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Shodo and the Lost Art of Penmanship


Asian brush writing on paper

From humble beginnings to even humbler beginnings

I can remember as a young boy watching my parents write in cursive and being fascinated by it. It amazed me how their hand glided across the page, effortlessly stringing together letters to form words. It was not so much what they were writing that I found so pleasing, but the manner in which they were doing it as well as the beauty and mystery of the end result. It was like they had their own secret code, and I desperately wanted to decipher it. I would try to mimic how they wrote, attempting my dad’s rather aggressive writing style which reflected his excitable personality, or my mom’s easy, careful hand, which matched her calm demeanor. However, my attempts always ended up being nothing more than scribble across the page, leaving me disappointed and longing for a more practiced hand. It would be years before I would finally get that opportunity.


I recall my excitement the first time my grade school teacher announced we would be learning to write in cursive. I practiced very carefully, making sure to form each letter to match the example. It was such a joy unraveling all those loops and swirls my parents scrawled, and realizing I could finally write just like them, in their secret code. We were taught the Zaner-Bloser writing method which is a boiled-down version of the Palmer method that my parents’ generation studied. Once I was comfortable with that, I researched older styles such as Spencerian, and adapted my writing based on what looked and felt better to me.


Over the years my cursive continued to evolve, sometimes written very neatly and other times rather sloppily. Occasionally I would take time to focus on one specific letter I wasn’t pleased with in order to refine it. I would also look at the cursive of relatives and study the signatures of historical figures, picking out various elements of their script and adapting them for my own use.


After graduating college with a degree in art, I was busy getting my career started, and didn’t have much time for artistic side projects. I reasoned that my job would afford me sufficient opportunities to flex my creative muscle. However, by my late twenties I was feeling detached and aimless. Somewhere along the way I had stepped off the path to becoming an artist, and I found myself longing for an outlet to get me back on track. I decided to try and fulfill a childhood dream of pursuing and mastering an Asian artform. After much searching and legwork, I chose to devote my study to learning Shodo, or Japanese calligraphy, through a school in New York. I had always had an interest in Asian characters, which probably stemmed from both my love of watching anime and martial arts films, along with my interest in cursive writing.


Learning Shodo immediately struck a chord. It was as fascinating as it was challenging, and satisfied my need for an artistic escape. But what surprised me most was the perspective I gained from it. I never truly understood all the elements that came together to form modern writing, until I experienced using them at their most primitive level. It was like I was a child again, back in grade school learning cursive and establishing motor coordination. The paper was delicate, somewhere between copy paper and tissue paper. To the uninitiated, applying ink to this paper resulted in nothing more than a large blotch of ink that would expand in all directions. Instead of a pen, a bamboo brush was used and held upright, perpendicular to the page, between the first three fingers and thumb. This felt really unnatural to someone who grew up holding a pen at an angle between the thumb and index finger. My attempts at the example characters were frustratingly humbling. As primitive as it may seem, the bamboo brush is quite a precise implement, requiring a steady hand and unorthodox movements to create a proper stroke on the paper.


Strangest of all was the ink, called sumi, which came in solid stick form. This ink stick was made from either the soot of burnt lamp oil or pinewood and combined with animal glue, used as a bonding agent, and perfume. I didn’t understand the fragrance at all, and assumed it had something to do with masking an unpleasant odor from the animal glue. Whatever the reason, it was delicate, and I found the scent rather pleasing. The sumi had to be rubbed with water against a slate stone, called a suzuri, to produce liquid ink. This was yet another of the challenging aspects of this artform. The process of grinding ink to reach the correct concentration was so foreign to me. And it was slow, really slow. A lot of time had to be devoted to grinding in order to produce a quality ink. My first attempts resulted in nothing more than what appeared to be dirty, gray water. It made me wonder why I was pursuing this archaic form of writing. But, I decided to embrace the slow, meditative process. Little did I know, I was about to embark on a journey of internal discovery the likes of which I had never experienced. Meanwhile the rest of the world was busy focusing on the latest in computer technology and digitally rendered typefaces.


Cursive through the ages – craftsmen to keyboarders

What we imagine today when we think of western cursive writing actually began with the Roman Empire. They were the first to develop a written script for transactions and correspondence. After their fall, penmanship became a specialized discipline across Europe with scribes turning out Christian and classical texts. Charlemagne brought about the standardization of the craft. Then by the 1700’s, penmanship schools began educating master scribes, and handwriting rose as a status symbol. In the U.S., professional penman were tasked with copying documents like the Constitution, and handwriting styles were actually associated with different professions and social ranks. The mid and late 1800’s saw two major developments in the world of penmanship. First, a man named Platt Rogers Spencer developed a cursive writing system known as the Spencerian method which was taught by textbook, sometimes along with a metronome, and adopted by many schools and businesses. Second, the ballpoint pen was invented which used a modified ink that didn’t smudge. This reduced the need for a faster, flowing cursive handwriting in favor of print writing. By the turn of the century, Austin Norman Palmer’s method had replaced Spencerian in classrooms across the U.S. But, with print writing growing in popularity and the advent of the typewriter, cursive was already starting to lose steam. Over the decades, school lessons decreased from an average of thirty minutes to just fifteen. Children were taught to print in kindergarten, and then cursive in third grade, but never spent enough time to master either. Then in 2010, the Common Core standards set by the U.S. Department of Education omitted the teaching of cursive handwriting from its curricula. Students would now be taught to print before moving on to the keyboard.


Today, what was previously considered throughout the world to be a symbol of status and an artform that required formal training, has now been reduced to an afterthought. Computers have dominated the educational landscape since the early 1980’s with their ever-increasing functionality and plethora of pristinely rendered fonts and typefaces. Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs was famously obsessed with the look of what would appear on the screens of his computers, particularly the fonts and lettering styles. In what I would call ironic ignorance, he was once quoted, referring to Reed Colleges calligraphy program, saying, “Throughout the campus every poster, every label on the drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed…I learned about serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science cannot capture.”


Despite its rich history and connection to intellectual competence, identity and even morality, there is an ongoing debate over the usefulness of continuing to teach cursive in U.S. schools that has both teachers and parents divided. Opponents make the arguments that it is a dated form of writing with most of our communication done on a keyboard. Others say there is insufficient research to suggest that teaching cursive has a positive effect on students, and more time should be devoted to learning technology. However, advocates have pointed to the mountain of evidence showing the developmental benefits. A simple online search can find multiple results of studies on PubMed related to the benefits of learning handwriting over typewriting. One study on the importance of cursive handwriting over typewriting for learning in the classroom surmised that “…children, from an early age, must be exposed to handwriting and drawing activities in school to establish the neuronal oscillation patterns that are beneficial for learning.” Further data shows that learning cursive stimulates brain synapses and synchronicity between the left and right hemispheres, something absent from printing and typing. There is also proof of improved developmental skills, such as sequential memory and fine motor ability which affects academic areas such as mathematics, not to mention the obvious artistic merits. Perhaps keeping cursive handwriting in the school curriculum is not about a fond historical trip down memory lane, and more about providing children a means of foundational brain development that will benefit them not only in their school career, but throughout life.


Then came the day

So, there I was, deep in my thoughts, as primitive as can be rubbing carbon on a stone. For a long time, progress was slow, and I made the same mistakes again and again. My ink always too thin and weak, my brushstrokes blotchy and shaky and my mind chattering away with doubt. Still I persevered, laboring each month on assignments that my teacher would send to me. I practiced as much as possible before sending back the final for grading. Preparing to do my final assignment would sometimes cause such anxiety that my hands would shake. Despite all this, I was enjoying the experience of exploring this new world and making discoveries.



Japanese calligraphy saying Good writing is greatly appreciated both in old times and the present.
Translation "Good writing is greatly appreciated both in old times and the present."

Time passed and I began to have moments of clarity and accomplishment. I received awards for some of my assignments, and achieved rankings as a calligrapher. Shodo ranks are assigned in a similar fashion to most martial arts styles of study, and, in fact, Shodo is considered a martial art in Japan. What was most satisfying were the changes I could see in my brushwork and in myself. My hand, along with my mind, got steadier, my anxiety lessened and this was reflected in each character I brushed. Some brushstrokes came more naturally than others, but the feeling was ethereal, there one moment and gone the next. I was chasing a spirit that was at once a part of me but not. The more I tried to hold on to it, the less it stayed. Still, I kept practicing, and being patient, hopeful for what was to come next.


I was always excited to receive my next assignment, and see what surprises came with it. But on that day, I received more than an award. Along with my assignment was a note from my teacher. On it, he had scrawled the word ‘congratulations’ along with some Japanese characters that I couldn’t read. It said that I had achieved the rank of Shodan. That meant I was at the level of a black belt. As I stood holding that slip of paper, somewhere deep within, emotions churned and a surge of energy rushed to the surface and swelled in a feeling of euphoria. Nostalgic memories transported me back to the days of my youth watching Bruce Lee and other martial artists on television. No, I wasn’t about to execute a flying dropkick or snatch a coin out of someone’s hand in the blink of an eye. But I had done what I set out to do. The rest of the world toiled away, caught in a digital rat race, spending hard earned money and precious time on the latest and greatest technology. Always seeking external solutions for internal issues. Me, I changed my life using only focus, commitment and the most basic of tools.


I read somewhere that a master calligrapher knows you better than you know yourself simply by looking at your brushwork. If the last twenty years have taught me nothing else, I have learned the truth in that statement. The brush revealed much about my state of mind, like a barometric needle measuring the weight of life’s pressures bearing down on me. It listens to you, detecting the slightest movements, and reflects them back in a way that is unapologetic. All my fears, frustrations and insecurities set to paper, literally in black and white. After all those years of laboring to perfect each brushstroke, much like the argument for keeping cursive writing in schools, it was not about fond old memories or pretty handwriting. It was about a foundational development. In the end, all the time I spent grinding ink on a stone, I was really honing my spirit.



References:

Ose Askvik E; van der Weel FRR; van der Meer ALH The Importance of Cursive Handwriting over Typewriting for Learning in the Classroom: A High-Density EEG Study of 12-Year-Old Children and Young Adults. Front. Psychol. 2020, 11, 1810.

Ink and Brush Arts