November 8, 2011

My Grandfather (1917 - 2010)

My maternal grandfather, whom I called 'Wai Gong' (Mandarin for maternal grandfather), passed away over a year and a half ago. He was 93.

Wai Gong was a calligrapher. Even after he retired, he practiced every day. When he and my grandmother visited, I would often find him at the kitchen table, practicing calligraphy. To protect the table, he covered it with layers of newspaper. Then he would cut or tear sheets off a fat roll of delicate white paper, so thin that the moment the ink made contact, the paper would pucker. Around the paper, he would put his other brushes, a cup of water for cleaning them, a little inkstick, and an inkwell made of stone. On the far end of the table, puckered sheets filled with calligraphy would be drying.

"I thought he was a banker"
It wasn't until after Wai Gong died that I learned that he had been a professional calligrapher. Because I had been told that he worked for a bank, I had always assumed that he was a banker.

When Wai Gong died, my aunt wrote an obituary for him in Chinese, which my mom and I translated into English. Much of the obituary was dedicated to his career, and as I helped my mom translate, I asked her questions about Wai Gong to help me figure out what exactly he did, so I could choose the best way to express his accomplishments in English.

I was astonished to learn that he had not been a banker (at least not in the traditional sense), but a secretary and calligrapher. In the days before computers, he hand-wrote official bank documents. His job involved drafting official bank documents and releasing the bank's policies to the media. In the 40+ years he worked for the bank, he held several positions including Secretary of the Board of Directors, Secretary of the Board of Supervisors, and Principal Officer of the Secretariat.

Later at the funeral, I asked my cousins if they were aware that our grandfather had worked as a secretary and calligrapher. "Oh, really?" they said. "I always thought he was a banker."

Calligraphy Samples
After the funeral, my grandmother gave each of her children samples of their father's work:

"Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. — 1 Corinthians 3:8-4." (Wai Gong attributed it incorrectly here; the passage is actually 1 Corinthians 13:4-8.)

There is a saying that one draws characters/letters that look like oneself. I can't vouch for the accuracy of this saying, but in my grandfather's case, it was true. His preferred calligraphy style was lean and elegant like him. He was always neatly and formally dressed, in a suit, tie, and leather shoes — even to the beach!

This style is called cǎoshū, a type of cursive script that is written faster than regular script and without picking up the brush. I like that you can tell when he stopped to dip his brush in the ink. According to my mom, Wai Gong wrote this when he was recovering from pneumonia in his mid-80s.

 My grandmother unrolled sheet after sheet of Wai Gong's calligraphy to distribute among her children. We oohed and ahhed over them, but my grandmother assured us that these were just the bad ones. She kept the best ones, of course.

After I returned home, I felt oddly inspired and went to the library and checked out books on not Chinese, but Western, calligraphy. I tried learning Fraktur, a blackletter style. I was surprised to discover how much performance there was in calligraphy. It required intense practice, concentration, and also improvisation - kind of like playing a musical instrument.

Sometimes Wai Gong would write out the characters on a post-it beforehand.

Eventually I gave up on calligraphy, but the experience rekindled my interest in typography and lettering, which I have made a priority ever since.

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