I love Yabe Chosho’s liberal and fresh approach to calligraphy. Sho-do, Japanese calligraphy, literally means a way of writing, like how Ju-do is a way of jujutsu and Sa-do is a way of tea making. It is an artistic discipline. Her works seem free from rules and more like painting than Chinese characters, despite it only being black ink on paper. She dynamically and energetically conveys her inspiration with her strokes and gradient of ink.
My ancestral home was full of scrolls of traditional old-school calligraphy. To my untrained eye, they were similar to books of Bhuddist chant. They are beautiful in their own right like perfectly trimmed topiary trees. Although I would like to try “Sha-Kyo”, copying these books as a zen activity one day, these traditional pieces drew no interest of mine.
Yabe Chosho, to my surprise, started her career in calligraphy at the age of six in one of the schools of Chinese traditional calligraphy. She became a master of calligraphy at the age of twenty-two and has a solid base of knowledge and technique with infinite practice under her belt. Her works earned recognition and prestigious awards both in Japan and China. She became a regular judge for the prestigious Yan Zhenqing competition in China which is named after a legendary calligrapher in the eighth century.
She believes in “tradition and innovation” and explores her own style. Her subjects are extremely broad; everything from classic Chinese motto to modern poetry. She even challenges Western calligraphy by experimenting with the alphabet. She reveals that she diligently refers to the dictionary of calligraphy and studies the interpretations of great Chinese calligraphy masters for inspiration. Then, she lets her imagination run freely and explores the expression of her chosen subjects: from masculine and powerful to feminine and delicate.
The way in which Sho-do calligraphy produces a masterpiece is quite different from oil paintings: you cannot rectify or undo what you have done. It does not take too long to finish a piece, however, it still takes a long time to produce the best one. It requires infinite practice and repeating the same movement to produce a piece that one is content with.
It is also fascinating to watch movements when Sho-Do calligraphy is performed. It requires a mindset of zen; it is calm and disciplined, yet rhythmical. It becomes more dynamic when they produce a large piece of work. Here is my favourite video in which high school Sho-do club students show their skills and team work at a festival of Sho-do brushes. Chosho Yabe is brilliant and has performed all over the world. She has identified the potential of Sho-do movements as entertainment. Her movement is refined to perfection. Here is a video in which she presents her work to commemorate the current emperor’s coronation. It was, therefore, a natural move for her to set up Japan Sho-do Performance Academy recently.
One of my favourite works of hers is called Shu-Ha-Ri. This is an old chinese saying about the life of learning. Shu means to protect or to stick to master’s rules and styles. Ha means to break them, and finally, Ri means to take off. Yabe Chosho certainly has flown off to the wider world.