Lunar New Year, One Character At A Time

Brian Slattery PhotoVoices echoed off the ceiling of the rotunda of the New Haven Museum as a crowd of people surrounded the circle of tables set up on the floor for the Yale-China Association’s annual Lunar New Year celebration on Saturday afternoon.

Lunarfest 2017 had begun a couple hours before with a parade and lion dance up Whitney Avenue, which included stops at Great Wall and Hong Kong Market. All afternoon, the Yale-China Association on Temple Street, Henry R. Luce Hall on Hillhouse Avenue, and the New Haven Museum on Whitney Avenue bustled with activities ranging from talks on Chinese opera to martial arts demonstrations to cooking classes to kite making.

And at a table in the New Haven Museum’s rotunda, Scylla Ng and Christy Cheung — exchange students from the Chinese University of Hong Kong — showed dozens of people an hour just a little bit about Chinese calligraphy, which meant, for this pesky reporter and many others, a toe in the water of the deep pool of the history of the written language.

Ng and Cheung had covered their table with paper and offered small strips of red paper to write on. Brushes were at the ready, already dipped in small bins of ink. Written on the paper covering the table, in strong, well-crafted letters, was a four-character phrase translating to “good luck comes in the spring.”

Patiently and with enthusiasm, Ng — who modestly described herself as “not good at calligraphy” (“I’m just writing,” she explained) — helped adults and children alike who were struggling to reproduce the characters legibly.

“Actually, it’s quite good,” she said to one would-be calligrapher. “Just finish it and take it home.”

I can report that the brushes felt good in the hand, light and free. At first I had too much ink on the brush, and the first character came out a little thicker than I wanted (and took 20 minutes to dry). The next characters were better. But all of them lacked the brush control, the detail, and the overall aesthetic balance of the model I had been following. If Ng was just writing, I was scrambling.

But in the end, I’d written the four characters — spring, comes, good, luck — that together made up the phrase.

Though in some ways, I’d written more than that.

The character for spring, Cheung explained, contained a character that, on its own, would mean sun. Such compound characters were not at all unusual, explained Mei Mei, who had come to Lunarfest from Trumbull with her family.

“Every Chinese character has a deeper meaning,” Mei said. Sometimes the compound characters contain information about both meaning and pronunciation. Other times — as in the case of spring — characters are combined to create new meanings.

The character for good that I’d reproduced so poorly, for example, was made up of two characters. The one on the left, by itself, meant girl, Mei said. The one on the right meant boy. “In Chinese culture, family means a lot,” she said. “so if you have a boy and a girl, that’s good.”

Cheung and Mei continued to explain how many characters had changed over thousands of years. The character for sun that I had drawn as a box with a dash through it had started off as something more like a circle with a dot in it. The oldest character for water was three wavering lines side by side, which really looked like a simple drawing of water. The modern character looks like this: 水. It had come a long way.

Cheung’s and Mei’s explanations of the characters themselves, though, helped me better grasp the meaning behind the phrase I had written: good luck comes in the spring.

“Traditional Chinese belief is that the things we’ve done in the past year will affect the next year,” Ng explained. “A good start” to the new year, she said, “means everything for us.”

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