by Minh Thu
|Bunch of characters: Free calligraphy classes attract young and old students seeking to learn traditional values. — VNS Photo Minh Thu
In a classroom filled with the scent of lotus tea, students use brushes to write an ancient script. Some are teenagers; others, like Nguyen Huu Dong, the oldest student in the class, are in their late 70s.
"People might think that doing calligraphy in a pagoda is only for the elderly, but many of my classmates are young," said Dong, who discovered the class when he came to the pagoda to help the monks clean, and has been faithfully attending ever since.
"Meeting them makes hoary old age less boring."
Calligrapher Le Trung Kien from the Centre for Religious Cultural Heritage Preservation long hoped to share his passion for calligraphy by offering free classes. Finally, two years ago, he received support from Nhan My Pagoda to offer a nom (Vietnamese ideographic script derived from Chinese) calligraphy training programme on weekends, in which he and five other instructors share their knowledge with the eager students.
"A lot of historical information is written in old script on stone steles at pagodas and temples," Kien said. "Through the training course, I want to preserve this cultural and linguistic heritage."
The programme is open to people of all ages, free of charge. Participants are required to supply their own paper, brushes and ink and to follow certain rules: dressing appropriately, respecting the monks and teachers, and maintaining the tranquillity of the pagoda.
When the class was publicised on social networks, many calligraphy afficionados registered immediately.
With about 50 students aged from 13 to 78, who come from all different backgrounds, the class was like a microcosm of society, Kien said.
Economics student Nguyen Duc Cuong was one of the first to sign up for the class. For two years, Cuong hasn't missed a single lesson, even though he lives far away.
"We learn about Confucianism and the moral lessons hidden in pictographs as well as calligraphy itself," Cuong said. "Calligraphy is not easy at all. I have to practise keeping patient, letting my mind stay undisturbed and not giving up."
The character for "nhan" (human) has only two strokes, but it took Cuong a month to perfect.
"I wanted to write the script beautifully, with strong and weak strokes," Cuong said. "When you finish learning, you also understand how to be a good person.
"Calligraphers use the script to imply certain moral standards. Passion isn't enough. All students should be patient and studious. Calligraphy takes a long time to master."
For Dong, too, calligraphy's impact went beyond the paper and ink.
"I have become more patient since I started studying," he said.
Each lesson introduces students to characters through prose, verse and old documents so they can see how the scripts are used. This exposure to history and literature helps them "nurture the mind", Dong said.
Nguyen Duc Ba, one of the six instructors, also heads a calligraphy club for young people at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities.
"Many people are busy with trendy hobbies and entertainment, but our students are still interested in calligraphy and traditional cultural heritage," Ba said. — VNS