Whenever I see the Japanese calligraphy, shodo, I am astounded. I have trouble enough writing legibly with a pencil, let alone create a work of art with something as permanent as black ink. Even games of Pictionary are a disaster for my shaky and untrained hand.
But I shouldn’t be discouraged; shodo is learned practice. Anyone with the patience and commitment to study the art form can gain the skills necessary to become a calligraphy artist. Plus, there is much more to shodo than the artistic creation, and even students without so-called natural talent can enjoy a range of benefits associated with the learning process.
One of the most intriguing aspects of pursuing shodo, for instance, is learning about the rich history of Japanese calligraphy.
Calligraphy Roots across the sea
It may surprise you to learn that Japanese calligraphy actually calls China its birthplace, where historians have found early pictograms on animal bones and stones dating back to 3,500 years ago (1). With revolutions to the practice around 100 CE, such as the invention of papyrus-like material and brushes made from animal hair, calligraphy as we know it today was born.
Shodo was introduced in Japan as early as 600 CE, when Japanese aristocracy made learning the intricate discipline part of the education of young royal members. As the art form developed on the island, characteristics unique to Japanese culture surfaced and replaced some of the traditional Chinese elements.
Between 1185–1333 CE, another drastic change occurred in the field of calligraphy, namely the influence of Zen Buddhism on the practice. This period saw a flourishing of artistic refinery across the archipelago, with the introduction of cultural traditions such as tea ceremony, flower arranging, and landscape painting. Calligraphy was an integral part of this process, and continues to be an important part of Japanese tradition.
As an artist of any discipline will tell you, quality tools are the most important part of the process. Without an understanding of and respect for your materials, you cannot advance in your craft. So here’s a foundational review (2) of the tools most important to shodo:
• First, the brush, or fude. Made from various types and blends of animal hair, the brushes used in shodo come in many different forms but usually have a handle of wood or bamboo. Depending on the character, broad-stroke or fine-line brushes must be used. It is very important to take diligent care of the fude.
• Next, the ink stick and ink stone, or sumi and suzuri. The black ink used in shodo is created by rubbing the sumi (made from the soot of burned woods) on the suzuri (a heavy stone prepared with a few drops of water.) This creates a thick black ink in which to dip the fude.
• Shodo Paper, or Hanshi. Though there are multiple ways to create paper for shodo, the most common method is washi, or hand-molded Japanese paper. Unlike paper used for Chinese calligraphy, this type of hanshi is very thin and does not soak up as much ink.
The practice, itself
After gaining an appreciation for the tools necessary in shodo, it is also helpful to review the unique skills required of practicing calligraphy. You may find that as you gain access to this skill set, you will also enjoy a range of cognitive and emotional benefits as well.
• Self-discipline: a key strength taught through the art of shodo is self-discipline. The art of Japanese calligraphy calls for a demanding amount of repetition, attention to detail and long-term commitment. Only by finding an internal well of strength and discipline, can you hope to improve as an artist. For those that find this strength, studies show that self-discipline is an incredible skill that can be translated to a variety of settings outside of your calligraphy class. Self-discipline not only accounts for 80% of the goal attainment process, but also paves the way for mentally beneficial practices of self-love and respect (3).
• Perseverance: anyone who has failed at something knows how difficult perseverance can be. And shodo requires quite a bit of the skill because of the stringent technique necessary to create the beautiful works of art. Yet, because of the difficulty in attaining perfection in shodo, perseverance can amplify feelings of fulfillment and achievement, and this payoff can make other challenges in your life seem attainable as well.
• Focus: at the core of Zen Buddhism is a life-changing concept: mindfulness. Mindfulness is awareness of the present state of existence, an invitation to see things how they are and appreciate them without judgement or prescription. In other words, it is an attempt to focus the mind away from irrelevant thoughts and onto the task at hand. With as technical a craft as shodo, which forces its students to pay extreme attention to detail and form, mindfulness is easily attainable. And this is great for students interested in the wellness benefits of shodo; effective practice of mindfulness has been linked to a long list of health benefits, including reduced inflammation, better sleep, and higher immunity (4).
Take up Shodo and reap the benefits
Whether you’re interested in learning a little bit about Japanese cultural traditions or you’re looking for a challenging creative outlet, a beginner’s class in shodo will intrigue and engage you. You will learn about each integral part of the artistic process, from picking out the best materials to exploring the expressive Japanese characters. Along the way, you will also pick up skills that can not only be translated into other areas of your life, but will contribute to your overall mental wellbeing.
Don’t worry. Even if you’ve got shaky handwriting or haven’t explored your artistic skills before, your shodo instructor will introduce you to a world much larger than simply putting brush strokes on a piece of paper. There’s no reason to be intimidated, and plenty to explore.