Along with Egypt and Mesopotamia in the West, two Eastern regions are commonly cited
by archeologists as among the great progenitors of civilization: the Indus River Valley
in India and the Yellow River Valley of China.
But what of the latter, so far away geographically and culturally from Euro-American life? How can a student access wisdom that was developed over six thousand years and informs twenty percent of the world’s population? Language, a logical first step, is daunting when the sounds and symbols are so different. Where, then, shall East and West meet?
One answer is art. For masters of East Asian calligraphy, the sweeping lines of Chinese figures are not simply semantic tools. They are a practice built on precision and steadiness of hand mixed with style and personality. Formally known as Chinese Brush Stroke, the exploration of paper, stamping seals and painting techniques endemic to China provides a gateway to one of humanity’s great cornerstones.
In January, Visual Arts faculty Harrison Tu displayed sixty works in the Nalanda Gallery collectively titled Dialogue: Between East and West; the Second China-USA Calligraphy Exhibition. Featuring fifteen pieces by five Naropa students alongside those by Chinese students, the exhibit was first shown in Shanghai shortly before the Beijing Olympics.
“There is a balance within the character itself, a balance between the characters and a balance throughout the entirety of the piece,” says student Forest Kitzis, who has completed three semesters of training and contributed work to this year’s show. “You can also consider the balance of darker, heavier inks that bleed and, when the brush starts to break, lighter inks that leave multiple lines. A red stamp goes under your name on the left, and another stamp, often with a general meaning like ‘good fortune,’ goes on the upper right-hand corner. It’s all about balance. It’s precision itself and…can be of benefit to anyone who draws or paints.”
“After taking a calligraphy course, most Naropa students started to take an interest in Chinese culture, history and philosophy,” says Tu. “It serves as a channel connecting the artists from the two nations and establishes a dialogue between them. I hope that we can take the beauty of calligraphy and extend it so that all western cultures can enjoy the exquisiteness and elegance of China. Calligraphy is very helpful for learning the Chinese language, especially with memorizing Chinese characters.” Tu, himself, has practiced the art for more than thirty years.
Tu’s first exhibition of this type occurred in 2006, co-sponsored by the Confucius Temple of Shanghai and the Chinese Art Association. Receiving positive reviews, Tu was inspired to make the exhibition a bi-annual event. In addition to Shanghai and Naropa, this year’s show was exhibited in Iowa and Chicago. “The unique beauty of Chinese calligraphy places it among the supreme arts of the East, and it deserves to be an integral part of world culture,” says Tu. “It is a window to Eastern civilization.”