Chinese calligraphy is a special art with a long history. The earliest evidence of the Chinese script was found on the so-called oracle bones—tortoise shells or shoulder blades of animals. The characters were pictographic and represented concepts. Questions regarding the weather, the yield of crops, or the outcome of battles were carved on these oracles bones. These were then thrown into a fire, and the oracle was interpreted according to the cracks that were formed by the heat.
Oracles evolved into ancient seals made of metal, jade, stone, ceramics, bone, and ivory where calligraphic forms were carved in relief. These seals gave official validation of authority to show power and stature, and literati seals later reflected symbols of the intellectuals of the period.
Vernacular literature in China took shape as an art form during the Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368), although the oldest works date from the Zhou Dynasty (circa 11th century–256 BC). The most famous of these writings were the thoughts of Confucius (551–479 BC) collected by his disciples into a book called Lunyu (Analects).
Many artist-poets in the succeeding dynasties would produce poems in the lyrical and epic styles, writing them on paper and silk. To be able to read and write poetry was part of the elementary education of the higher social classes.
The brush pen, ink stick, ink stone, and paper are known as “the four treasures of the study.” They are indispensable tools for Chinese calligraphy and painting. A scholar would normally bring a bag containing all these four objects during a government exam.
During the Tang Dynasty, intellectuals tried to improve the Chinese characters and many styles were developed. With the invention of the fountain pen, ballpoint pen, and other modern writing instruments, writing has become very convenient. The four treasures are becoming unpopular and we can now easily type Chinese characters with the invention of the computer.
Notwithstanding the popularity of pens and computers, calligraphy is highly regarded as an art form to this day. It is considered the most ancient and abstract of Chinese arts. Scholars praise calligraphy as having the beauty of image in painting, the beauty of dynamism in dance, and the beauty of rhythm in music.
Chinese calligraphy uses characters to communicate the unique and individual spiritual world of the artist. Through the medium of form, way of handling the brush, presentation, and style, calligraphy as a work of art conveys the moral integrity, character, emotions, aesthetic feelings, and culture of the artist.
The Yuchengco Museum introduces the art of the Chinese brush by showcasing the calligraphy of master calligrapher Ong Bun Han. On view until May 10, “Flow of the Gentle Ink: Storytelling in Calligraphy by Ong Bun Han” is Ong’s fifth exhibit.
The collection of Ong’s works pays homage to Tao Yuan Ming (365–427), an influential poet during the Eastern Jin Dynasty, a pre-Tang dynasty. Tao was known as the “Poet of the Fields” and “Poet of Reclusion.” Dissatisfied by the politics of his time, Tao resigned and returned to his home village and lived there for the next 23 years until his death.
Ong Bun Han, 81 years old, was born to a poor family in Zhejiang, a coastal province of China. When his parents died when he was five years old, he was brought to Fujian province to live with another family. Ong was introduced to Chinese calligraphy at a young age, when he first learned the craft at a small town private school where an instructor taught him how to write Chinese. In the 1930s, 13-year-old Ong migrated to the Philippines and worked in his uncle’s grocery while studying on the side.
After the Second World War, he learned to write Simplified Chinese while awaiting an opportunity to attend university in Taiwan. Ong then worked as a Chinese calligraphy teacher and education director at the San Juan Chinese Elementary School.
By 1955, Ong began engaging in business by founding the Extraco Taxi Company. With his ventures in trucking, public transportation, and shipping, Ong was unable to pursue his passion for calligraphy for 30 years.
It was only after retiring in 1990 that Ong returned to his hobby. With more time in his hands, he learned many more styles, including the calligraphy of Wang Xi Zhi, a sage from the Jin Dynasty. He also honed his craft in rendering characters on a larger and smaller scale.
Ong has led an active community life, contributing much in the field of arts, culture, and sports. He has also contributed to culture and sports exchanges between the Philippines and China.
Ong’s calligraphy is highly regarded and his collections have been shown in exhibitions in countries such as China, Japan, and South Korea.
print ed: 04/08