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The Master Calligrapher

By Memrise Blog

Creating Memrise has caused me to do many strange things (taking my family, including two year old daughter and seven-month pregnant wife, to live in a yurt in Ed’s garden for two months is one that springs to mind, but there are plenty of others), go to some strange places, and to come across some truly wonderful people.

Our latest contributor of calligraphy videos is, perhaps, one of the very most wonderful.

For some weeks the glorious brothers Zhang who sell the finest sesame buns in the world (actually that is a woefully insubstantial praise; they are also, probably, one of the finest foodstuffs in the world, full stop) from a shop two doors down from us had been telling me of their great friend, the master calligrapher, Teacher Chui.

Their tales painted a picture rich with the romance that I, a starry eyed sinophile, would hope that  Chinese calligrapher would be: a wise man, now nearing sixty, who has been studying calligraphy for over forty years. He has no commercial interest and, perhaps consequently, has had no commercial success. His home is bare room in a monastery where is is given free lodgings in respect of his great art; a few kindly patrons provide him with the art materials he needs. And all he does is to practice his painting and calligraphy over and over again. He lives and breathes his art to the exclusion of all else.

A few of years back, he luck ran out and he found himself without a place to live. The Zhangs, who were then running a restaurant near the Houhai lake, took him in to live with them for a few months. They had never met him before, but their father had seen his calligraphy. He recognised his skill at once, and was honoured to have him living within their house. On this act of kindness was their friendship built.

And then one smoggy morning in mid July, Zhang Ting agreed to take me to meet the master. We had a day of the most remarkable absurdity which included an unscheduled detour of 50 miles in order to have lunch with the CEO of Yanjing Beer, the largest brewer in Beijing, who had contrived an urgent desire to watch the master calligrapher at work while he drank himself silly. But that is another story for another day.

Once the haze of lunch had cleared and we belatedly made it to his studio in the late afternoon, it became clear that the master was at least as wonderful a man as I had been led to believe. Wearing a wispy black beard and a moth-eaten blue silk jacket he is a man of deeply dignified yet light-hearted bearing. He executes his art with a sort of fluid, careless, yet impossibly precise control born of endless practice. Though I cannot claim to be any sort of judge of calligraphy, watching him at work is truly mesmerising.

After watching him and chatting with him for an hour or more, I gradually became aware of quite how badly I wanted to see videos of his calligraphy up on Memrise.  Suddenly, abruptly, I became rather nervous about how I was to go about suggesting this plan to him. How do you go about putting it to a penniless artist that he might want to give up a substantial amount of time in order to get involved in a project for which he will certainly earn no money? A hard sell. And I was not sure that my language skills were up to the sensitivity needed to handle it. My language skills, as if taking umbrage at my questioning them, then promptly disappeared altogether. I began to stutter. Words that should have rolled from my tongue would not come when I asked for them. My mouth dried up and as panic descended and my brain became paralysed with introspective worry, I found myself quite unable to even understand a word of what he said.

As he looked at me and jabbered, one eyebrow began to twitch quizzically. Though I could understand not a whit of what he said, that eyebrow’s message was clear. He was on the brink of deciding that I was an utter moron.Things were looking bleak.

Frantically playing for time, I played my rather limp trump card for wheedling my way out of awkward social situations in China, whipped out the iPhone and started to flick through photos of my kids. Now horrendous though this might sound as a charm strategy (and I am ashamed of it, I promise you), I have never yet found a Chinese person who fails to be won over by a photograph of a western child. Sure enough, a smile lit up his face, and he forget for a moment that I might be an idiot.

Then, just as I was exhausting the limits of this rather inept avenue of attempted charm, Zhang Ting stepped in to my rescue. He began to explain what Memrise does. But where I often hear myself falling, in such situations, into a dry monologue about the use of memory techniques, scheduled repetition and choreographed testing, Zhang Ting was more masterful. He knew the teacher well, and knew what was going to interest him. He cut straight to the chase.

“They are helping foreign people to learn and to understand Chinese characters.”

Teacher Chui’s smile broadened and his eyes lit up. “Can you show them videos of me writing calligraphy? People need to see how these characters are written in order to really understand them, they really do. I have studied this for 40 years – I need to pass this on to as many people as I can. Please, please,  you must show this to people and make sure that this skill does not die out!” Well, that was that then. The iPhone slipped back into to my pocket, the fog in my brain cleared and I cheerfully agreed that Memrise would be happy to display his calligraphy.

Videos of teachers Chui’s calligraphy will start appearing on the site soon, and I dearly hope that these videos will help, in some small way, to fulfil teacher Chui’s wish to help more people to understand this bewilderingly refined art form. Please let me know what you think of them as they come up – they will be posted under his user name “teacherchui”.