Exploring Chinese Calligraphy with Local Masters: Celebrating Mother’s Day in a Creative Way, Bonding Through Cultural & Artistic Expression

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By Michael Perlman

In anticipation of Mother’s Day, a group of twenty people, mostly consisting of mothers and their children, were ready to cultivate their creativity and reinforce their love in honor of the holiday. On May 11, participants of diverse cultures and between the ages of 14 and 70, learned about Chinese and Japanese calligraphy at Chan Space New York, a Buddhist organization at 219 East 60th Street. The passionate artists wrote “love” in regular script, known as kai shu style, and presented their work of art to their mothers. They also learned how to say “I love you” in Chinese, which is 我爱你 or Wǒ ài nǐ, as well as in Japanese, which is 愛してます or Aishitemasu. This event was a beginner’s workshop in calligraphy, which sparked further interest. 

“Chinese calligraphy offers a multitude of benefits, making it a wonderful activity for creative expression, therapeutic relaxation, and fostering bonds among family and friends,” said Woodside resident Yukiko Koyama, a calligraphy instructor who led the Mother’s Day workshop, in partnership with Forest Hills resident Amy Hsu, who also teaches calligraphy. 

Koyama was born and raised in Japan, and is well admired as a Japanese and Chinese Calligrapher. She also teaches origami and is a math and Japanese tutor. Her teaching methods have made a difference for many lives, as in the case of teaching calligraphy to a young American autistic woman who generally cannot sit still, but can when she is practicing Japanese calligraphy. “This young woman has shown great improvement due to calligraphy, and even won a special award last year,” said Koyama. 

“Art is part of our life. We enjoy being in a space with like-minded people, who enjoy calligraphy and have fun doing it,” said Hsu, who was born in Taiwan and is a Chinese calligrapher. She also practices photography and Tai Chi at her leisure. She holds a full-time position in the budget department at CUNY.   

Koyama’s passion originated at age six, when a friend advised her to mutually enroll in a calligraphy class. She would not have suspected winning a prize in calligraphy shortly after, and she has never looked back. It was a woman on a mission. As for Hsu, she embarked upon a calligraphy journey in elementary school, and she enjoyed writing since she was very young.

Back in 2001, Koyama met a calligraphy teacher, and after her encouragement, she persisted and honed her calligraphy skills over the years by pursuing it consistently. After crossing paths with Mr. Li Zhenhing, owner and Chinese calligrapher of New York Calligraphy and Art Center in Flushing in 2020, she began pursuing weekend calligraphy classes under his tutelage. 

As of 2010, Hsu attended a Japanese monk calligraphy meditation workshop, and she was amazed by a calligrapher who painted huge examples of calligraphy with a large brush, while sitting on the floor. She reminisced, “Since then, I would tune into calligraphy clips on YouTube and was self-taught. I met my teacher, Mr. Li, through my Tai Chi Master in 2020, and I began attending calligraphy sessions on Saturday afternoons ever since. I also began helping the center register as a non-profit, building up a team, recruiting students, planning exhibitions and forums, and maintaining a dialogue with Chinese newspapers, including World Journal and Singtao USA.” She is also providing assistance for his documentary, “Calligraphy Inheritance – Li Zhenhing,” and is hopeful that it will appear on screen shortly.  

Koyama and Hsu met at the calligraphy center and became close friends. In a joint statement, they explained, “This is where we began assisting in calligraphy events for the Lunar New Year, the Lantern Festival, the calligraphy master’s birthday celebration, and many calligraphy forums. We began receiving workshop requests for the 2023 Lunar New Year from Tiffany & Co. in Long Island. For the Lunar New Year, most Chinese people are spending time with their family, but we were writing for spring couplets for six hours nonstop. It was indeed a challenging task beyond calligraphy’s focus on relaxing and balance, but we enjoyed it.”

This past February, they partnered for an event with the 67th Precinct Clergy Council, a religious non-profit based in Brooklyn, which launched the “Around the World in NYC” program. Their mission is to advocate for anti-gun and anti-violence measures for African American, Hispanic, and Muslim youth spanning ages 14 to 21 years old, and introduce them to other cultures. “It entails visiting communities such as Flushing and learning about a variety of foods, religion, music, and culture. Our center hosted 45 youth participants, introducing them to Chinese calligraphy. It was the first time that most participants held the brush to write the very first Chinese character, ‘dragon,’” said Hsu. “We discussed Asian philosophy encompassing peace and happiness. This art form served as an introductory bridge between different cultures,” added Koyama.  

The uniquely talented duo hosted another workshop for an international marketing company in Midtown Manhattan. This workshop was to celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, and calligraphy was the celebratory theme. “We had such a great time with all participants, who are full of energy and creativity. This was also their first foray into writing Chinese calligraphy,” said Koyama. 

Chinese calligraphy offers a rich history and unique characteristics that foster distinctiveness among other forms of calligraphy. Additionally, there are lesser known facts that the public may be unaware of. Chinese calligraphy has been practiced for over 3,000 years, with origins dating to the Shang Dynasty (1600 – 1046 BCE). Over time, it significantly evolved due to influences by various dynasties and cultural movements. 

Artistic expression is a main characteristic. “In Chinese culture, calligraphy is not just a form of writing, but a highly regarded art form and means of self-expression.  Calligraphers often infuse their works with their personality, emotions, and philosophical beliefs,” said Koyama. Brush and ink is also a distinctive characteristic. “Unlike western calligraphy, which often uses pens or quills, Chinese calligraphy relies on brushes consisting of animal hair, typically from goats, wolves, or weasels, and ink derived from soot mixed with water,” said Hsu. 

In Chinese calligraphy, essential tools are known as “Four Treasures of the Study,” consisting of brush, ink, rice paper, and ink stone. Each component is selected based on quality and contributes to a work of art’s overall aesthetic. Distinct styles of Chinese calligraphy offer their own characteristics and historical significance.  Among the most well-known are Seal Script (zhuna shu), Clerical Script (li shu), Regular Script (kai shu), Semi-Cursive Script (xing she), and Cursive Script (cao shu).

“Throughout history, Chinese emperors used personalized seals to mark official documents and artwork. These seals were often intricately carved with the emperor’s name or title in Seal Script, and considered symbols of imperial authority,” said Koyama. 

She also explained the concept of cultural symbolism. “Chinese calligraphy is deeply intertwined with Chinese culture and philosophy. The strokes, composition, and overall balance of a calligraphic work often carry symbolic meanings related to harmony, balance, and the natural world.” 

Referencing the characteristic of calligraphy masters, Hsu explained, “For centuries, numerous calligraphy masters emerged in China, leaving behind a legacy of remarkable artworks and influential teachings. Wang Xizhi, regarded as the “Sage of Calligraphy,” is celebrated for his mastery of Regular Script during the Eastern Jin dynasty (317 – 420 CE).” 

Chinese calligraphy cast a lasting imprint on the global art world, where artists including calligraphers of diverse backgrounds have been inspired. It is prevalent in art forms including painting, typography, and graphic design. Despite immense success, Chinese calligraphy faces challenges, including decreasing interest among younger generations and the risk of traditional techniques being lost as time evolves. However, exposure and preservation initiatives are underway to keep the cherished cultural heritage robust.  

Koyama and Hsu welcome community feedback on venues to continuously offer their calligraphy workshops, and are also hoping to hear from Forest Hills and Rego Park among citywide residents, who wish to discover its background and cultivate their creative streak. “We are in the process of showcasing our talents to the public,” said Hsu. With calligraphy, the possibilities are plentiful and diverse, and include shop signs, greeting cards, posters, and murals. For leads and to participate, please email amyhamihsu@gmail.com

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