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Calligraphy and Karate

Hours scheduled to train: 9

Hours trained: 7

I’ve been reading a lot this month and not just the usual rote of karate blogs and sites but also collected essays and strange, archaic texts like the Hakagure. This is partly because I went on a spending spree in Kata Trading the other day and partly because frantic reading is my way of playing catch up for all the class I’ve missed.

Anyway, the books I’ve been reading these last few weeks have all be linked by what I thought was a strange common thread. Weirdly, each of them deals with calligraphy as an adjunct to martial arts training, which I found kind of strange.  I started to get the feeling that this wasn’t coincidence when I went on line to have a look at some of the calligraphy of Japan and found a large number of the finest pieces in museums today were produced by samurai.

So, curious about why those who had devoted their lives to combat would find so much value in an art form like calligraphy, I wandered down to the local art supply store to pick up a few rolls of cheap paper, some ink and a couple of brushes. Twenty five bucks later I went home to give calligraphy a try.

I should add here that the only instruction I’ve had in western-style painting took place perhaps twenty years ago, and the only instruction I had in eastern water colour painting was about ten years ago. Before embarking on my calligraphy exploration, I did about an hour or so of research which, in the end, was mostly looking at people in the midst of calligraphy and reading the wiki page.  So it’s a good thing my goal wasn’t to become a calligraphy master but to figure out how karate and calligraphy could possibly feed into one another.

The first thing I noticed that linked karate and calligraphy was the importance of stance. In order to do large pieces, I had to lie on the paper and position my body almost three-quarters prone in order to distribute my weight evenly and not wrinkle the paper I was writing on. The position I would have to be in so I could produce calligraphy (which, after tearing about four inches of paper with my elbow) was something I had never even thought about.   The three quarters prone position was one I wound up copying from a picture of an aged calligrapher online.  It was surprisingly comfortable, allowed good freedom of movement and left only a few crinkles in my paper.

As soon as I started to think of stance, I began to think of calligraphy in the same way I think of martial arts. That was when I started to notice other similarities between the two art forms. So this just in from the department of Tam Figuring Out What Everyone Else Knew: Calligraphy and karate have a whole lot in common. Wow

Calligraphy from the 19th century

To create a pleasing image, the calligrapher really cannot hesitate. They must be sure of the brush strokes they will make before they do them because to hesitate ruins the character they’re drawing; the paint pools and the paper warps. Any hesitation is starkly visible in the finished product. Equally, the calligrapher cannot doubt the character they are writing, the word that comes next or if they should have placed the brush down somewhere else. Once the ink is on the page, anything but a decisive stroke shows up as a blob or a streak and draws attention to the hesitation.

It’s amazing to see how an instant of doubt can destroy calligraphy just as doubt can scupper a technique. The thing about calligraphy is the practitioner can hold up the work and examine it to see their flaws rather like a sensei can see hesitation in a technique. Calligraphy is a sort of snapshot of the mind at a decisive moment. The more calm the mind, the more beautiful the image produced. Just as in karate a calm mind yields a beautiful technique, so too in calligraphy.

What seemed strange to me when I first encountered it, that karate and calligraphy should have a lot in common, now seems to make sense.  I don’t believe I have the time to devote energy to a serious study of calligraphy, but I think I have a better understanding of it now, and a greater appreciation of why the samurai found such an innocuous seeming practice such an important part of their martial education.

Categories: Drop in the Bucket
  1. Avery.Myall
    July 22, 2008 at 12:22 pm

    Wow… I’ve never thought of it that way. I should really look into that…

  1. April 25, 2008 at 11:52 am

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