I did it! It took me awhile, but I have now reached the top. My faithful readers know that I have been studying shuji (習字) – or Japanese brush calligraphy – for about two years (minus a few breaks) now. Just over a year ago I registered officially with the Japanese Calligraphy Society and every month I can submit two works for evaluation. (July and December are exceptions; we paint one larger work for Tanabata and New Year’s and only submit that.)
When I entered the society my initial evaluation allowed me to jump from shin (新), ‘new’, to level 7, called nana kyuu (七級). The lowest level after evaluation is level 10, and the kyuu system of levels goes up to ikkyuu (一級), or level 1, which is the highest. After jumping to level 7, I was not able to skip levels again (very difficult to do), which is called tobikyuu (飛び級) – literally, ‘flying levels’; however, I was able to progress one level each month all the way to sankyuu (三級) – being level 3. One month I was too busy to submit two pieces of work, but the one was sufficient for shinkyuu (進級), ‘progressing a level’.
From that point it took me three months to reach level 2, nikyuu (二級), and it was clear from the society’s grading marks that each level gets more and more strict. Previously I would get double circles (excellent) marks on characters that now get one circle (ok to good), and the corrective marks point to clear errors that would slide through in the past. I was wondering how long it would take me to get to level 1; my early projections were about 6 months, but I made significant progress shortly after that.
Because I was busy and a little sick I submitted no works in November. Additionally, December in Japan is an incredibly busy time, so I felt like I had given a half-hearted effort. This month also, I only went to class the first week and produced no works. My teacher sent a cell phone email to me on Saturday to: check if I was sick, warn me about the deadline next week for continuing my registration next year (from April); and to tell me that December’s work came back with shinkyuu. I was indeed surprised, but on inspection of my work I do see significant improvement on certain points including the overall balance of the ten characters on the page. If I don’t count November, I think I am right at three months again (or is it four?).
Here is a small sample of my New Year’s work. I only snapped a shot of one character with a little bit of the surrounding characters. Probably, this is the strongest character from this work. It is usually read as ume or bai, and means plum (梅). It has the tree radical on the left and ‘every’ added to it. This work was written in the semi-cursive gyousho (行書) style, so the strokes vary slightly from the computer font. You may notice that the characters violate each other’s boundaries, yet their strokes do not overlap; this gives the characters a sense of play and cooperation without becoming congested.
So, this is not really the top: there are two ranking systems in this society. The first is the kyuu system and the next is dan (段). Both of these can be translated as ‘level’, so it can be a little confusing; however, dan has the meaning of step or stair in staircase, and kyuu is kind of like ability level. Dan count up from one (called beginning) to eight, with intermediate levels called jun in between. Let’s just translate jun as ‘pre-‘: it is the first character in junbi, which means ‘preparations’. From here I have essentially sixteen progressively more difficult levels above me if we count the intermediate steps. My next step will be junshodan (準初段), or ‘pre-beginning level’; a rather lowly name for having climbed so many steps to get here.
Model works get more and more difficult; starting from April and ascending to March. This month and next month should be the toughest works. My determination is to strive to practice once or twice each week and see how I can do before then. My sense is that the line between kyuu and dan will not be an easy step, but I feel my teacher can still tap more potential skill in me. We’ll see…