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Man-Size Calligraphy
By Shen Anliang


I wake up at China¹s Diaoyutai State Guesthouse at the break of dawn. The sprawling estate is where the late Chairman Mao lived and where Bill Clinton stayed on his visit to China.

I am at Diaoyutai to interview Shen Anliang, a man listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for writing the world¹s largest Chinese character using the world¹s largest calligraphy pen. Unfortunately, the interview with the 42-year-old calligrapher has to be postponed to the following day. The friends who were to introduce me to Shen invite me to stay in the villa rented by their company in Diaoyutai, not far from the one in which Chairman Mao once lived.

We leave the State Guesthouse early in the morning to go to Tiananmen Square. Shen is holding a 1.46-meter-long bamboo pen, standing before a five- by one-meter sheet of white paper spread on the cold concrete ground. A crowd gathers and waits for his next move. After a few moments of contemplation, Shen begins writing.

He moves the pen quickly and easily, this ease of movement requires great skill, as I later discover myself, holding the heavy, cumbersome bamboo pen at the correct angle while trying to exert just the right amount of pressure on the paper requires great skill. As Shen completes the final stroke, the crowd breaks into applause.

We return to Diaoyutai for the interview. Shen, constantly smiling, says he has been writing calligraphy for over 30 years. Born in 1957, he grew up in Henan Province where he began studying calligraphy at the age of eight. He began using traditional calligraphy brushes, but after 15 years of practicing his art, Shen broke with tradition and began writing only with the bamboo pens that he invented himself.

His invention was inspired by a trip to Shanghai in 1980, where he came across a book that introduced Chinese calligraphy written using pens instead of brushes. The sharp, thick strokes produced by the pens fascinated him. Returning to his hometown, he tried using various pens to reproduce the effect that had caught his attention. However, the pens he tried were too coarse for writing on the delicate, somewhat translucent paper used over centuries in Chinese calligraphy.

Determined to reproduce the effect of the pens, he improvised. First, he tried bamboo chopsticks. The effect was similar to that of the pens, except that the strokes were not broad enough, so he got himself a piece of bamboo, whittled it down to the right size, smoothed the edges and began writing. He developed pens of various shapes and sizes, the smallest of which can write a character as small as a fly.

In 1989, Shen stopped using traditional brushes altogether and now uses only the bamboo pens. While he agrees that the traditional brushes and the bamboo pens both produce ³fluent, elegant strokes,² he prefers the solid strokes of the bamboo pens to the smooth curves of the brushes.

Shen¹s works sell for US$200 per square foot and have been bought by collectors from America, Japan, Canada, Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan. His largest work to date is an 8-meter long ³dragon² (lóng ¡™) character that he wrote and presented to the National Flag Guards in June 1997, to commemorate the return of Hong Kong to China. Shen also has something in the pipeline for the Macao handover. His dream is to see the use of the bamboo pen become widespread among young Chinese calligraphers.

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