Centre professor, students make documentary about Chinese calligraphy
Over the summer, documentary filmmakers traveled to China to do real-world research about the Chinese language. Those documentary filmmakers happened to be a Centre professor and two of his students.
Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Post-Doctoral Teaching Fellow Kyle Anderson traveled to China with John Dickens ’12 and Stewart Lowery ’12 as part of a class project to make a documentary called “Brush UP!” The film investigates a phenomenon known as character amnesia.
Unlike English, where words are made up of combined letters, in Chinese, each word is written as a unique character. As such, it is impossible to use the Chinese character system on computers or cellular phones, which are all equipped with Western letters. As people become more reliant on technology, the Chinese are forgetting their characters and calligraphy because the necessity to use them to communicate decreases.
During their trip, Anderson, Dickens and Lowery interviewed a wide array of people on the streets of Beijing and Xi’an about the Chinese language.
“Most people won’t deny that there is a present threat to the writing ability of the Chinese people, but despite that, most people believe the character system will endure forever,” Anderson says. “It’s been around for 4,000 years already, they say, and there have always been literacy problems. They certainly don’t think it will change.”
The interviews also revealed that some people appreciate character calligraphy even more now that they are becoming distanced from it.
“More and more people are losing their ability to write characters well, but their decreasing ability to write is actually increasing their aesthetic appreciation of Chinese characters,” Anderson says.
Anderson hoped the documentary would help his students learn the language, but could also be useful in other ways.
“I wanted to do a project that would get us on the ground and let the students use their Chinese, but would also produce a product that could be beneficial to a wide range of people,” Anderson says.
Participating in the documentary project changed the way Dickens and Lowery thought of the Chinese language.
“The most meaningful part of the trip for me was getting to talk to the calligraphers and learning about how much importance they place on their art,” Dickens says. “It was equally impressive watching the calligraphers practice their craft in front of us and realizing how much effort and dedication they put into every stroke, no matter how minute.”
“Most of my exposure to writing characters had only been in the classroom, so it was hard for me to imagine an aesthetic appeal tied to them,” Lowery continues. “Being able to witness calligraphers creating their artwork helped me to grow a greater appreciation for Chinese characters.”
Anderson says discussing with native speakers the complexities of writing in Chinese deepened that appreciation.
“In interviewing people, something often expressed was that it’s just as hard for the Chinese to write and remember the characters as it is for everyone else,” Anderson says. “It’s nice for language learners to hear that — it gives them a sense of empowerment.”
And even though as Lowery says, “Chinese is like the hardest game of memory you’ve ever played,” the students agree that Anderson’s teaching methods made learning the language more accessible.
“Dr. Anderson’s teaching styles are unlike anything I have ever encountered in a language course,” Dickens says. “He gives students the ability to communicate readily with an average Chinese person in a way that would not be possible had they only been exposed to traditional semantics.”
The three want the documentary to be both enlightening and inspiring for viewers.
“I hope that others who may not be familiar with Chinese character amnesia or Chinese culture in general will get a sense of how dramatic the clash is between traditional Chinese culture and modern social developments,” Dickens says.
“I don’t think there is a definite answer as to what character amnesia means for the Chinese people, culture and language or what will happen in the future,” Lowery says, “but I’m hoping that by watching the documentary, viewers will at least gain insight into what it is and perhaps develop their own theory of what is and is to come.”