Cover Jameson Yap

Here's what happens when the strength of a coursing river rushes through the structure of Chinese calligraphy—it builds a whole new character, within a character

Without character and soul, no one would be able to appreciate the art of calligraphy.
Jameson Yap

Somewhere along the way, what started out as an ancient art form became a vital element in Chinese academic institutions, either as an elective or a core subject. Shū fà, which is Mandarin for Chinese calligraphy, is a visual and literary art form with a millennia’s worth of history and is one of China’s many cultural treasures.

Using only four tools, brush, ink, paper and inkstone, Chinese calligraphy could be found on scrolls, paintings, or inscribed on the plaques of statues as well as the tablets in temples. The aforementioned tools were dubbed the Four Treasures of the Study, which is an epithet that, according to an archived Mandarin site called the International Daily News, seems to have been coined during the period of the Northern and Southern dynasties (420–589 AD).

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There are five main categories of traditional Chinese calligraphy: seal script (zhuàn shū), clerical script (lì shū), regular script (kai shū), running script (xíng shū), and cursive script (cao shū).

According to Huiwen Li and Yueming Yu’s Chinese Calligraphy and Culture, however, calligraphy wasn’t simply judged based on the precision of the technique used nor its aesthetic, but rather defining characteristics such as “dynamics, rhythm, emotion and even the calligrapher’s personality” that were a crucial part as to what made Chinese calligraphy such a highly- lauded art form even among Western societies.

Said characteristics were the ethos of Chinese calligrapher Jameson Yap’s River stroke, dubbed 'liú shū' in mandarin—a sixth style of script that emphasised the fluidity of calligraphy.

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Unlike the structural methodologies and the emphasis on mastering the ‘perfect stroke’ in traditional Chinese calligraphy, Yap’s script is one he likens to a river with how the characters can be “completed in a single, continuous stroke or ‘in a single breath’ (referring to ‘yī qì hé chéng’, a Chinese proverb)”.

Like its namesake, the River stroke has no boundaries and embodies the duality of nature—on one hand, [the script] can be brash and powerful; on the other, it can be slow and gentle. Another particular element unique to the River stroke is its overlapping characters, which Yap refers to as a method of self-expression and a way for people to revisit the piece, “each time revealing a different word entirely that would resonate with the viewer”.

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To break the rules of traditional calligraphy, one needed to be intimately familiar with said rules first. While it bears saying that Yap doesn’t dismiss the practice of perfecting one’s strokes when it came to Chinese calligraphy—being ‘classically trained’ himself, so to speak—he maintains his grandfather’s stance on how a good calligrapher “should understand the characters first, its message second, and capturing its energy when written.

“I’m not saying that I disagree with traditional practices, but again, that isn’t all there is to calligraphy. It’s not just about perfecting the strokes and making the characters look a certain way,” he says. “Our approach towards the art has been mistaken from the start—all the things our teachers taught us was simply how to write the perfect character. And that’s how the misconception about how calligraphy is 'just writing and not art' was created. Without character and soul, no one would be able to appreciate the art of calligraphy.

“There shouldn’t be limitations when it comes to appraising art. So long as the work connects with you, you’ll want know more about the work and its meaning. It’s the same thing with any kind of art form. For me, my work serves as both a record of my life and other people’s—the beauty of it lies with how you’ll look at it differently when you revisit the piece.”

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This seemingly unbridled method was near sacrilegious to some. On social media, Yap received comments that questioned if the River stroke could be even considered Chinese calligraphy at all. But over time, the very same critics eventually came around to understanding the philosophy behind Yap’s work, including calligraphers of an older generation who told him they were happy to “finally see someone trying to use a new, modern method to connect with a global audience”.

But despite the long journey ahead, Yap relishes it. “My grandfather told me that if you have the passion for what you do, put your heart into it. So that no matter how difficult it is, you’ll enjoy the process.”

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