Dizi Gui (Standards for Being a Good Student and Child) is an ancient Chinese text for children that teaches moral values and proper etiquette. It was written during the Qing Dynasty during the reign of Emperor Kangxi (1661-1722) by Li Yuxiu.
Beneath the conservative, “old-school” verbose of this ancient classic, one can still find gems of wisdom that remain surprisingly relevant to our modern society. A new lesson is covered in each issue.
In this issue’s lesson from Dizi Gui, we find two very curious lines about maintaining tidiness and writing words:
I will keep my room neat, my walls uncluttered and clean, my desk tidy and my brush and inkstone properly placed.
If my ink block is ground unevenly, it shows I have a poor state of mind. When words are written carelessly, showing no respect, this shows my state of mind has not been well.
In today’s context, one would wonder if this is obsessive-compulsive behaviour! But to understand the meaning behind these two lines, some background on Chinese calligraphy is required.
Chinese calligraphy dates over 2,000 years, and is a rich art steeped in values and decorum.
The Chinese believe that ‘one’s writing is a reflection of one’s inner self’ (字如其人). Only calligraphers with high morality and strong values could write beautiful calligraphy.
The Chinese believe that “one’s writing is a reflection of one’s inner self” (字如其人). Only calligraphers with high morality and strong values could write beautiful calligraphy. Only a calm, righteous, and steadfast mind could yield a calm and steady hand.
And if one has written Chinese calligraphy before, one would understand why. The soft brush is saturated with ink, and the slightest variation in pressure, brush angle, and speed yields vastly different appearances in each brush stroke.
Moreover, the absorbent Chinese calligraphic paper makes the ink diffuse quickly, and the slightest hesitation of the brush on paper creates a black splotch. As such, speed, strength, agility, and complete focus are required to produce fine calligraphy.
Chinese scholars of the past were required to meditate, calm the mind, and regulate their breathing before practicing calligraphy.
Chinese scholars of the past were required to meditate, calm the mind, and regulate their breathing before practicing calligraphy. Each preparation step required a quiet and focused mind—the placement of the brush and inkstone, and the even grinding of the ink block.
This ensured that, when they started writing, their minds were fully absorbed in their work, expressing the pure spirit of the words they were writing.
With the above in mind, we now realise a whole new dimension of meaning to the two sentences in Dizi Gui.
The Chinese ‘Sage of Calligraphy’
China’s greatest calligrapher is Wang Xizhi (303–361 AD), who lived during the Eastern Jin Dynasty. Known as the Chinese sage of calligraphy, Wang was a master of all forms of writing, particularly the running script.
Wang was born to a family of accomplished calligraphers, and was very serious about the art from a young age.
Wherever he travelled, Wang searched for ancient inscriptions on tombstones and stone tablets to study their calligraphy. He placed writing stations throughout his home, so that he had easy access to writing tools whenever he thought of a way to write a character.
Wang was so absorbed in the art of beautiful writing that he sometimes forgot to eat.
One day, while Wang was concentrating on his calligraphy, a servant brought him a plate of steamed buns with a bowl of sauce. Later, Wang bit into a bun and then abruptly spit it out, with the corners of his mouth all black.
He had dipped the bun into ink instead of the vinegar and garlic sauce!
Calligraphy was not Wang’s main profession—he served as governor for several prefectures, and conducted himself with righteousness and integrity. He ordered the opening of granaries during famine, requested the reduction of taxes from the Imperial Court, and fought corruption.
It was upon this righteous, diligent character and unquestionable talent that his powerful, enduring calligraphic style was born.
Masterpiece at the Orchid Pavilion
In A.D. 353, during the annual Spring Purification Ceremony, Wang Xizhi produced his greatest and most famous calligraphic work.
That year, Wang invited some 40 good friends to a gathering at the riverside Orchid Pavilion. By the end of the banquet, the group had written 37 poems, titled the “Orchid Pavilion Collection” (兰亭集).
Wang wrote the collection’s introduction, where he spoke about the beauty of nature, the pleasure of being with friends, the brevity of life, and the ever-changing universe.
The “Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion” (兰亭集序) consists of more than 320 words, all written with such elegant unity that it was as if Wang had help from the divine.
This preface is considered the model for running script, or xingshu, a semi-cursive style of Chinese calligraphy. It is among the best known and often copied pieces of calligraphy in Chinese history.
Measure of a Man
Like Wang, China’s greatest calligraphers were revered not simply for the quality of their work, but for the measure of their character.
The heroic general Yue Fei, who was the author of the patriotic poem “Man Jiang Hong” (The River Runs Red), was also a good calligrapher. Preserved copies of his works demonstrate his strong, powerful brush strokes—a reflection of his unwavering character.
In contrast, the corrupt minister Qin Hui who was responsible for Yue Fei’s death wrote decent calligraphy, but had all his works destroyed by the angry populace.
A demanding yet soul-cleansing art form, traditional Chinese calligraphy remains a revered practice even today.