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Shodo or the Art of Japanese Calligraphy

Shodo or the Art of Japanese Calligraphy | ORYOKI

Writing can be an art: from old fairy tale books to hand lettering, we experience this in our daily lives. However, in Japan, the aesthetic form of writing known as Shodo has firmly established itself in the culture. Discover what Japanese calligraphy has to do with martial arts, how to create the most beautiful characters - and why it's worth giving it a try.

More than a beautiful font

"The Way of Writing": that's how Shodo 書道 can be translated. The name already suggests that it's not about the result - but about the way it's achieved. The intricate Chinese characters, which are especially present as decorations and tattoos in our culture, have a long history.

Originally originated in China, the art of beautiful writing became a part of Japanese culture in the 6th century. But like all other imports, calligraphy was not simply adopted by the Japanese. Chinese calligraphy was adapted to the peculiarities of the country - and Shodo was born. The form of calligraphy that is now considered a traditional art continued to evolve until the 10th century.

What are the differences compared to Western or Chinese calligraphy? We write letters with ink and a pen; in East Asia, characters are "painted" with a brush. At first glance, Japanese calligraphy is hardly distinguishable from Chinese calligraphy because it largely uses the same characters, Kanji. However, in Japanese, Hiragana and Katakana may also be used. While each Kanji represents a word, each Japanese Kana character represents a syllable. In Japan, a different writing style is often used compared to China. How the brush is held and the order in which strokes are made - all of this varies depending on the country. True experts can recognize the difference in calligraphy at first glance.

The working materials are also essential for the calligrapher. In China, they are called the "Four Treasures of the Study": paper, ink, an inkstone, and a writing brush.

The tool makes the calligrapher

The characters are not written on regular paper but on special Japanese rice paper called Hanshi. The interesting thing about Hanshi is that it often doesn't actually contain rice - but is made from various other plant materials, such as the fibers of the mulberry tree or the Japanese paper tree (Gampi). This paper is thin to translucent and at the same time exceptionally durable. It has a rough side and a smooth side. The choice between the two is left to individual preference.

Ink in bowl with brush

For writing, you can get ready-made ink, but traditionally it is prepared using an inkstone. Here's how it works: the ink, Sumi, is used in the form of a stick made of soot. First, a little water is added to the inkstone. Then, in a vertical position, the Sumi is lightly rubbed on the stone called Suzuri. The right ratio of water to ink can only be found through experimentation as a beginner. The ink should not be too light and watery, but also not too thick, so that it can be easily applied.

With this ink, not only can writing be done, but also pictures can be drawn. The art of Japanese ink painting is called Sumi-e.

For Shodo, it's best to use special calligraphy brushes, available in various sizes. Japanese brushes are usually made from animal hair - such as goat, sheep, or horse - or synthetic materials, with a handle made of wood or plastic. The hairs at the tip of the brush should taper to a point, be of equal length, and not splay - only then do you have a high-quality calligraphy brush in hand. Alternatively, there are special brush pens called Fude, designed for writing Chinese characters. In Japan, brushes are held vertically during Shodo, requiring the writer to sit upright.

Additional tools like paperweights or special mats complete the calligraphy set. Now you're ready to get started!

Many paths to the goal: the styles of Shodo

Japanese characters are written either from top to bottom or from left to right. The former is more common in Shodo. In that case, the script is read from right to left.

So far, so good - but what about the individual characters? In Shodo, there are approximately five traditional techniques:

  • Kaisho: every child in Japan will first learn this style as a foundation, which translates to "correct writing." Here, each stroke in the characters is written separately, so the brush is lifted. Kaisho is compared to other styles, more "angular," and very legible.
  • Gyosho: if Kaisho is "block script," this style resembles cursive writing. The brushstrokes flow smoothly both in the mind and on paper. Some more advanced calligraphers prefer this technique.
  • Sosho: barely readable for the inexperienced, this script still looks simple and aesthetic. Sosho is a bit like abstract art, where the meaning of the writing takes precedence. Here, the brush is hardly lifted. Once the calligrapher has a feel for the character, they can bring it to paper optimally in Sosho.
  • Tensho: this decorative style is mainly used for seals or stamps and resembles more of a symbol. The lines are fine, defined, and soft, but the difficulty level is correspondingly high.
  • Reisho: as the "official" or "clerical" script, this is often found on Japanese documents. Reisho replaced the original Tensho style as it was faster and simpler. In comparison to other styles, this technique is more closely aligned with the original image that served as the model for the Kanji character.

In modern calligraphy, additional styles have also emerged. Furthermore, modern Shodo enthusiasts also use different writing tools and materials such as ballpoint pens, colors, or digital painting tools. Each calligrapher has their own handwriting and preference - in artistic expression, there is no right or wrong. From Japanese script, sophisticated and creative artworks can be created, drawn, and painted.

Characters on paper with black ink

Japanese calligraphy has a lot to say

Now we have gained an impression of how Shodo is written. But what exactly is written in Japanese calligraphy? Initially, it was religious texts, namely Buddhist teachings - the so-called Sutras - and prayer books. Today, it is mostly terms or sentences that hold significant meaning for the artist. Here are some examples of popular Japanese Kanji with translations:

  • Love 愛 - ai
  • Happiness 幸 - ko
  • Strength 力 - ryoku
  • Life 生 - sei
  • Dream 夢 - yume
  • Way 道 - do
  • Eternity 永 - ei
  • Human 人 - hito

Just like the Japanese tea ceremony, national martial arts, or the art of flower arranging, Ikebana, Japanese calligraphy also originated from Zen Buddhism. The philosophy behind it is common to many traditional Japanese arts. Not a few martial artists are therefore excellent calligraphers as well. In Japanese calligraphy, it is about reflecting on the meaning of each character and feeling it while guiding the brush. From mere copying, one soon moves on to an individual work that captivates through harmony.

In Shodo, writing becomes a philosophy and meditation that is practiced not only in Japan. Anyone can learn this form of calligraphy and indulge in their love for writing. There are courses and workshops around the world that introduce visitors to the art of beautiful character writing. Beginners can also find resources in books and on YouTube. Many use this form of handwriting to relax from the hustle and bustle of modern life. No wonder, because concentrating on each brushstroke makes the worries of everyday life fade away. And with some practice, one ends up with a result that is truly worth seeing.

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