THE THREE SOURCES OF MY CALLIGRAPHY
Having been raised in a herder's family on the broad steppe of Mongolia, my viewpoint and way of thinking are inextricably linked with the traditional nomadic customs, lifestyle and culture. My childhood coincided with a particularly important time in Mongolian nomadic culture. Because of my roots, nomadic and sedentary people, their festivals and customs, their epic stories and the horsehead fiddle were all around me. I entered school in 1960. That year, the collectivisation of the traditional Mongolian nomadic herding lifestyle was beginning to win out, and little by little the traditional way of life was changing. At school they taught cyrillic script, we learnt to copy it from Russian, and we travelled to our classes on horseback. When I went to school, I had considerable practical experience of the nomadic lifestyle, I knew how to herd livestock, I knew about nomadic and sedentary society, I knew how to forecast the weather by looking at the sky. I could distinguish at least three hundred different colors of horses. But when I went to school, I was a little amazed when they started to teach five basic colors, such as red and geen and white, and numbers in groups of ten.
So I began to assimilate nomadic culture, as well as the Russian books about contemporary culture. When I was five, my father taught me the alphabet for the old Mongol script, drawing the letters in the snow with feathergrass. But it was understood that, because this script and all the social and religious customs were old, they were slowly being phased out, and later they were forgotten.
I started writing poems at thirteen. When I reached eighteen, many of my poems were dealing with the old traditions, with the landscape and nature, with traditional customs, with folksong and with the horsehead fiddle, and it seemed that i was developing an appetite for cultural heritage.
From my student days, I had more and more desire to know about our culture, I collected old books, I sat in the National Library and began to read through the ancient volumes. That was just the time when Marxism and Leninism, and Lenin's philosophy and that of the Soviet Union were being worshipped. So I had to draw a line between two things. I strove in my work to balance between knowing about traditional culture and the old ways and the modern education of the time.
At that time, in particular, the force of the traditional mindset and the style of the ancient Mongolian words and language appeared in my poetry, and certain literary critics dubbed me a "fan of the old ways." But I wasn't going to change direction.
From 1978, I worked for the national radio station, on programs such as "Ancient Mongolian Literature," "Culture Radio," "Oriental Literature," and "Ocean of Wisdom," which was about oral poetry. This gave me a platform to express my personal viewpoint. From the mid-1980s, the state newspapers published the ancient literature in the modern script, and they also published and explained the ancient literature as a means of reawakening interest in the traditional culture. Moreover, from the end of that decade, this reawakening began to be everywhere, together with talk of glasnost. Henceforth, the winds of democratic reform moved a few of our writers and scholars to develop the idea of reviving the traditional script which had been eradicated by Stalin's efforts in the 1940s.
In 1990, I was appointed as a director of the Mongolian cultural fund, and for the next six years developed a national movement to revive Buddhism, which had been so badly affected by the persecution of the 1930s, through the establishment at Gandan monastery in Ulaanbaatar of a 26.5m statue of Migjid Chenrezi. This idea of reviving the traditional culture, which was the pride of the Mongolian people, can be seen as having set the people's understanding ablaze.
In 1993, together with Professor D.Tserensodnom, I published a hitherto unpublished book, "Lexicon of the Mongol Language," by the linguist B.Shagj, who had been executed in 1937. We had already established the Traditional Script Center in the white horse year of 1990, and at the first conference on Mongol script, held in the first month of spring 1993, we lobbied the government concerning the teaching of the traditional script. Between 1994 and 2000, I continued to present the ideas of scholars regarding the possibility of reverting to the old script, including the implementation of a bill proposed by the lower house of parliament in 1992, and this I regard as an especially important part of my life. Unfortunately, and this is a great disappointment for me, in 1994 there was no force behind a law to reintroduce the script from 2000, and snce then, the determined revival of Mongolian tradition and traditional script culture has become somewhat lackluster.
And since 2000, I have been promoting the revival of Mongolian script and calligraphy. In 2006, when I organised the World Congress of Poets in Mongolia, we staged a large exhibition, "Mongolian Poetry and Calligraphy," and I feel that the calligraphic arts are now beginning to flourish again. Every years since, we have organised an exhibition of calligraphy and more and more young artists have come to be involved.
Looking back on my life in poetry and literary culture, the history of my work appears to have been a flight within, for indigenous Mongol knowledge, for its traditions, its nature and its culture. These four ancient matters are forever calling to me, forever disturbing me, they constitute the ancient writings, collected in the landscape and the language of my birthplace, the melodies of the horsehead fiddle, and traditional understanding. In the first few years, balancing Mongol script and traditional culture, I sought the possibility of expressing my own inner world, my own thoughts, through the combination of ink and brush, and so I began to make my first calligraphies on paper with ink and a brush. At first these calligraphies were modest, simple works, my own nature poems written in Mongol script. Later, I tried to show the melody of my poems through the movement of the brush. This period was important for me as the coming together of poetry and calligraphy. I found them to be inextricably linked as one thing, as I wrote in my notebook at the time. So as to understand the genius in the work of the Japanese poet Bashō, who developed the haiku form, it is not sufficient to read them in contemporary language, rather we must feel the rhyhm of the brush's movement, the very lines drawn in his manuscript. In this way we can penetrate his poetic depth.
I have become accustomed to writing the majority of my poems in Cyrillic. Turning back to my manuscripts, I have found the spirit of these poems to be somehow compromised. So I have found a new style of calligraphy, uniting handwriting and formal brushwork. Such has been my calligraphic technique for the past three or four years. In 2009, the Mongolian president Ts.Elbegdorj came to open an exhibition of my calligraphy titled "Crystal Temple of Meaning." The following year, I held a large exhibition, "Mother Earth," in collaboration with the master calligrapher D.Battömör. The calligraphy we presented was very special to us. Battömör first read two of my books - All Shining Moments and A Patch of White Mist - and then, with his own innate spirit, he created about sixty exceptional works. I looked at his work, and determined which best expressed in calligraphic form my own verse, and these poems I wrote in manuscript, feeling them as I wrote. Afterwards, Battömör and I stamped our seals on our own calligraphies. In this way, these calligraphies were created through the spirits of two people on a single level. While some of my poems have been written in Mongol script, the majority are initially written in Cyrillic, and this is more convenient to me. But the line and movement of my brush, the annotations and the image of my seal are able far clearer to express the form of traditional Mongolian script. The line and form of the script is a good way to show its dignity and composure. And more recently, I have been developing my own contemporary form of calligraphy, combining script with ink painting.
I choose to write my calligraphies either in the clear sunlight of morning, or else in the brightness of rain showers. The water I mix with my ink is the clear, living water taken from mountain springs. In my meditation, I charge the ink with the morning suh falling upon the snow, with the rain droplets, with the clarity of the air and with the perfume of the vegetation. These images percolate in my mind, and I conceive the brightest thoughts and the verses of my poetry, and I create calligraphy thinking that my own body is one with the snow and the ink and the brush. Calligraphy, then, is the art of a single moment, it is impossible to alter it or improve upon it.
In this way, because I work through meditation and mental preparation and strength of mind, it can be seen that the waves which eminate from such powerful work have a magical quality. When I write some of my calligraphies, the water which is mixed with the ink has absorbed particles of earth and vegetation. In order to explain this, I want to share here a poem which I wrote for Battömör on 4 August 2011, called
"Tea Made With the First Milk."
The dawn’s rays make the spring water ever clearer,
and the scent of junper makes the sky ever more pristine.
The mountain spring, blessed by eternal heaven, gurgles and gurgles,
ever more like crystal as it washes round in the silver pot.
The dew of a thousand flowers comes together in mists and clouds,
and clouds glistening white glide across the mountain pastures,
small birds sing out their joy in the morning’s calm,
and the cuckoo calls. Their voices dissolve into the pure waters in the pot.
The mountain tracks twist and turn. The mists thin out.
The rapids gurgle and gurgle, rush beneath the mosses.
The new morning sun, and wind and pollen fill the ger.
There is paper on the table, awaiting something.
Drops of water, like tears, form droplets on the brush’s tip,
and ink, scented with herbs, shifts like clouds.
The wheel of time rests with the sky upon the paper,
the steam from the tea merges with the mountain mists, and moves on.
Desire passes into melody, follows the line of the brush,
abandons human form and bears the mind forward.
Melody loops from the world on the tip of the brush,
youth’s scribbling is abandoned, and a poem is milked.
The tea made with the first milk, produced with water and fire, bubbles away,
and amid these qualities forms a sphere of meaning.
On an expanse of white, the script shows up like cart-tracks,
and history waits with time, for the era of Shambala.
I once determined to learn how to write poetry on a computer. I did it. It was amazing how easy and peaceful it was to erase what I had written, to begin again, to change words and to rearrange them, and to adjust the rhythm of a poem. When I had finished my poem, I printed it out. I read it. The spirit with which I had been born was missing, there was no mental engagement in it. Before, when I had looked at my manuscript, I had been close to, it had been something like love. I had rushed it, my mind was unstable, full of expectation, jittery, I had pushed away what there had been before, then when I had changed the words, the punctuation, the trembling lines...the passing of my entire life had been clearly visible, like a pathway. I understood that my manuscript was the soul of my poem, the source of its spiritual power. A writer's manuscript is the calligraphy which shows the unrepeatable beating of their heart, the pathway through their warm life.
Mongolian as it is spoken today is not represented in calligraphy. Although there is something called language art, that's not exactly what we mean. One talented scholar named T.Jamiyangsüren, who is a gifted calligrapher as well as a historian of the calligraphic arts, said in a lecture that calligraphy cannot exactly express what is being said in the Mongolian language, and that we should really use the term "poetry." We should take note that calligraphy and poetry in fact stand extremely close together.
Documentary evidence of Mongolians using script in seals stamped on paper has been preserved from the thirteenth century. For instance, there is a letter written to the King of France in the Mongolian script, bearing the seal of Güyük Haan, and while the seal itself has not yet been discovered, its imprint remains. Historians have claimed that this imprint is the imprint of Chinggis Haan's seal, carried down to Güyük Haan. Seals have indeed been discovered from this era. In a grave at Tavan Tolgoi in Ongon sum in my own aimag of Sühbaatar, the archeologist Ts.Törbat discovered a book seal made from bone, bearing letters in the "square" script, which had bee used by a scribe in the thirteenth century, and this is evidence that Mongolians were using their own seals from an early point in history. There are also indications that seals were used during the time of the Hünnü.
Concerning the art of seals among the Mongolian aristocracy, images of such seals, said to be from between 3000 to 10,000 years old, are still to be seen on rocks throughout Mongolia. Tribes came together in antiquity, they performed rites of offering, they dealt with wild animals and domesticated their livestock, and as well as these events being preserved on rocks, there are also images preserved of seals bearing Mongolian script. These are tribal symbols and totems. It may be that tribes and clans split up and came together in other groups, and these totems were the horse seals which have been preserved until the present day. And as much as clothes and protector charms were preserved among a family's religious objects, there is evidence too of the origin of written script. Images of these ancient nomadic totemic figures remain carved into rocks, and from these the script gradually developed to our day.
As the Mongolian script culture flourished and grew, and I came back to consider how to keep my roots safe, I created my own book seal. Not only would my seal have the traditional script, but it would also bring together the history of human understanding, joining them together as in a tribal totem, or a spiritual image, as a sign of the world's good fortune. Mongolians have a custom of branding their horses, and the custom of branding books was a symbolic expression of my own heart and mind. The custom of branding horses remains an aspect of nomadic life, but the branding of books was largely forgotten during the twentieth century. During the violence of the 1930s, there was a deep connection between the ruination of culture and the abandonment of the Mongolian script, and the crushing of the people's pride. But a few scholars of the Mongol script, such as B.Rinchen and Ts.Damdinsüren, together with writers such as B.Yavuuhulan and S.Erdene, had their own book seals, which they used on their letters and in their own books, and these now act as witnesses for a culture which has yet to become extinct. During the 1970s and 1980s, young people like myself who were excited by poetry copied these scholars and made what we called "exclusive" personal seals, and woth these we would stamp our books, you might say that this was an indication of the unbroken culture in which we were so interested.
Nowadays, the culture of seals has been revived, and this is connected with the idea of the reawakening of traditional Mongolian script.
At the end of the eighties, I had a queer little seal cut by a young artist named Arslanbaatar. On it I had him carve my name with a spiral pattern, the symbol of good fortune, and I used it to stamp my books. At that time, scholars had not come up with a way to write my name, "Ooyo," but one day three scholars - Choi.Luvsanjav, Dashdenden and Ts.Damdinsüren - finally proposed a version on which we all agreed.
I changed my seal too, and asked Jalair Batbayar to copy my original design in iron. This was my first seal of this new era. In 1993, I asked G.Chuvaamid to carve a wooden seal for my book Altan Ovoo, for which the design was drawn by D.Chintogtoh.
During the 1980s, I bought from a market an old bone hook, carved with a lion, and some ten years later had an artist named Tsogdor carve into it the word "Mend," and this I have used on many occasions as a book seal. In 2006, when the Chinese translation of my book Timeless Light was published in Taiwan, my dear friend Yu Hsi presented me with a gift, a jade seal bearing a carving of a gazelle, an important Buddhist symbol, and the words "Höhdei Gombojavin Mend-Ooyo." Later, I had these words carved in the Soyombo script into a large and beautiful pink-veined rock from Taiwan, a design prepared for me by T.Jamiyansüren.
I also asked A.Enhdavaa to cast in bronze a design for a bronze lion presented as a gift to me by the Mongolian master calligrapher D.Battömör, who also incorporated into the design an inscription,
A strong life,
Moreover, Jailar Batbayar carved my name "mend," which also means "health," expressing the idea of peace and good wishes, it into a piece of coarse rock from the Gobi, and G.Törtogtoh carved for me a wooden horse, and in this way my books have developed links with the work of these master artists.
In 2009, at my first independent calligraphy exhibition, "Crystal Temple of Meaning," a large wooden carving was created to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of my poem "Mother Earth,"incorporating into the design the traditional image found on the seal of Chinggis Haan. The dimensions of the Chinggisid seal which Güyük Haan had used were somewhat small, however, and inside the square design from the thirteenth century I was able to have the refrain from the song, "Mother Earth, I love you," written in traditional Mongolian script. As the famous American Mongolist Owen Lattimore suggested, it was during the thirteenth century that Mongolians first explored the idea of peaceful cohabitation with western society. This was the idea behind "Mother Earth," brought together in the melody and the inner verbal expression. Gansüh, a pupil of Törtogtoh, carved a globe, in the form of a button on a nobleman's hat, onto the crown of a pyramid, and he also carved on the pyramid's four sides images of the natural world in the Mongolian style. In this way my seal spoke both of history and of philosophy. Seals are vibrant swords in the hand of scribes, and they bring with them time, which has absorbed into the red wax of nature the art of inscribed words and other images, and it is a magic power which conveys this onto paper.
Like a mantra, a seal is a sign, a powerful distillation.
31 September 2012
23 December 2012
translated by Simon Wickhamsmith