서예 (Seo-Yeh, Korean Calligraphy)

I started learning Korean calligraphy when I was in the first grade. I suppose as a descendant of a noble lineage, learning of the calligraphy was a must. Korean calligraphy is not simply writing beautiful characters. There is a certain mindset or a way of being that one must adopt.

Image by Samuraijohnny

Since I started when I was just seven years old, all of that way of being was not verbalized to me. We were taught to sit quietly, settle our 벼루 (Byeo-roo, ink stone) on the table, pour just a little bit of water into the well of the ink stone, and start grinding the 먹 (Meok, ink stick). The more expensive the ink stick, the more fragrant it is. The cheaper ones you can usually tell by how bad they smell.

This process of slowly grinding the ink stick, is what settles you and put you in the mindset of tranquility. There is really no hurrying this grinding process nor do you want to go fast as it will just splash (but ink won’t come out any faster). Usually the calligraphy session full of first graders would start out loud, then within 15-20 minutes, everyone becomes quiet, mesmerized by the never ending circular motion of grinding ink stones and the ink smell permeating the air.

붓 (boot, brush) and 선지 (Seon-ji, paper — special calligraphy paper) comes next. Initially the beginners use cheaper practice paper and also have to fold papers to create guidelines for the letters. Then within a year or two, the practice paper is replaced with the special calligraphy paper (한지, Korean paper is well known for its quality). The beginners start with the standard 한글 (Hangul, standard Korean), next step is the cursive, and then pictures or other characters.

The posture you have to assume is very strict. It is said that those who are able to write beautiful calligraphy could also wield sword equally well. When you write, you can never drop your elbow or lean. The tip of the brush is the only thing that touches the paper on the table, like a tip of a sword. Imagine how much strength must go into that.

Sadly it has been a few years since I held a brush in my hand, but I still do remember that rich fragrance of the ink stick and the utter calm that settled over me whenever I held a brush.

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