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Calligraphy gives her life balance

Updated: 2016-03-27 14:24:51

( China Daily Europe )

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Liliane Gerard spends three hours every Sunday practicing Chinese calligraphy and has nearly completed writing The Thousand Character Classic. [Photo/China Daily]

Practicing eight characters at a time, retired Belgian bookbinder finds sense of calm drawing graceful strokes under a Chinese master

On Sundays, Liliane Gerard, a graceful, quiet but energetic Belgian woman of 69, spends three hours practicing calligraphy in a studio in Brussels owned by her Chinese master.

She is instructed to write eight Chinese characters only and then practices them for two hours everyday by herself at home.

When she feels confident enough, she writes the eight characters on two letter-size sheets of paper. The master reviews her work the next Sunday in the studio before she is given a new assignment of eight characters. If her efforts don't live up to his expectations, she has to practice the same characters for another week.

Only once in more than two years have her efforts failed to meet his exacting standards.

Gerard now appears on the verge of becoming the first European woman to complete the writing of The Thousand Character Classic, one of the Chinese elementary texts for teaching Chinese characters and calligraphy to children, compiled some 1,500 years ago.

"I have always felt joyful burying myself in my world of practicing calligraphy, which has made my retirement different," Gerard says in a recent interview at the studio. "I am fascinated, quietly, by such magic."

The material Gerard is using was handed down from Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty (AD 502-557), who selected a thousand characters from the work of a fine calligrapher, Wang Xizhi (321-379), for his princes to practice. He then commissioned the talented scholar Zhou Xingsi to put these isolated characters into meaningful sentences with rhymes. In only one night, Zhou Xingsi is said to have composed a fully rhyming text of 250 four-character couplets, which cover the knowledge and wisdom found in astronomy, geography, politics, economy, society, history and ethics.

Gerard says she feels fulfilled when she completes a four-character couplet that she may or not may be able to pronounce.

Her master, Zhang Wenhai, says: "For some, this is tedious practice, but she has persevered and enjoyed it. And also, because of her age, I show my full-hearted respect."

Zhang, 35 and originally from Shanghai, gives private lessons in Chinese calligraphy and painting. He graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels in printmaking.

He says the nearly 250 pages of the duplicate of The Thousand Character Classic are too thick for one volume, so it will be compiled into four volumes this year.

Gerard's passion for Chinese calligraphy grew from her career. After training as a bookbinder at La Cambre, one of Belgium's leading schools of art and design, she taught there from 1971 until her retirement at 65.

She took several years of Mandarin classes and since 2000 also has practiced qi gong, a system of deep breathing, both of which have given her a basic understanding of Chinese culture and how to maintain balance.

"All these have helped her to make relatively rapid progress in writing calligraphy," Zhang says.

When she started studying under Zhang in 2012, she began to write calligraphy of the clerical script, which was developed more than two millennia ago and is one of the major styles of the calligraphic arts. Her hard work and comprehension of Chinese cultures have helped her complete a sizable calligraphic work of antithetical couplets, which are two successive rhyming lines in poetry, often posted on either side of doorways.

After that, Zhang decided to teach her to write The Thousand Character Classic, starting at the end of 2013.

Gerard says she became a more patient person, which has helped greatly with calligraphy, as a result of her career.

"Bookbinding is also time consuming and requires a lot of work and patience, which is essential in practicing calligraphy," says Gerard. "I need focus."

She says balance is the most important quality in calligraphy. The Thousand Character Classic includes a total of 996 distinct characters. She notes that training in internal balance is useful to be able to put four characters on the same page. It also requires a sense of structure.

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