Works from the 2020 Calligraphy Seminar (FA 178b)

Students in Prof. Aida Yuen Wong’s class reflect on “Routes and Roots,” several extending to thoughts on the Coronavirus pandemic. These works of calligraphy and images are original creations based on poetry, personal histories and/or philosophies about tradition, family, and the natural world. 

Made possible by the Leonard Bernstein Festival of the Creative Arts 2020.

Right click on an image to see a larger version.

Chinese calligraphy next to a tree
Fallen Leaves Return to Roots

Irene Wang

2020, Ink on paper

The drawing was inspired by a woodblock print of a tree. I grew up going to private elementary and middle school in China. I remember there being many old trees in my elementary school, and my favorite thing to do as a kid was to go out and play under those trees. I also really like the metaphoric meaning of the phrase “old roots new trees.” For me, it means that no matter how much new knowledge I may gain, I will always have a core philosophy that links to my traditional Chinese culture. The calligraphy part of this work means “the falling leaves become the root of the tree.” I have been in the US for eight years now, but I will never forget the beauty of traditional Chinese culture and Chinese art. I chose to write it in small seal script because it was one of the first styles we learned as we started calligraphy.

Rain falling on a mountain which faces a river delta, ultimately leading to the ocean.
The Rain falls to Meet the Mountain, the Mountain Water Flows towards the Ocean

Vincent Dong

2020, Ink on paper

When water returns to the ocean, it inevitably evaporates, returning to the clouds to be rained onto the mountain once again. This endless cycle hints at inevitability and a route from high to low. However, while the water flows in this continuous cycle, it continues to erode at the mountain, chipping away at the structure until eventually wearing away the rocks.

The seal script seems especially fitting for this piece because it is one of the oldest scripts. Water, a substance necessary for life, has been present on earth since its formation. Thus, the ancient nature of seal script fits the idea of water and the route it travels. Additionally given water’s persistent ability to gradually wear things down, my seal script focuses on incorporating more blunt and sharp stroke endings to highlight the inherent force water can possess.

My drawing brush painting captures a simple image: rain falling on a mountain which faces a river delta, ultimately leading to the ocean. I use diluted ink to paint the clouds and water to indicate the places water exists and passes through, while also trying to appeal to the traditional medium for ink painting and calligraphy.

little girl on a swing
Heart to Heart

Shinji Rho

2020, Ink on paper

My family’s motto is “heart to heart.” It is about the “heart to heart” understanding that exists between people. After the Korean War, my great grandmother was left without a husband and with five children to raise on her own. She believed that in order for her family to survive, they had to rely on each other. To emphasize the importance of having a “family-bond,” she set the family motto. She would write the phrase on paper and put it on the wall for her children to see. She insisted on writing the phrase in regular script, because she wanted it to reflect dignity and honor. She wanted to prove that her and her family’s honor had not fallen even after the war. Eventually, the motto was passed down to our family to encourage us to be a family of harmony. “Heart to heart” has guided us in the past and now it will guide us in the future.

The little girl on the swing depicts my grandmother who was able to live in relative bliss under my great grandmother’s wings. Despite all the adversities, with the mind of ”heart to heart,” my great grandmother was able to raise my grandmother to be happy.

Script poem in the shape of a tree
Wind and Rain

Michael Leung

2020, Ink on paper

In life, there will never always be peacefulness and tranquility. There will be times of trouble, winds, and rain that will hinder one’s life. But in nature, people are the trees and what keeps them grounded to the soil are the roots which their family builds. As a small tree sapling, it is easy to be blown away by the wind or flooded by heavy rains. But when one grows from the strength of their roots, it creates a foundation that makes them upright and strong. The deeper the roots, meaning the deeper the connection one has with their family and heritage, the more secure the tree will be in the midst of winds and rain. Because of these foundations, regardless of what happens, the winds will simply blow the leaves and the clouds will continue to float on. Life will continue on many routes, the weather will come, and the tree will stay upright and rooted to the ground. If you look closely, the poem is in the shape of a tree.

The reason why I use regular script for this poem I composed is because I feel that regular script expresses control, yet freedom at the same time. Unlike cursive script, which may seem wild and flowing, regular script has more structure but also does not feel too rigid. Seal script feels like the opposite of cursive script and is too formulaic and inflexible, in my opinion. I believe that the regular script shows a good balance and that it is both strong and expressive just like a tree gently swaying in the wind.

Chinese poetry in regular script
Maple Leaves Redder than the Blossoms of the Second Month

Ruihua Yang

2020, Ink and color on Paper

I choose a verse by Du Mu, the leading Chinese poet of the late Tang Dynasty. It is a portrayal of the maple season, literally meaning that maple leaves are even redder than the flower blossoms in the spring time. Du Mu wrote the poem, “Walking in the Mountains,” after he climbed the Yuelu Mountain in Changsha in late fall.

I am from the city of Changsha and lived near Yuelu Mountain when I was little. Yuelu Mountain is a part of my root, the symbol of my city, as well as where I used to live. When I am at home, I would always go to Yuelu Mountain every month. Every time when I read the verse, I get nostalgic about the maple forest and my monthly “route” of mountain climbing.

Chinese poets tend to portray the fall season in a cold, desolate, and sad manner. However, Du Mu approached the fall in a different yet positive way – this verse reflects his intelligence and optimism.

I decided to write the verse in regular script. A few days ago, I took a walk around where I am currently staying (in Belmont) but sadly found that there were no maple trees nearby. I drew a simple maple leaf at the bottom as to re-create the sense of the maple blossom at Yuelu Mountain to match the verse, and to remind me to stay positive during the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic period.

autumn scenery and purple mountains in the horizon
A Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with a Single Step

Kate Ross

2020, Ink and color on paper

With a theme of “Routes and Roots,” I was immediately inspired by this common quote from my high school Mandarin teacher, a famous proverb by Laozi. It loosely translates to “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

As a member of the class of 2021 studying International and Global Studies, this proverb has proven to be particularly pertinent. For the last four years as I have grown and developed, I have embarked on journeys that I would have previously never thought possible, such as traveling to Japan and Taiwan.

When creating an artistic piece to accompany this proverb, I immediately knew that I wanted to depict an image of someone on an empty road about to embark on a journey. Utilizing a vast array of colors to depict an autumn scenery and purple mountains in the horizon, I felt as if the piece wasn’t quite done. In order to highlight the importance of taking a step into the unknown I thought that I would tie my piece together by having my art be one of multiple media. Found in a magazine, the person in the bottom right corner helps to accentuate the unknown of a journey as she journeys into a world created by Crayola crayons.

semi-cursive scripts, fluid lines of the running scripts
At the Water’s End, One Watches Clouds Rising

Amy Chen

2020, Ink and on paper

This quote illustrates a journey of Tang poet Wang Wei, who was walking in the mountain and unconsciously coming to the end of a stream. When there was no way out, he sat down and looked at the ever-changing flowing clouds in heaven. This verse conjures imagery of the serene nature and reflects the poet’s inner tranquility at the moment when he was lost. Responding to the prompt Root/route, the poem I select tells us that we shall not be discouraged by the absence of route at the moment and need to hold the piece in mind and embrace optimism as Wang Wei did. It can also be applied in the current COVID-19 circumstance. Even though no vaccine or medicine has been invented for the treatment of the disease, we shall not be overanxious and frustrated about the situation but remain peaceful and sanguine.

For the calligraphy, I adopt Wang Xizhi's style of running or semi-cursive script, which is freer than regular script while more legible than cursive script. The fluid lines of the running script resemble flowing water and drifting clouds, which correspond to the literal description of the quote and Wang Wei's spontaneous personality. For the accompanying image, I created my first painting with ink (blended with watercolor pigments).

Ink on paper
By the Aspen and Willow Trees near the Riverbank, with the Morning Breeze and the Lingering Moon,

Brittany Li

2020, Ink on paper

A few days before I came to study in America, my father talked to me at night. There was one sentence that I did not understand at that time: “As you are about to depart, there will be a number of things you learn when you are away from home, distant and alone. You might finally be able to interpret some of the most famous poems that you recited before, with your own experience and thoughts. By that time, you will know where you belong.”

I did learn a lot. I became more independent, could take care of myself even when I was sick, and was able to make decisions myself more rationally. Apart from all the abilities I gained, I started to think more as well. When I tossed and turned and could not fall asleep, I started to miss my own bed at home, and the cozy room I had. At this very specific moment, these words from a Song dynasty poem came up in my mind: “By the aspen and willow trees near the riverbank, with the morning breeze and the lingering moon.”

I become aware of the roots that I used to ignore when being close to them, with the help of a childhood poem that I once learned and did not understand fully. As I keep traveling along my long, never-ending route, my roots will always provide me with the emotional support that I need, regardless of time and location.  

Strokes for knowledge and unity
Herald Spring

Ye Chengying

2020, Ink on paper

The Chinese saying zhi xing he yi means “the unity of knowledge and practice.” Therefore, I separate the word for unity, and put the characters for “knowledge” and “practice” inside it. I made the strokes of “unity” comparatively bolder than those of the other characters, giving a hint that these strokes belong to one character.

On the paper, I added a rubbing of an antique piece of wood to make the project look old and classic.

I think knowledge and actions are two different things. With the invention of the internet and smart devices, it is very easy for people to gain knowledge. However, it is difficult for our actions to follow the knowledge we acquire. It is said that the greatest distance in the world is the distance between knowing and doing. Therefore, I created this piece of art to remind myself to make better choices and improve my actions.        

Art standing on a rocky ledge
Gazing at the Waterfall on Mount Lu

Audrey Zhu

2020, Ink on paper

I painted a scene based on Li Bai’s poem,“Gazing at the Waterfall on Mount Lu.” It depicts the poet dressed in a Tang-style academic robe and headdress, standing on a rocky ledge. Before him is a grand view of Mount Lu and a waterfall, surrounded by mist. On the sides of my ink painting I wrote the fourth and last lines of the poem.

As an American-born Chinese, I was forced by my parents to attend Chinese school every Sunday from kindergarten up to tenth grade. Students were often made to learn famous poems and recite them in front of class. This practice was always a frightening and tedious experience. I often questioned why I had to do so and saw it as a pointless practice. It wasn’t until I read Li Bai’s “Gazing at the Waterfall at Mount Lu” that I began to appreciate the imagery and rhythm of Chinese poetry.

The last line reminds me of my Chinese roots, translated as “has this silver river fallen from the nine heavens.” According to ancient Chinese beliefs, the highest layer of heaven is referred to as the “ninth heaven,” and in this poem, Li Bai wonders if this waterfall is so divine that it has fallen to earth from the ninth heaven. This line not only brings to life Chinese poetry and scenery to me, but also beliefs in divinity.

I chose to write in a mild running script. The connections between the strokes and the overall fluidity between them represent the elegance and gentleness of the mist and nature. However, I chose to write the character for “fall”larger and in a different style than the rest. This character, written in regular, Yan Zhenqing-esque style, script is meant to evoke strength and stability as it represents the powerful waterfall descending from the sky, seemingly divine. In addition, the paper was rubbed over a bamboo mat to convey a sense of age as well as the textures of an old bamboo scroll. I hope to convey an appreciation of my Chinese cultural roots, and bring with me the characteristics of both gentleness and strength into my future.

Older seal script
A Reflection on Mortality and Vitality

Mello Wilsted

2020, Ink and collage on paperThroughout my life I have had an alternative and, in my opinion, unusual view on mortality. My parents are both older, as they adopted me when they were older, and my whole life I have lived somewhere in the 1970s and 80s, where girls are supposed to act and speak properly and there is a certain expectation of academic success and power that women have to have in order to prove themselves equal to men. I am very glad to have grown up in this environment. I feel like I am more successful, more driven, and calmer for it. I am blessed that my parents are healthy and thriving. They both still work and love what they do.

However, there is another side to my reflections on their age. It is a fact of being human that the older you get, the closer you are to death. With this virus I have become more and more concerned about their mortality. I would do anything in my power, within reason, to protect them. Confucius’ words used in this calligraphy really reflect exactly what I am feeling: “Let the age of your parents be both a blessing and a cause of concern.” They are my roots; they are my anchor and I don’t want to lose that. Not yet.

I wanted to use an older seal script to represent age and to take a rubbing of both a dead branch and branch with leaves to represent the dichotomy of life and death that one begins to have during an older age or at least a feeling that a child of someone at an older age has. This virus has really helped me appreciate what I have through showing me everything that could be taken away.