Chinese calligraphy is etymologically the art of forming characters. In Eastern civilizations, learning calligraphy was the basis of combining word, image, body, mind, and soul – a perfect melding of the physical and the spiritual. To seven-year-old me, calligraphy was an unpleasant childhood experience. I recall countless Saturday afternoons spent trying to write the same font character over and over again under the strict eye of my father who tolerated no imperfections, while my friends played outside under the bright sunshine.
The turning point came when I was ten – my father brought me to an exhibition hall displaying his calligraphy work, which he sold to raise funds for a much-needed renovation at my primary school. To my surprise, his work raised a staggering amount of RM10,000; the largest contribution by far. Sitting in an air-conditioned classroom one year later, a welcome respite from the 40-degree Celsius weather common to Kuala Lumpur, I started wondering how calligraphy could be a platform for me to improve the lives of those around me.
Understanding the potential of calligraphy, I began to improve my skills by practicing on both sides of the newspaper every day. The first font I learned required me to copy exactly the characters printed in books; any strokes slightly crooked, thicker or thinner would be deemed inadequate. Eager to proceed to other fonts with swifter motions and the freedom of creating my own unique writing style, I carried out a top-secret mission – practice other fonts using my father’s font dictionary. However, my failure to master these advanced fonts led me to practice harder as I realized fundamental skills built from learning that first font was indispensable for me to excel in other fonts. Eventually, these tough practices improved my ability to focus and made me see the importance of building a solid foundation in learning, a realization that proved true in my studies.
Seeing my improvement, my father allowed me to teach in the free-of-charge weekly classes he offered at my primary school. What I once thought of as nothing but a simple matter of guiding hands changed the moment I looked into the earnest eyes of the eight-year-old’s in class. However, I had students who were forced to attend the class by their parents, in hopes that calligraphy would improve their attitudes in school. I was shocked when a boy purposely spilled black ink on me the moment his parents left. Yet, reminding myself that I disliked calligraphy at his age too, I smiled and guided him in holding his brush instead. Throughout that first class, I taught these unwilling students with patience and encouraged them even if they did not write well. An undeniable warmth budded within me as I saw how their faces lit up at my words of encouragement. Somehow, week by week, they transformed into active students that raced to me to show me pages of writing. Having been able to take part in their path of self-development and to witness their transition from unwilling, sour students to beaming angels are experiences that I would not trade for the world.
Looking back, the responsibility of tutoring at the Chinese calligraphy classes has been a blessing in disguise, allowing me to unlock a world of potential and possibility in each of the children I have taught. Through this, I learned how a passion can be turned into a tool to spread cultural heritage and cultivate the minds of the younger generation. The values behind calligraphy – discipline, passion, control of emotions, expression of philosophy or qi – have brought me closer to my cultural roots as well as sculpted me into who I am today, and thus is an integral part of who I am, regardless of what the future holds.