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The Myth of Wu Tao-tzu

A modern Swedish classic, always in print since 1967. On line in since 2006. Also published in Danish, Finnish, Dutch and 2007 in Spanish.

Unpublished translation by Joan Tate. Parts of an earlier translation by Keith Bradfield was published in Wδstberg (ed.) An Anthology of Modern Swedish Literature (New York: Merrick 1979). Another section of the book, translated by Thomas Teal, was published in Lagerlφf (ed.) Modern Swedish Prose (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 1979).

The myth of Wu Tao-tzu tells that the Tang dynasty painter Wu Tao-tzu was one day looking at a mural he had just completed. Suddenly he clapped his hands and the temple gate in the mural opened. He went into his work, the gates closed behind him and he was never seen again.
The Myth of Wu Tao-tzu explores the possibility and impossibility of entering a work of art and making it a way of life. A classic work of modern Swedish literature, several times translated into English but so far never published.

Here comes the beginning of Joan Tate's English translation:


Sven Lindqvist


Bonniers, 1967

Third Edition 1987


translated by Joan Tate

c: Sven Lindqvist, 19 67

c: this translation Joan Tate, 1995

[from Bonniers Delfinserien]


It is not entirely without significance though that we should at least once have the opportunity to live in the immediate vicinity of what we have longed for and believed unattainable.





During the Tang Dynasty, the Chinese artist Wu Tao-tzu was one day standing looking at a mural he had just completed. Suddenly, he clapped his hands and the temple gate opened. He went into his work and the gates closed behind him.

There is often talk of empathy in art, "living" in it, the power of projecting oneself into it, but rarely in a practical sense. Usually, only small children understand what that is all about. I think you haven't "made your way" into a work of art until you have been guilty of the banal mistake of confusing fiction with reality. Again and again, I have made that mistake myself, particularly when it comes to The Glass Bead Game.

In the Western Mountains outside Peking is a cave containing a gilded sculpture of Buddha. It is said of its expressive face that it is of a real man coated with a thin layer of gold. Anyone listening can hear his heart beating.

That legend expresses the same dream – of being inside what can really be regarded only from without. The art is only gold-dust brushed over reality to fix it. Below the surface is a living being, enclosed and preserved by the golden film.

It was my own heart beating in his body. So I often found it difficult to leave the place.

For a long time that immobile hovering bird of his face.

For a long time that golden peace, enclosing him as if behind the eyelids of a sleeping man.



Curriculum vitae.

I was born at the end of the New Age, just before the Dark Ages began to return.

I had a wife and children, house and garden. I wrote my books, was considered an amiable writer and lived at peace with the world. I travelled in Europe and India. Everything seemed to be in order.

Then the summer of 1914 came.

My education began. The so-called "great times" had broken out.

My friends are perhaps right when they say that ever since then my writings have lost their beauty and harmony. What are beauty and harmony when you are running for dear life between crumbling walls? I am beginning to believe that all my artistic activities have been a mistake.

But that matter is unimportant. My assignment, what I once called my assignment, no longer exists. I see my task, or rather my way to salvation, not in poetry or philosophy nor in any speciality. But only in this – to allow the crumb of life and strength still left in me to live its own life.

That is where I am today. But as the past often fills me more that the present, nor can I clearly separate what is to come from what has already been. I live very much in the future.


So I need not end my autobiography here, but will calmly continue.

I largely occupied myself with painting and Chinese witchcraft, but then turned increasingly to music. I was gradually approaching that period in life when there is no point in expanding or modulating an already more than sufficiently expanded personality. Then you are faced with the opposite task: to allow your valued self to go under in the world.

So I put my work aside and turned entirely to practical magic. Even if my artist's dream had been in vain, I was born a magician. I had already travelled far enough along the paths of Lao Tse and I Ching to be able to know that reality is incidental and transformable.

At seventy years of age and with honorary doctorates from two universities, I was finally arrested for seducing a young girl by witchcraft. In prison, I asked permission to be allowed to paint.

That was granted.

I painted a little landscape on my cell wall.

This landscape contained almost everything in which I have found delight in my life. Mountains and rivers. Seas and clouds. Widespread forests. A small train was in the middle of the picture, hauled by a steam engine. It was approaching a high mountain and the engine had already begun to enter the tunnel.

But the prison guards would not leave me in peace.

Finally, I thought the time had come to put an end to these torments. If I was not to be allowed to go on with these innocent artistic games, then I would have to make use of the serious arts to which I had devoted so many years of my life.

For a moment I stood there, holding my breath.

Then I benignly asked my guards to wait while I boarded the little train in the picture to look for something.

They laughed and allowed me to do so.

So I made myself low and stepped into my picture, boarding the little carriage and going with the train into the tunnel. The steam from the engine poured like a cloud out of the tunnel opening and hid the picture. When the smoke had dispersed, the picture had gone.

The prison guards remained there in great confusion.


On the train.

Gently swaying, softly thumping like a steamer. Signalling like a great ship in fog. The snow envelops the endless plain in a white night.

The general is reading. The widow has painted herself and is standing in the corridor. We are still carrying our own time with us like snails, but day and night have merged into each other. I don't know when I'll become sleepy, nor when I shall be hungry. In the middle of the day, darkness falls in the white night. In the middle of the night, the sun rises, pale and unborn, enveloped in the foetal membranes of the snow-smoke.

I have feared this cold. The air would fasten to my skin like cold iron against the tongue. My nails would blacken, eyes water and be sealed by ice. But the cold is not festering nor strangling – it is laughing. Every join in the blue rail sings out like a steel pick in frozen ground. Sun above high, wood-white snow-gates. Haymaking winter with verdant loads. I would be able to confide in this cold, sleep through an ice age and wake in order to wash my flushed face in snow.


The sun rises, white as a yolk of egg in winter. Treeless plain, treeless mountains. Schoolchildren on their way across endless fields of snow.

When the general had finished his book, he stayed sitting for a long time in dreamy silence, turning the pages, perhaps seeking explanation for some mystry. A long time has already passed since he left the train.

Out on the plain, a lone man with a yoke is carrying two pails of ice-cold water through this desert of snow.

The sun. Day after day or night after night, this white eye stares at me.

Falling over treeless plain, treeless mountains. Schoolchildren on their way home across endless stubble fields. A shimmer of gold in the air. Sunset in Siberia. Nothing overdone, just a single bright red colour in the black and white.

My Chinese friends are playing chess by the light of a naked bulb. I rest my eyes. The general was after all from my world, from my day, the kind of person I understood. But in these stern faces I find nothing personal, nothing acquired. Although open outwardly, their eyes remain inwardly closed and inaccessible.

They are playing. The board has bulged and the squares look like uneven stones. White knight below black castle. Darkness has fallen.


Golden glow in the darkness. The horizon sharpening. Snowy ground growing lighter.

Upwards in continuous bends as if we were circling round the same empty, light-filled bowl. Upwards! Emerging light from below on the landscape gives a unique feeling of height. Far down below us lies the mist in the valleys: ground clouds.

The sun comes out. Grazing horses raise their heads. Ice glints at the bottom of the bowls. Further and further around us. Stronger and stronger feeling of being lifted.

Here people are dressed in full-length costumes, scarlet and saffron yellow. The houses appear to be designed by eighteenth century futuristic architects: past and future are stones in the same arch. Sun-grass as newly fallen manna over the ground.

During the night we pass the last border. Ravines of rainwater. A loose, near-landsliding mountain landscape. Mountains in transit, on their way downwards like water. Future plains, today disguised as mountains.

And the people: eroded like their land, like their mountains. Nose almost rained away. Eyes silted together. Their movements ground down as if by water, their language with no inflected forms, only a few sounds: worn down, low.

Gravestones in groups on the plain, like chimneys in a ruined town. Milestones measuring the desert of time.

Slowly, slowly as if driving a flock of sheep ahead of us in the dusk. Hither and thither in the darkness as when you spin round in blind man's buff. What will happen now? Where will we come to? Pointless questions, hypotheses with no basis. Too tired, far too tired. Time destroys all wounds. A peasant in spirit is worth ten in the forest. There – the flames of a steelworks in the darkness! Slowly, slowly like a hovering bird with one wing in the past, the other in the future and the present like the thumping heart in my own body, endlessly slowly, the train passes through the suburbs of Peking.


Hermann Hesse writes in Curriculum vitae (Kursgefasster Lebenslauf) that he painted a small landscape on his cell wall and disappeared into it. Stepping into art – that is a theme throughout his work. Nearly all his heroes vanish like Wu Tao-tzu.

For Steppenwolf, it is music which opens a door to "the heart of the world" and the cool, light, hard smiling wisdom of the immortals. With the aid of wine, drugs and "magical theatre" he is occasionally able to go through that door. The novel ends with him disappearing completely into these spheres. "Mozart was waiting for me", are the last words in the papers he left behind him.

This penetration into art is particularly clearly described in Journey to the East (Die Morgenlandfahrt). The central character of the story is Leo, servant of travellers to the East, representative of the spiritual upper world which the narrator, H.H. seeks in vain to enter. On the last page of the book, H.H. finds a little sculpture, a strange double figure combining Leo and himself, back to back.

"Inside the figures I saw something moving, slowly, infinitely slowly, as when a sleeping snake moves. Something was going on there, a kind of very slow, gentle but uninterrupted flowing or melting, something melting or pouring from my image over to Leo's, and I realised that my image was increasingly devoting itself to Leo, was flowing away to give him nourishment and strength. In time, it seemed, all substance would run over from the one image to the other and only one would be left: Leo."

In all these cases, the step into art is surrounded by powerful elements of mystification. One does not flee out of a secure prison on a painted train. Anyone who takes drugs in order to live in the way Mozart played is sure to be closer to mental hospital than to the sphere of the immortals. Hesse is offering symbolic descriptions of an inner event, while at the same time suggesting with all the arts at his disposal, that they can be put to practical use.

Strongest is this suggestion when the theme appears for the first time, in his unfinished novel House of Dreams (Haus der Traume). This is about an old man. He is standing by the rose bushes. It is time to tie them up.

He is standing in his garden, into which no gaze from outside can penetrate. In it, everything is a fruit of his own dreams and cares, based on what he has taken over, filled with growth and future, but impossible to complete.

The world has contracted, he thinks with a trace of a smile.

Since he has left his employment, he has spent all his days in his garden. There he prefers to be alone with his thoughts, increasingly taciturn, increasingly sunk in the greenery he is creating and tending. Even to those closest to him, he has become closed and inaccessible. After his evening meal, he disappears into his Chinese room. Sometimes he sits all evening quite silently in the darkness out in the greenhouse.

Have you never read the Chinese stories, he asks. In them it is often so that after an active and useful life, one night the man just leaves his house and fields, his wife and his subordinates, his work and his books, and disappears. His time has come.

A disappearance of that kind is already slowly on its way to the old man. His stillness will soon become complete silence. He has begun to go up into the "life of things". He tends his flowers, but not to show them to anyone. He thinks his thoughts, but not to relay them. His life is contracting, condensing and merging into his garden.

"What do you think is most important?"


He is an artist about to disappear into his work. So he becomes more and more indifferent to his art. He simply reads the Chinese classics and Goethe's late prose.

"A thousand compositions and paintings I previously could not imagine living without, I am now quite indifferent to. One single book, one single piece of music would be enough."

"Which piece?"

"Bach's Actus Tragicus. Or Ave Verum Corpus by Mozart."

"You could just as well name twenty other pieces of the same rank."

"Admittedly. That was sentimental of me. Naturally it would do just as well without Bach and Mozart. Without art of any kind. Art is a thin and sensitive skin between us and the heart of the world. To penetrate the heart, you must also finally penetrate that fragile skin." His far-sighted eyes laughed . . .


That is where the manuscript ends. This was in August 1914, and the war took Hesse by surprise in the middle of his far-sighted smile. He broke off his work and wrote an article on the task of intellectuals in war.

I would be the last to deny affinity with my native country, he wrote. I have no desire to prevent soldiers from doing their duty. But my duty is another.

The first casualty of war is the truth. Does a Japanese drama become worse because the Japanese fleet has bombed Tsingtao? Has a bad German book become superior to an English book because those countries are at war? Does the outbreak of war make French culture worthless?

That is what they want us to think. We must refuse to participate in this deceit.

It is understandable that politicians and soldiers are blinded by hatred of the enemy. But when intellectuals are also seized by warmongering and write battle poems, boycott "enemy" art and defame whole peoples – who will then defend the truth?

Goethe did not write war poems in 1813. He retained his own inner freedom and followed his intellectual conscience. Anyone who has once believed in the idea of humanity, in the universitality of science, in art with no national boundaries, must not betray his conviction now that it is being put to the test. If intellectuals betray spiritual values, war will destroy the foundations of Europe. Some must continue peace even if the whole world is at war. Some must attempt to preserve as much peace as possible – that is the task the future proposes today.

That is what Hesse wrote. This article became the decisive demarcation line in his life. It condemned him to exile and made him into a great writer.

It is almost moving to see how unsuspectingly he steps straight out into the abyss. The article is polemical but at the same time trusting. It appeals to a solid bourgeois fellowship of values. It breathes a strange assurance, which shows that Hesse had not understood the forces he is challenging. He expects to be heard and respected. Only a month previously, any such declaration of neutrality of the spirit would have seemed obvious, even idyllically pointless. But German nationalism now fell upon him like a wild beast.

All he was trying to do was to apply the old gardener's way of life to an actual political situation. One single step outside the garden – and his entire supersphere burst like a bubble.


The dream of stepping into art is still there. But what had been a means of attaining becomes a means of escaping. The old man's smiling road to fulfilment becomes a desperate last way out of the prison of reality, away from the razor of the suicidal. The garden motif shrinks into an azalea on the stairs up to Steppenwolf's rented room – it no longer represents a possible way of life. The disappearance is no longer the crown of an active life in bourgeois solidarity. Steppenwolf has seen through it. Behind its beauty and harmony, he sees anti-semitism, anti-communism, jingoism seeds of a new and much more terrible disaster.

When that disaster became reality in the 1930s, Hesse reacted in fundamentally the same way as he had in 1914. He wrote The Glass Bead Game. The introduction, describing how intellectuals unite and create their own world beyond blood-stained history, was published in 1934, shortly after Hitler took over power. In it, Hesse presents in fictional form the same exhortation he had addressed at the outbreak of the first world war to the intellectuals of Germany. Hold out! Your resistance groups are small, isolated, impotent I know that. But you must not give up! You are the ones to preserve for the future a sense of truth and conscience.

And when even this appeal turned out to be naive, in about 1938 he began writing the central part of the novel. The biography of Joseph Knecht, one of the clearest and strongest fictional dreams of wish fulfilment ever written, was created during Europe's darkest years. It consummates the theme interrupted by the first world war and gives final shape to Hesse's vision of man's ability to step into art.


Clearest of all is the connection between House of Dreams and The Glass Bead Game in one of the novel's minor characters.

I am thinking of the peculiar episode of "The Elder Brother". He is one of the learned and original loners not usually missing from Chinese institutions at European universities.

He once studied at St Urbans and there outdid the best teachers of calligraphy and interpretation of the ancient texts. He aroused attention for his keenness to appear Chinese, even outwardly. He insisted, among other things, in addressing all his superiors as "My Elder brother", an expression that stuck to him as a nickname.

He devoted himself most of all to the oracle game of I Ching, which he carried out in a masterly way with the traditional yarrow sticks. Twenty-five years ago, he went south and planted a bamboo grove which protects a carefully tended Chinese garden from the north wind. There he has created a strictly ancient-Chinese idyll and lives at peace with himself and the world, occupied with meditation and copying of ancient script rolls.

So that is where Joseph Knecht goes. He arrives at the Bamboo Grove late one afternoon and steps into a rare garden, water running in wooden pipes from the well to a stone-walled pool, where a couple of goldfish are swimming in the clear still water. A thin bespectacled man in a greyish yellow linen suit is squatting down by a flower bed. He gets up and slowly approaches, not in a unfriendly fashion, but with the awkward shyness of a withdrawn loner. He looks at Knecht, waiting for him to say something. Not without embarrassement, Knecht speaks the Chinese words of greeting he has thought out:

"The young disciple takes the liberty of paying his respects to Elder brother."

Knecht is permitted to stay at the Bamboo Grove. He helps collect firewood and tend the garden, he learns to rinse brushes and grind Indian ink, to keep an eye on the weather and handle the Chinese calender. Most of all, he studies I Ching, the Book of Changes, and learns the oracle game with yarrow sticks. But whenever he tries to bring other matters into the conversation, he meets nothing but deaf ears and some Chinese proverb:

"Dense clouds, no rain".


This was the bamboo grove I wished to visit. Chinese was studied in Stockholm as a dead language. It was stepping into a world of ancient words of wisdom on rice-paper. They laughed at me and left me to it. I took the train and got off in Peking, prepared to swim like a goldfish in the world of paintings and proverbs I loved.

On the very first Sunday I was already at the palace museum.

There was a flower there from Ming. Pale, light, fragile - but hovering.

And the pictures of bamboo, where the passing instant enters infinity – a stylised pattern remerging again and again with the freshly experienced vivdness of the moment.

But most of all the pictures from Sung. Those landscapes vanishing into a silken dusk, almost absorbed into the fabric, sunk into their own background, as light as if painted with mist. I remember a few peacefully grazing horses, individual and yet together, calm creatures in gentle movement. You see only one of them from the front, his head raised. His mane and tail are white. They are white in an intensive, watchful way. He has heard something, far away, he is listening – and what he is listening to becomes a sound that suddenly penetrates the whole picture.

When we came out of the gates, the cry had ceased. The shafts pointed upwards, empty, the reins thrown down on the road, mare and foal in the ditch, between them membranes and blood. The foal was still trembling, white vapour enveloping them in the clear cold January day.


With fifty sticks, roughly the contents of an ordinary matchbox, the following experiment can be made.

One stick is put aside. The others are divided at random into two bundles. From the right-hand bundle, a stick is taken and clamped between the little finger and the third finger of the right hand.

Then take the left-hand bundle in the left hand, while with the right hand pick the sticks four at a time until four or fewer remain. These are put between the middle finger and forefinger of the left hand.

The right-hand bundle is counted in the same way and the remainder put between the middle finger and forefinger of the left hand.

Then there are either nine or five sticks altogether in the left hand. These are put aside and the same procedure is carried out with the remainder.

This time there are either eight or four. The combined number of three calculations decides the first of the six lines of a hexagram, which after eighteen calculations can be turned up in I Ching.

This is the stick oracle which The Elder Brother lays in front of Joseph Knecht in the Bamboo Grove. The result of the calculation becomes a hexagram called mκng and the judgement is as follows:


Youthful folly wins success

I do not seek the young fool.

The young fool seeks me.

At the first oracle I provide enlightenment.

If he asks again there is trouble.

If he makes trouble I provide no enlightenment.

Perseverance conveys.


Knecht has gone to the Bamboo Grove to study I Ching. The name means "The Book of Changes". In its present state, it is an immensely complicated collection of texts on various levels. But the core is the sixty-four hexagrams, each one of which represents an abstract concept. The concepts are arranged in a meaningful way, "not without a certain inner consistency and artistic force", to quote Joseph Needham's understatement in Science and Civilisation in China. The principle of the dialectical movement, intensification through transition between opposites, is a feature throughout – just as in The Glass Bead Game. The sequence of concepts is intensified in a spiral towards "truth" and "fulfilment", but ends, like the novel, in "chaos, possibility of perfection".

The glass bead game arose from a game with multi-coloured beads on juvenile abacuses. Even I Ching had a modest origin. In the days of Confucius, it seems to have been a kind of peasant almanac, a collection of popular folk wisdom that came to merge with one of the many books of fortunetelling of the day and were expanded to a comprehensive method of predicting the future. But with the interpretations and commentaries over the centuries, the prophesy element has been pushed further and further into the background and the material has been given poetic form and ethical content.

Most of all, I Ching became a repository for Chinese scientific finds. Needham relates this to the bureaucratic Chinese social order (which also prevails in The Glass Bead Game) and calls it an "administrative" approach to nature. Just as a certain type of task is to be referred to a certain official, so did the Chinese scientists refer their discoveries to one of the hexagrams in the I Ching.

This method of organising knowledge did not lead to a technical conguest of reality, as our research into natural laws did. But I Ching's view of the world is superior as an artistic fabric of relations between minute events in everyday life, distant astronomical and physical facts and high ethical principles.

On one important point, I Ching has influenced western thinking. Leibnitz, one of the glass bead game's predecessors, got to know about the book through Jesuit missionaries. It inspired his inventions of binary arithmetic, perhaps also his theory of the predetermined harmony of the world.

Modern research into I Ching as meta-science has as yet scarcely begun. But it is certain that the book offered a system of symbols which came to include all Chinese knowledge of nature and an important part of their proverbs and poetry. It constitutes an attempt to refer all spiritual activity to a few inter-correlated fundamental concepts. It is a glass bead game.

Which can be played with the contents of an ordinary matchbox. The matchstick calculations are not only a harmless fool's stereotypes. They are a meditative technique to bring to mind and incorporate a whole view of the world. What separates the oracle book from our fortune-telling is its artistic form and intellectual superstructure. What separates it from our poetry and knowledge is that it is intimately connected with a plan of spiritual exercises. In this combination of poetry and practice lies its unique value as a symbol in The Glass Bead Game.


I Ching commentaries in Peking central library.

One the way home. A flock of birds rises from the roof of the palace. The surface of the water in the moat is touched with cold and becomes ice, disappearing into the mist far away in the south. Light sky, dark earth. All round me, crowds of workers cycle past – the street slopes, the hubs humming as they freewheel.

This is what surrounds I Ching. Humming hubs and flocks of thousands of birds rising and heading north. The library catalogues and rows of scholars below dim lamps. I exchange a word with a mechanic. He leaves me immediately. Although we are going the same way, he is now walking over there on the other side of the street.

Cold. Brisk walk. The pale blue trolley-buses, fully laden and almost motionless, pass the stillness of the moat. The pedestrians preserve their breath behind face masks. Darkness falls swiftly and the mass of birds vanishes northwards across the white sky.


A drop of water falls into the hollow of the ink-stone. The ink-cake looks like a domino. I move the ink-cake" clockwise against the stone with swift smooth circular movements and catch the scent of pine. Once the ink is thick enough, I dip the wolf-hair brush into the ink and write.

Write with a far too flowing brush – the paper absorbs immediately and a blurred uneasy line arises. With too slack a brush, the line bellies. With too weak a brush, the lines become crabbed or ragged. With uneven pressure, the characters acquire "grandmother's feet".

My teacher – in the early 19 60s, during the great crisis, you could find a teacher of calligraphy by reading the notices on the Peking telegraph poles – so, my teacher writes before me. The simple parts of the character: the dot, the horizontal line, the left swing, the perpendicular line, the vertical hook, the right swing and right hook. He writes the character for "eternity" and a few more basic characters.

His movements are calm, disciplined, free.

Each stroke is irretrievable. Alteration is mortal sin and a child can spot it. So in calligraphy it is often a matter of waiting, but never hesitating.

I rush on – fumbling for the swiftness and sure touch that seems so temptingly close. Laboriously and clumsily, I struggle on over the paper, fall down, thud, blot. Years of work lie ahead of me. I want to be bold, individual, myself. But here, I realise at once, there is no possibility of any self not based on complete control of the basic stroke.

Calligraphy is not an art for the rebel. It is based on disciplined spontaneity, inconceivable without rules and doctrine. The doctrine is the sum of tradition: a way of performing. Mastery consists of achieving freedom in relation to tradition. And freedom consists of a kind of assimilation of the rules agreed on, that no decision from above is necessary. Judgement can be left to the hand.

The fact that the script – the actual tool – makes such demands must have influenced the writers. No intentions force the soft brush. All effort works against its aim. To be unerring in the handling of a tool of this kind requires practice which schools the whole person.

At seventy years of age, it is said that Confucius was able to follow his heart's desire without relinquishing what was right. Not exactly a piece of information I set much value on. He probably had little desire left to relinquish. But it must be understood that Confucius also wrote characters. In the end, he was able to practise the entire exhilerating freedom which tradition offers the master. As he moved the brush, he could follow every caprice without the line ever becoming coarse. Nor did it become vague.

Our script has no such opportunities. (Have our lives?) Perhaps that is why we have had to create so much literature, and a literature in which the paradoxical pride in every work is to be unlike all others?


I think that for long periods, the Chinese chose calligraphy before poetry because it gave them greater enjoyment to make use of a poem rather than to write a new one. On any material, it was possible for calligraphy to provide a creative experience.

Our lettering lacks any Utopian range. But wherever you may fall over, there is also a potential balance. Chinese script spans the entire register, its wealth of forms allowing for sensitivity, strength and that combination of both which is called maturity.

Will any of the lifestyles of our day provide space for maturity of that kind?


The question can only be settled by practice. The Chinese know by tradition how this is done. Everyone cannot be allowed to do it in his own way. If the order of strokes is not right and the movement of the brush not correct, the character is never good. One fault in the basic line is enough to thwart the entire result. There is no way out of a faulty starting point.

The brush has to be held perpendicularly. The teacher must not have forbearance – that would be criminal. The pupil will thank him for his strictness when method has become second nature but will never forgive a tolerance that allowed his individual deviation to pass. For precisely that deviation will in future lie like a stone on his wing, making perfection impossible.

To be allowed to make mistakes is not freedom. Only perfection provides freedom.

The teacher's upright brush dances over a old page of The People's Daily.

("So a newspaper can be used in two ways?"

"Yes. One can write characters on it. And one can give it to the waste-paper collection.)

Unhesitatingly, knowing without choosing, in secure, impersonal and yet utterly revealing movements. No one else could have written it. His handwriting is his own just as his face is. He can disguise it but not change it. His handwriting is the accumulated result in which years of practice, events and thoughts have been immeasurably recorded.

Call it compliant firmness. Call it rhythmic force. The brush moves. It apparently always starts in the wrong direction but bends nimbly and takes the ink on in the direction of the stroke. These are still only the first exercises, those which have to be repeated every day. They still have little to do with the organisation of the characters, nothing yet said about the degree of blackness, about the unity, the rapid simplifications and unexpected connections between strokes. This is just the obvious foundation with neither too much nor too little. But that is also the crown of the art.

You cannot even write badly without knowing what comes first.

But this is also the very last thing you learn to perfect.

For perfection does not consist of a few drills and additions. Like the baroque music of lutes, everything amounts to the right touch, and progress consists of an increasingly profound understanding of the significance of that touch. It is usually called the alpha and omega of an art: a spiral-shaped movement in which again and again you have to return to the starting point, but then on another level and it is the transformation of this starting point which makes perfection.-

This demands total concentration which has to be quite without tension. (Why does one already recognise a Schoolof-Motoring car before one even sees the notice?) Will-less, without tensing a single muscle, you concentrate all your attention on to this basic point and then deliver everything over to your hand.

You no longer support the arrow once it has left the bow, runs an old saying.

So write nothing on the first day. Just look at the character and let it sink into your consciousness. Don't write the next day, either. Just wait and let your desire work until the knowledge has penetrated throughout your entire body.

Wait until your hand knows it.

And nothing else.

Wait until your hand is empty and everything else has fallen out of it.

But when your entire consciousness embraces the character and nothing else – then grind the ink, pick up the brush and give your hand the freedom of your heart. And with one strong blow as if from the tail of a fish, your "self" has vanished.

It is in your hand everything has to be. At every moment, it chooses between a thousand possibilities. It is too late to issue orders. It is not the time to explain. Whatever does not exist stored as experience in your hand is useless. What at that moment does not go up into the movement is irrelevant. Your will can only block. It is useless to draw in air and pump yourself up. It can happen only by itself. We want to draw inside what is beyond our control and thus force it. But what is best will never allow itself to be forced. That can only be achieved in the way the calligrapher achieves it.


From Lung Ting, we could see in the distance through the sandfog one of those high camel-like bridges for which the Chinese are quite rightly famous.

In the construction of a bridge of that kind, two possible disasters must be taken into consideration. The the mass of stones in the bridge tautens like a bow. It can happen that the ends of the bow slide outwards so that the bridge collapses. The Chinese insure against this with strong vertical abutments.

The second possible disaster particular to these bridges is that all the tensions in the bridge are transmitted to its weakest place – the crown of the span. It has to resist enormous pressure from below – as good as the entire accumulated pressure of the forces lifting the span. So the danger is that the weight of the stones presses the highest point upwards so that the bow snaps.

Only the Chinese have created a bridge that risks collapsing upwards.

Thus ends the first part of Sven Lindqvist: The Myth of Wu Tao-tzu.