Vietnamese calligraphy nurtures French scholar’s soul

February 16, 2023 - 15:00
A foreign man in a traditional Vietnamese long dress drawing calligraphy at a recent Spring Calligraphy Festival in the Literature Temple in downtown Hà Nội attracted many visitors.

By Lê Hương

A foreign man in a traditional Vietnamese long dress drawing calligraphy at a recent Spring Calligraphy Festival in the Literature Temple in downtown Hà Nội attracted many visitors.

Jean Sébastien Grill is the only foreigner among 50 scholars at the event, and is also the first ever foreigner acting as a calligrapher at the annual event.

“20 years ago, I met a Vietnamese French woman,” he told Việt Nam News. “I visited her house and learned that her culture is very different.”

Jean said he has learned the Vietnamese language for seven years by speaking with Vietnamese people, started calligraphy in 2015 and was quickly lured by two noted calligraphers in Hà Nội. He has also learned a lot about Vietnamese traditional medicine.

Jean Sébastien Grill seen at the Spring Calligraphy Festival 2023 in Literature Temple in Hà Nội. VNS Photo Hồng Vân

“In 2006, I and my wife came to Việt Nam for the first time, I loved the life here,” he said.

Jean took the Vietnamese name Trường Giang because “Giang” is pronounced like “Jean” and “Trường Giang” means “a long life”.

Jean lived with his family in Hà Nội for six years before moving back to France in 2021.

“After a year in France, I found life boring, I cannot meet people at cafés as often as I did in Việt Nam,” he said.

Jean said calligraphy is a fine art, which he learnt together with designing.

“Drawing calligraphy characters is difficult but I have a passion for it,” he said.

With a background in Japanese and Chinese, he could learn the art very quickly after a course lasting 32 lessons.

“When I first learned it, I did not know how to control the brush. If you make a wrong stroke, the character will be ruined,” he said. “Gradually, I practised my wrist, which should be both flexible and hard. The most important thing is practising the heart. I think that with each character drawn, the scholar should express three things: the beauty of strokes, the meaning of the character and the power as well as the charisma of the writer.”

Jean said each material presents its own challenge to calligraphers.

With each character drawn, the scholar should express three things: the beauty of strokes, the meaning of the character and the power as well as the charisma of the writer. VNS Photo Hồng Vân

“To Vietnamese traditional dó (poonah) paper, I have to pay a lot of attention as the rough surface can break the strokes. Meanwhile, the soft surface of silk paper can be much easier to draw on,” he said.

Jean said normally he drafts the character in a notebook to make sure he chooses the right character, then imagines its size and draws on the surface.

“I often consider a surface of a paper as having two halves, the upper is the sky and the lower part is the land. Calligraphy should be laid out well, with bold and light strokes combining in a good balance,” he said.

Noble mission

Jean said calligraphy helps nurture his soul.

“I have learnt that a scholar not only offers meaningful characters but also transmits spiritual value, bringing wishes to people,” he said. “Thanks to the art, my spiritual life has been enriched. I understand more profoundly beauty and the peaceful feeling in my heart.”

He considers the brushes and ink are a part of a treasure of art.

“I have many kinds of brushes for various materials,” he said. “I take care of them very carefully as a valuable treasure.”

Jean said he is happy as people at the event seem to be curious about him. They asked him for calligraphy works, invited him for photos and shook his hands tightly.

“I was actually a little nervous as so many people stared at me,” he said.

Jean said he was surprised as a man drew a portrait of him at the event.

A dedicated scholar. VNS Photo Hồng Vân

“Many friends of mine came to the Literature Temple to cheer me up,” he said. “I felt so happy as my acquaintances still remember me.”

Jean said he likes bún riêu (fresh vermicelli with sour crab soup) and bún đậu mắm tôm (fresh vermicelli with fried tofu dipped in shrimp paste).

“Most Vietnamese people are surprised to know that I can eat and I am even passionate about those delicacies,” he said.

Jean shared that he likes the slow speed of life during Tết.

“There are fewer vehicles than usual, peach blossoms bloom around Sword Lake,” he said. “I like strolling in this area and admire ancient buildings and temples.”

Jean said though he was here during Tết alone, acting as a calligrapher for the first time at a spring festival and meeting many people had made him more cheerful and less lonely than he felt at the beginning of the visit this time.

Spreading Vietnamese culture to French people

When he returned home with his family in 2021, Jean actively introduced Vietnamese culture to his French countrymen. He practised drawing calligraphy and sent the works to his relatives and friends as gifts.

“There is a Vietnamese pagoda near my home where I always went to give calligraphy works,” he said. “Many Vietnamese people were moved by receiving my gifts. Their feelings encouraged me to learn more about Vietnamese culture.”

He also practises Vietnamese martial arts with Vietnamese people there.

“In France and Việt Nam, life is changing very fast,” he said. “Our society gets more and more modern. It’s a pity if no one continues the values of the preceding generation. As a Việt Nam lover, I think that I have a mission to learn about Vietnamese culture and introduce it to the French.”

Jean said he hoped to open a calligraphy class in France for people interested.

“Though I’m not sure when I will return to live in Việt Nam, I consider this my second homeland,” he said. VNS

Jean thinks he has a mission to spread Vietnamese culture in France. VNS Photo Hồng Vân