A Master Calligrapher | Japan | Living in Mexico

A Master Calligrapher

Calligraphy has as much to do with the appearance of words on a page as on their meaning. In Japan, this is even more so. At the home of Shotei Ibata, a Living National Treasure, we saw how a master creates calligraphic works of art.

We began our visit by hearing a short explanation of how Chinese characters developed. Here we see how the character for "mountain" (shan), evolved from an individual pictogram that resembled actual mountains. (To see the evolutionary sequence, read the chart right to left).


(The character at the far left is a cursive form that is used primarily in calligraphy. The commonly-used modern character is second from left.)

(The old guy standing below the chart, drinking his stimulating cup of tea and therefore in a rare conscious state, apparently is amused by the illustration.)

I have always thought of calligraphy as a minor art involving careful and painstaking pen- or brushwork. For Shotei-sensei, the act of drawing a character involves concentration of his mind and spirit, and a convulsive movement of his whole body. Pausing before a blank sheet of paper, holding an ink-saturated brush in his hand, he would at first seem to go inside of himself, gathering his life force. I could almost sense an electric charge building between his eyes and the paper.

Suddenly, he would issue a grunt—HUNH!—like that made by a karate master before splitting a board with his fingertips. He would bring the brush down smartly, and with his whole body swaying, he would paint a character in a matter of seconds.


That's it. Done. No retracing. No correcting errant lines. One swift, convulsive movement, and the blank paper now contains a character, a work of art, complete and perfect.

In contrast with the seconds it took to create the character, he spent several minutes signing the work and carefully applying his chop.

Shotei-sensei uses large brushes, an innovation that he introduced. Here he is using a very large brush to execute the character for "cloud."


Japanese calligraphy brushes differ from western ones in that the hair is very long. Even the making of brushes is an art form practiced by masters. Among Shotei-sensei's brushes is the world's largest calligraphy brush, made from the tails of many horses.


Most of us know how difficult it is to draw a perfect circle freehand. Shotei-sensei is very good at it.


Also of interest to me was his musician daughter—a professional chembalist. The living room contained an electronic keyboard, a grand piano, a harpsichord and a zither. In front of the latter was a music stand bearing a copy of "Espaces de Priere No. 3 pour Cithare" by Jaques Berthier. I would have loved to have listened to her play that than watch her, the dutiful daughter, hold a bowl of ink for her old man.

(In the first photo you can see the zither on the left and the harpsichord behind it.)