The Chinese character for “everlasting”, “forever” or “eternal” is an amazingly complex character. It embodies eight brush strokes, which also happen to be the eight different kinds of brushstrokes used in calligraphy. And thus if one practices this character, one is in essence practicing the eight strokes used in CBP as well.
This Wikipedia entry on Yong includes an animated execution of the symbol. And here is an image that shows and names all eight strokes:
They are painted in the order numbered below. I have also noted where some of them are used in CBP and have indicated the path of the brush tip with red.
- Dian—the dot. Now this is not just any old dabbing on paper, ‘the dot’ is made in a particular manner. Touch your brush to the paper, move up towards the top of your paper, move round a bit, and then back. Do all this in a minimal space. Dots—which you mostly paint in as moss dots, stamen specks or eyes of small creatures—thus have movement or life to them. The pollen dots of wild orchid are an entirely different matter; traditionalists have a patterned arrangement of little tick-like movements in mind when they paint those. (The path of the brush tip is indicated by the red line; solid black shows how the stroke should look.)
- Heng—the horizontal stroke. Despite the name, you’re not trying for a perfectly level stroke here. After your starting ‘looped back swing’ to the left you head right on a slight upward angle, and then finish with a loop back around to the right. An ancient calligrapher also named this stroke ‘jade table’. The stroke is what I’ve come to know as ‘bone’ stroke, and with some adjustments in the end bits, becomes the node stroke for bamboo.
- Shu—the vertical stroke. This one does have two variations (a rounded ‘dew drop’ end, achieved with the usual back-swing movement, and a pointy ending appropriately called ‘needlepoint’.) You start with brush tip to paper, make a loop to the right and proceed toward the bottom of your paper, then finish with the desired end. Vertical strokes get used in many ways; the little nail-head stamens of plum and other blossoms are the first to come to my mind.
- Gou—the hook. This stroke is really just a modified Shu-stroke. Yu start the same as painting Shu, but with a point hook that goes up to the left. For now, I don’t recall an explicit application in CBP but I’m sure there are some.
- Tiao or ti—the rising stroke. This stroke begins with the usual little back loop to the left, and then heads up in an angle to the right as though heading for two-o’clock on a timepiece; you keep it short and lift off to end with a point. Bamboo leaves come to mind, i.e. those that point upward as in sunshine not rain.
- Wan—the descending stroke. This stroke starts with a distinctive backstroke and then heads down to the left to end in a point, roughly the seven o’clock position. (My book makes no distinction between Wan and Pi, discussed below.)
- Pi—slanting left. This stroke makes a loop toward the right before heading down in a curving slant to the left. As part of Yong pi starts outside and connects to the downward stroking Shu.
- Na—slanting right. This stroke comes at the end of creating Yong; it starts with a little loop toward the left before heading down towards the right (roughly five o’clock). The brush moves steady in the middle but then you press down slightly to flatten it for a wider ending. Lift the brush to leave a pointy end.
- Zhe—turning stroke. Some calligraphers will describe this as a separate stroke, yet it really is just a combination of heng and shu. You start like a ‘jade table’ but then turn the brush to continue downward and end with a dewdrop.
I was introduced to Yong as a warm-up exercise for painting bamboo. The eight strokes get you into the rhythm for painting bamboo leaves in different directions, as well as doing several bone strokes (those that begin left in order to go right and end in the same manner, with a slight reverse move) that are part of bamboo stalks, leaves and nodes.
What a magical character, that Yong. That it also represents ‘eternity’ is rather fitting; some of us feel like we struggle with bamboo forever!
Fundamental strokes and their use:
We westerners typically come to CBP after playing in other media such as oil paints, acrylics or watercolor. We don’t get the traditional Chinese pre-painting regimen of ’20 years of calligraphy’ followed by ’20 years of the four gentlemen’ before we attempt developing our skills with our preferred subjects and eventually our own personal style. So, when I hear that painting this one calligraphic character can advance one’s familiarity with all eight strokes essential to CBP, you’ll know I’m on it!
Hurrah for Yong!
My library contains two books with a lot of related content.
- Chinese Brushwork in Calligraphy and Painting, its history, aesthetics and Techniques by Kwo Da-Wei
- My First Book of Chinese Calligraphy by He Zhihong and Guillaume Olive
I must confess that the first book I discovered several years ago and foolishly put it aside; it appeared too theoretical, all about calligraphy; I wanted to paint real pictures not take on another language…(silly me). Recently I re-discovered it and with my newfound appreciation for Yong found the book contained a lot of very helpful stuff. Chapter 14, titled ‘the principal brushstrokes and their application in Painting and Calligraphy’ is simply loaded with helpful details and illustrations. I guess timing was of the essence.
The second book is clearly geared for children and/or youth. However, in the days before the Internet, we freelance writers shared one big secret—the juvenile section in any Library was your go-to place for ‘quick studies’ of any subject. When you needed to quickly get a handle on a new field of study before heading off to an interview you wanted titles like ‘All you need to know about X’. This book is just that kind of treasure. It explains and details basic calligraphic strokes. And guess what, my friend Yong is right on the cover! There’s also an instructional CD in the back jacket.
I can’t possibly rehash in one post all the great information gleaned from my recent foray into the study of calligraphy and the brushwork in CBP. Kwo Da-Wei provides an in-depth look at the relationships and I recommend his book for any CBP enthusiast.
Here is an excerpt from Kwo’s book that shows the major strokes used in painting. They include 1. Centre brush 2. Side brush 3. Turning brush 4. Rolling brush and 5. folding brush. One can easily see that ‘folding brush’ is used for bending orchid leaves, and ‘turning brush’ for wisteria or morning glory vines.
Other chapters in Kwo’s book delve into such things as moisture, pressure, speed, angles, washes, layers, and so on. He illustrates his observations abundantly. There is much in here for the western-born Chinese brush painter who’s not had her 20-year apprenticeship in calligraphy. The book I once put aside is now often consulted, and trying to paint Yong has become my warm-up exercise.