On a sunny morning close to the Temple of Literature, Mr Luoc met us. Distinguished Master and Doctor of Calligraphy, of a height greater than his 155cm, Mr Luoc is a colourful personality of impressive agility and strong words. A leader in Vietnam, Mr Luoc is without doubt one of the country’s most well known calligraphy masters.
We are honoured to be welcome in his home a few steps from Van Mieu (Temple of Literature). His home is traditional Vietnamese, located at the end of an alley, shielded from the noise of interminable horns and the summer heat.
In the lounge we are greeted by Hong Phuc, a student of Mr Luoc’s whom he has taught for more than 10 years. During the interview, Hong Phuc, aged 35, listened carefully his master and performed his daily exercises: working on the agility of his fingers (by manipulating two balls of steel of 3kg each), then writing Chinese characters.
While monitoring his student from the corner of his eye, and calling him to order from time to time, Mr Luoc answered our questions with the poetic verve for which he is known. Generous in his explanations, he also knows how to evade answering questions that don’t befit him. At other times, awash with his ardour, knowledge and love for calligraphy, he shared surprising anecdotes with us that bordered on the imaginary…
1. Mr Luoc, can you introduce yourself? How did you become a calligrapher?
My name is Cung Khac Luoc. I am 70 years old and I was born into a family of scholars in Hanoi. My ancestors were Mandarin and worked for the King. My father and my grandfather taught me calligraphy at the age of six. This experience was the best teacher. Calligraphy runs in my blood, through my veins. I put my heart and soul into it.
Previously I was a University Professor. I taught traditional Chinese and Vietnamese characters. I did a lot of research on Chinese characters. And still today, I am still a jury member overseeing theses in calligraphy.
2. What is it in calligraphy that fascinates you?
Calligraphy is ‘Thu Phap’ in Vietnamese. ‘Phap’ doesn’t mean ‘method’ here but ‘miracle’. Beautiful calligraphy has a soul and is a miracle when the script becomes animated, alive. A true calligrapher is a miracle maker, but to achieve this status, one must dedicate oneself fully to calligraphy.
Calligraphy is different to other arts. This art has given me much internally and it is difficult to put into words what these benefits are. All I know is that whenever I have a brush in my hand, I am at peace in my heart and in my mind as if fatigue and physical ills do not exist. And, with my brush I create beautiful poems that will be published.
3. According to you, what are the qualities of a good calligrapher?
First, they must love what they do. Everyone can learn calligraphy, small children, the infirm, and the elderly. Regardless of your gender, age or physical capabilities, you can learn. I have met disabled people who make very fine calligraphy. Even if I want to, I can write with the brush between my toes.
The only thing that matters is to love calligraphy. All trades, no matter what is produced, must love the product. To be a good calligrapher you must first love calligraphy. It is only then that you’ll be fascinated and be able to succeed. Be patient, persevere and apply yourself. Look at him (Mr Luoc points at his pupil). Every day we exercise our hands, our neck, our wrists, back and legs to have firm muscles and to be more agile.
4. In the past, who could be a calligrapher? How many years of study were needed to learn calligraphy?
In the Feudal era, few people went to school. Only Kings, the Mandarin and talented students had access to education. In the villages, one had to pay to go to school and few people could afford such expenditure. In calligraphy, students must learn 1500 Chinese characters. However, as I said, producing beautiful calligraphy requires one to put their soul into each stroke. That’s why it’s necessary to concentrate fully on calligraphy.
Today, advertisements tell you that you can learn calligraphy in two months! I can tell you that it is impossible to learn calligraphy in such a short time. Hong Phuc has learned calligraphy with me for more than 10 years and still his learning is not complete.
5. How would you define beautiful calligraphy?
There are international rules to determine whether or not calligraphy is good. However, as a researcher, I know that there is none of that in Vietnam. It is more subjective than that. I think beautiful calligraphy must have a soul; one must be able to see in it the writer’s thoughts, what he wanted to express through his drawings. For example, if the calligrapher writes ‘flower’ you must be able to see the image of the flower and its petals. When you write ‘cascade’ you must be able to see the cascade and hear the water flowing.
When I judge students during their studies I don’t pay great attention to their ways of drawing or the precise size of each Chinese character… what matters to me is that their calligraphy has soul. I also take into account the possibility of progression.
6. Tell us about calligraphy’s tools
Calligraphy requires brushes made of animal hair, paper made of silk, black ink (obtained from coal), a stamp and red ink for the stamp. The red ink is made from ‘than sa’, a medicinal plant which is prescribed in herbal tea for people with a fragile heart. Each calligrapher’s name is engraved on his stamp and when he completes his calligraphy, he applies his seal.
Each calligrapher has brushes and paper of different sizes. See (Mr Luoc shows us his brushes). They are used at various times and each one has its peculiarity. One of them belongs to Hong Phuc. He inherited it from his father who inherited it from his grandfather. Calligraphy tools pass from generation to generation. The more a brush is used, the better it becomes.
7. What circumstances called for calligraphy?
Opportunities to create calligraphy were numerous. First, hosts required them as a welcome sign for visitors. Vietnamese New Year was also an opportunity to create calligraphy. For the first lunar month in temples, pagodas or even the streets, calligraphy was called for. And some calligraphy was required for funeral orations to express the pain of loss of a loved one. Van Mieu may be the last place in Hanoi where calligraphy demonstrations are still held in the first lunar month.
9. Do you think that the art of calligraphy loses its traditional value as it becomes more commercial?
A true calligrapher does not need advertising. People come naturally to him for the quality of his calligraphy. He can offer it to them but it is normal that in exchange, one is rewarded for the time and effort expended. In my view, beautiful calligraphy also has financial value. It is art. Many people spend a fortune in art galleries, so why not on calligraphy?
It is the same for education. People like me don’t advertise. People come to us because we are known for our work. Many see ads here and there and find themselves in bad schools of calligraphy. However, those who really want to learn will still find serious professionals to teach them the art.
10. What do you think of the new generation of calligraphers? How do they differ from you?
People of my generation are attached to the Hanoi of old. We are different to young Hanoians. When we write we put the soul of Hanoi into our calligraphy, regardless of where we are. I have seen some very beautiful calligraphy by the new generation but I have not often seen the spirit of Hanoi in their work. However, there is cause for optimism as there are talented students out there.