddhism and written language into Japan from China culturally linked these two distinct Asian peoples. The horrors of war in the 20th century estranged those cultural links and to this date, the wounds inflicted at that time are not fully healed or forgiven. I hope the portrayal of the beauty and wonder of nature, drawn from cultural and artistic traditions of both peoples, contributes in some small way to healing the wounds inflicted nearly a human lifetime ago.
How I got started with calligraphy
After I started my practice of gyotaku, I would frequently eye Chinese and Japanese calligraphy supplies at art stores. Yet as a westerner, writing Chinese characters with brush and ink seemed so esoteric and quite unapproachable. Furthermore, unfamiliarity with the languages (either Chinese or Japanese) that use Chinese characters presented no small barrier for entry into serious practice.
My search for an artist name led me to Japanese and Chinese dictionaries and served to weaken the language barrier. In 2000 after carving the characters representing the name “River Winding” in a small block of olive wood that served as my first artist seal, I resolved to learn brush calligraphy. The next year, I found a book entitled Read and Write Chinese by Rita Mei-Wah Choy (published by China West Books, San Francisco); that book facilitated my entry into practice. That book gave the stroke sequence for writing 3,200 characters. With this book as my guide, I began.
Despite regular practice and dedication, progress was slow. The many additional books on Japanese and Chinese calligraphy I obtained during this initial phase of practice were incapable of taking me to the next level. I realized that only a good teacher could help me advance. In 2006, Ms. Diana Ho, a native of Shanghai and Art Director of the Chinese Art Academy of Chandler, Arizona became my calligraphy teacher. Under her instruction progress was rapid. I owe so much to her guidance, helpfulness, and above all, the inspiration she gave when I watched her write so beautifully and gracefully with a brush. In addition, a class in spoken Chinese (Mandarin) that she taught helped me progress in my knowledge of the language.