Between Two Points

In geometry we learn that a straight line is the shortest path between two points. It is also sterile, soulless, and uninteresting -- always dull and sometimes ugly.

A Failure to Communicate

Have you ever had trouble pronouncing Chinese city names on a map? You are looking at the transliteration of a visually represented language into a foreign phonetic system.

There are at least four sources for these names. The first is an amateurish one word at a time attempt by a person not trained in a phonetic system. Keelung, Kowlong, etc. These spellings are often heavily influenced by a dialect other than Mandarin, but they are usually trying to be Mandarin.

The oldest phonetic system for Chinese is called the Mathews system. When it is done correctly, it is strewn with apostrophes. Half of the words should have an apostrophe. Before the 1960's this was the most frequently used and produced monstrosities like Peiping and tsingtao.

Next is the Yale system, developed at where else, Yale. It is the closest to American English phonetics. English speakers have about a 25% chance of saying Yale system words correctly, Taibei, Shanghai.

The most common form is a political rather than linguistic solution. China developed the pinyin system. It is remarkably similar to the Yale system with a few substitutions thrown in. Qing instead of Ching.

All of these systems fail spectacularly. They are missing a phonetic dimension. Chinese is a tonal language and none of these systems typically show the tones.

Line Mechanics

We have a similar disadvantages trying to discuss lines. Our vocabulary is not just missing some terms, it is missing a dimension.

As a child, I had access to a poorly printed copy of the Mustard Seed Garden Manual (its about painting, not about gardening). This book has a section that names a shows hundreds of line types. It was commonly used in the nineteenth century as a reference and training for Chinese painting. The names are amazing. It was a shock for me to learn those misty Sung Dynasty landscapes were made with Big Axe Cut and Little Axe Cut lines.

I spent years with totally inadequate materials (kid's brushes, Skrip ink, typing paper) and a badly printed example that lost all detail. When a actually saw high quality Asian art it was like finally getting a drink of water.

Chinese art has a background in mark making that is thousands of years richer than Western art.

Let's say you wanted to make two lines -- one like iron wire and the other like silk. Could you do it? How would you even start? If you did, you would have an individual solution with maybe 5 minutes of history.

Chinese calligraphy is the underlying discipline of both writing and painting. It divides a line into three parts: beginning -- motion -- end. Seems pretty obvious, but try to find a western drawing book with even a hint of this analysis. The beginning is how the brush is applied to the paper. The motion is how the brush is moved including pressure, direction, path, speed, and more. The end is how the brush is removed from the paper. Although this is just mechanics, it is a lot more mechanics that you get in Western training (different tools make different marks)

When I began to learn calligraphy, I drilled in the same few pages of characters day after day, week after week. My frustrated teacher would grab the brush above my grip and drag me through the motions -- like this like this.

Finally I did get the basic mechanics down and I could write a couple of pages with the right mechanics (this took me months of 4 -6 hours a day). I asked my teacher for another example to follow. I thought I had this one down and was ready for a change.

My teacher said, "Before you were just making words. Now you are making calligraphy. It is very, very bad calligraphy. You should keep the same model until you understand that you are making thousands of mistakes in only two pages."


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