Honolulu artist perpetuates ancient Chinese tradition

In a bright, noisy classroom in Honolulu’s Chinatown, artist Ina Chang sets up for a Saturday class. She teaches Chinese calligraphy on weekends at a non-profit school because she wants to give back to her community. She’s one of just a few Chinese calligraphers living on Oahu, and says, “I’d like to share this important piece of culture and history with the next generation.”

It’s the start of the session, and Chang gives her students a primer on the basics of the art. She lays out the tools of the trade, called the Four Treasures: Rice paper, ink, ink stone, brush. The brushes dangle from a pretty holder, and the ink is a square block that needs to be hydrated for use.

This is how the real calligraphers do it. For her Calligraphy 101, the students will get modern tools from Fisher Hawaii, not special rice paper and authentic ink made from wood soot rolled with tree resin.

Chang then explains how to hold the brush (not like English-writers hold a pencil), how to control the brush, and how to relate to the characters one is writing. It’s a very deliberate and thoughtful process, like so many things about Chinese tradition in general.

For instance, she writes the character for “mountain.” She’s using a paper with grids, and each square allotted to the character is divided into nine smaller squares.

“A mountain is strong and stable, so you need to center this character near the top of the grid, just as a mountain would sit. You have to maintain balance and symmetry throughout, even looking at the spacing between the brush strokes,” she says, circling the little spaces within the character to illustrate what she means.

Approaching this as a fourth-generation American who is part-Chinese, I’m proud of my ancestry and a bit wistful that I didn’t have more access to this culture when I was younger. This is amazing. There’s attention to details within details.

Student Branson Murphey sums up what I’m thinking. “I’m overwhelmed. This is our third class and it’s like a giant dose of cultural heritage each time. It’s amazing,” he says. He’s a Caucasian man from Arizona with very little previous contact with Chinese culture.

He’s also the only adult in class today; the four others are grade school children ranging in age from six to ten. Chang admits this is not her typical calligraphy class, because none of the students read, write, and/ or speak Chinese, and most of them are so young. She has learned, however, that this inexperience is a surprising advantage because the students come with no “bad habits” or preconceptions of what calligraphy is about.

Chang writes characters on papers for students and has them spend the class copying her work. She will come around and help her students hold the brush properly, guiding their hand so they can feel how much pressure to apply where.

I watch her doing this with Murphey. His hobby is art, so the brush work isn’t foreign to him, though she keeps correcting his (and my) mistake of referring to this as “drawing” and not “writing.” Her hand is fast and fluid, and her characters come out beautiful – soft in places, strong in others; just as the word dictates.

Calligraphy is considered the finest art in China, and it’s been practiced since 4,000 BC. Simple tools produce complex effects, based on the amount of ink on the bristles, and the speed and pressure of the brush stroke. The brush is considered an extension of the arm, which is an extension of the body; therefore, the writing reveals the character of the person. The characters, through their balance, proportion, and shape, show the spirit of the writer.

Chang’s mother enrolled her in a spate of typical Chinese lessons when she was a kid: calligraphy, abacus, piano. She started calligraphy when she was eight years old in her native Taiwan, and found she liked it. It also happened to be compulsory from third through sixth grade, so Chang got a lot of practice.

“There were contests every year, and I always won first place in my district. I was always sent to compete in the regional contests, and once, I even made nationals,” she recalls.

She ended up taking lessons until age 20. “My mom didn’t think I’d be doing this so long,” she laughs.

It ended up being the hobby that brings her the most joy. “It helps me in life. If I’m stressed, it gives me something to do. It’s a healthy outlet,” she says of her favorite pastime.

Chang has found herself pressed into service at Chinese community events, manning a calligraphy-on-demand booth. She wasn’t looking for a side job, but her friends asked because there aren’t many calligraphers in Hawaii.

In March 2016, she decided to offer her talents to the Sui Wah School, “to help the kids develop a seconds of their heritage. It’s my privilege to share this with them and to help perpetuate our culture.”

To sign up for Ina Chang’s calligraphy class, or other Chinese classes, check out websitesuiwah.org.

Sui Wah School

135 N Kukui St.

Sun Yat Sen Cultural Center

Honolulu, HI 96817

(808) 597-4661