Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Women and Japanese Calligraphy

Below is an excerpt from a very interesting article that appeared at CNN.Com regarding a unique style of calligraphy which was one practiced exclusively by women in old Japan and is being kept alive by one female calligrapher. The full post may be read here.

The Japanese calligrapher who keeps a forgotten female ancient script alive

As a teenager, Kaoru Akagawa couldn't read her Japanese grandmother's letters, but she put it down to her unclear handwriting.
Over a decade later, Kaoru realized her grandmother hadn't been a poor calligrapher. She had been one of the last generation to use a vanishing script shaped predominantly by and for women.
Legend has it that kana script, which translates to "woman's hand," was invented in the ninth century by Kukai, a priest and Sanskrit scholar, although some historians say it's hard to tell who exactly founded it and where, according to Akagawa.
What is apparent is that the kana characters -- which form the basis of kana shodo -- represent the different sounds that make up the Japanese language. It was shaped mainly by noble women, although both genders used it to write everything from assassination commands and love letters to poetry and diary entries.
With its undulating, cursive lines, kana shodo appears to stream down whatever surface it graces. According to Akagawa, women of the court competed with one another to invent their own signature designs for characters. Considered a language native to Japan, it was seen as a vehicle through which women could express themselves and document their observations of the world.
Kana calligraphy was even used to write the 11th century epic tale "The Tale of Genji," which is often called the world's first novel as it was one of the first major examples of long-form fiction, and was authored by a woman -- lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu.
Kana script was used right up until the 20th century, when the Japanese government standardized writing. Only 46 of the more than 300 kana characters were kept in modern written Japanese.
As fewer people pursue ancient Japanese calligraphy, Akagakawa -- now a master calligrapher -- has made it her mission to keep this fast disappearing women's script alive.

The 'female hand'

In ancient times, the Japanese did not have their own writing system. Kanji characters -- which now are the foundation of modern Japanese script -- originated from the Chinese script known as "hanzi," which some experts suggest entered Japan via the Korean Peninsula as far back as the third century.
And though kanji shodo is referred to as "Japanese calligraphy," in reality, it is "Chinese calligraphy practiced in Japan," according to Akagawa.
"It is crucial to understand that the text used as material in kanji shodo were always in Chinese language. Kanji shodo in ancient times was considered a foreign language," says Akagawa.
Back then, literacy in ancient Japan was not widespread and, for the most part, it was men from the ruling classes who learned kanji, known as "man's hand," for use in official letters and to read Buddhist sutras. 
It was considered improper for noble women to learn kanji as they didn't partake in official duties. There were, of course, exceptions. Murasaki Shikibu's father, for example, allowed her to be educated alongside her brother.
According to Akagawa, many noble women knew how to read kanji, but as they were not expected -- and sometimes not even allowed -- to use it, they fostered their own outlet.
Kana calligraphy was adapted from kanji calligraphy and another phonetic system called "manyougana" -- also adapted from Chinese script and considered the oldest native Japanese written script before it became obsolete. But manyougana was considered too complex, so noble women seized on kana, which was much more flexible and easier to write with.

Women used it to show their position as free-thinking, sexually-liberated intellectuals, within the constraints of 10th-century Japanese court life. They did this by publishing their literary works and openly using kana calligraphy to reflect their personalities in their diaries and the love letters they exchanged with noble men.
Not only was the content of kana and kanji different. The two writing systems looked distinct, too.
"Typically, in kanji shodo the characters are written in straight parallel lines without empty space. By contrary, kana shodo are typically written in slightly fluctuating lines often with empty space so that the lines are scattered in the composition," says Akagawa.
"Furthermore, the characters in kana shodo are interconnected with each other to make it look more feminine and fluid."
According to Akagawa, people discouraged men from using kana shodo. She gives the example of Ki no Tsurayuki, an aristocratic courtier who had to pretend he was a woman when it came to expressing himself in kana shodo in his diary. 
Men at the time were expected to write diary entries in kanji shodo using Chinese language -- which was considered a foreign language -- but Tsurayaki wanted to write his personal feelings in his own language of Japanese. He chose to write his diary from the year 935 -- now known as "Tosa Nikki" -- in kana shodo, pretending that he was a woman, says Akagawa.
"The famous first sentence in Tosa Nikki goes as follows: "I, a woman, would try writing a diary like men, too". The fact that he was not able to write it as a man depicts clearly that publishing personal literature in kana shodo was considered inappropriate for men in the 10th century," says Akagawa.


No comments: