Mechanistic writing of Chinese characters

Language Log 2019-09-14

The following mind-boggling demonstration of machine-like writing of Chinese characters was posted on imgur a few days ago:

Flawless writing of Chinese characters

My first reaction was that it would be impossible for a human being to write / print with such precision, especially since the characters are being produced with some sort of pen, whereas their strokes have the appearance of having been written with a brush.  Here are some possible writing instruments for consideration:

yuánzhū bǐ 圓珠筆 ("ballpoint pen")

yuánzǐ bǐ 原子笔 ("atomic pen" — the old name for "ballpoint pen")

gǔnyuánzhū bǐ 辊圆珠笔 ("rollerball pen")

gāngbǐ 钢笔 ("ink pen" — still my favorite writing instrument for composing manuscripts, especially the Rotring Art Pen, but with a regular nib, not one of the calligraphic nibs)

zhānjiān bǐ 毡尖笔 ("felt-tip pen")

geru no pen ゲルのペン ("gel pen" — I think that's what they're called in Japanese; I don't know what they're called in Chinese)

I was also skeptical about the veracity of the presentation as actually being written by a person for the following additional reasons:

1. the somewhat odd way the ink appears on the paper and materializes / dries with little white dots scattered about in the black, but then quickly disappearing — this made me think that perhaps the writing is already chemically impregnated in the paper and that the pen simply applies water or appropriate solution to activate the writing (like secret writing with lemon juice we used to do as kids)

2. the jerky way the fingers reposition the paper for each successive character

3. the strange, rapid, jiggling motion of the pen in preparation for writing the next character, as though it were part of a machine that is aligning itself

4. because of #2 and #3, it makes me think that the video is speeded up a bit

There was quite a scandal earlier this year when it was discovered that some Chinese schoolchildren were using easily purchased robotic writing machines to do their drearily repetitious homework.  See here and here, also this post:  "Robotic copying" (2/22/19).  In that post, I described Thomas Jefferson's ingenious copying machine called a "polygraph" that was produced in Philadelphia in 1806.

Even though I watched the imgur video (?) dozens of times, scrutinizing its every detail until I was mesmerized, I couldn't decide whether it was some sort of magic trick or whether it was the genuine record of flawless Chinese writing by a human being wielding a pen.

So I asked a couple dozen friends, colleagues, and students who are highly proficient in writing Chinese characters what their reaction to the demonstration was.  Here are some of the replies I received:

1. I'd say it exemplifies good handwriting achievable with practice. The structure is flawless. Yet that's just the first step, without which one can't make further progress.

2. I would say this calligraphy lacks spirit and personal characteristics. As for regular script (kaiti 楷体) in Chinese calligraphy, Yan Zhenqing 颜真卿 (709-785) and Liu Gongquan 柳公权 (778-865) are the two most respected calligraphers. The former is famous for being dignified and composed, and the latter is famous for being powerful and vigorous. Here and here are examples of their calligraphy, where you can see that the writing, though correct and proper and without blemish, still is full of character. In contrast, while the "flawless writing" in the video definitely shows vigorous training, it resembles the typeface of a computer.

3. Even if a person writes such flawless characters, he/she will never surpass a printing machine. So why does a person invest time and energy in such a meaningless task, just to show that he/she can write as perfect as a machine?  Or maybe it is the pride of a human that he/she can do something as perfect as a machine. What a paradox!

It is not calligraphy as an art. I don't think a genuine calligraphy teacher would appreciate that.

4. OMG! I can't believe those characters are written by a real human being rather than a machine!

I'd say it's "professional" and "effortful", which I do respect, but I think it somehow lacks the essential quality of calligraphy. Those characters are standard 小楷s just like printed ones. I think they are beautiful indeed, but not artistic.

5. I'm utterly stunned by this video in which there is a strong pursuit for order and beauty, two elements mostly at odds. I quite admire the order exhibited in the video, as it indeed brings a sense of beauty regarding to Chinese characters. I would encourage kids to learn to write in this way before they can develop their own style. Anyways, I was not told to learn to write these beautiful characters in my childhood, as my father thought writing to be useless. He indeed predicted the trend of typing, but I regretted for my not learning calligraphy.

6. I can't believe that this was written by a human being……

7. In my opinion, this kind of writing is very good, since the characters are clean, easy to read, and standard. These could be perfect samples for students to imitate to write with a pen. However, they are not perfect/flawless writing in the sense of Chinese calligraphy. For calligraphers, they lack personal style/spirit and look mechanistic.

8. I won't doubt the authenticity of this video since I used to have a middle school classmate who could do pretty much the same thing as this one. Although everyone (including herself) considered it as anti-human, all the teachers were extremely obsessed with her handwriting. Anyway, I think that makes sense because it is clear and easy to recognize, which provides the viewer convenience, especially in exams, it might even get you higher image points hahaha.

9. This writing is really perfect. And it is not unreal, I think, as I do believe there must be someone who can do it. Perhaps a calligraphy teacher would say this writing lacks "风格" [VHM:  "style"], but if a child writes such beautiful characters, his/her elementary school teacher would definitely praise him/her. (If I were a child, I would hope my handwriting is like this.) Chinese teachers like to say the word "字如其人" [VHM:  "written characters reflect the person"], so students are kind of pushed to practice their handwriting, in order to be like good students. That's why I don't doubt the real existence of this flawless writing.

10. Wow. From my own standpoint, I regard this writing as indeed dexterous, surreal, still-a-bit-away-from-perfection-but-already-super (well, structure-wise, some characters still have room for progress were we talking about "calligraphic standard"; e.g. the亅in 制 and 寸 in 射 should be longer on top (this flaw applies to all his 利刀旁), the 壽 under 籌 is slightly way too much to the left, and the 丿on the top of his 攵 in 政 is way too long, etc.).

To my own knowledge, my calligraphy teacher must highly praise the writer's dexterity. This would surely win the first prize in any calligraphic competition at the time when I was still a child and in adolescence (the 90s and 00s, even early 10s). I don't know about the standard now, but it should be consistent?

At last, should I use one word to describe this writing, I would call it 巧. 匠心 [VHM: "craftsmanship"] is for inventiveness and cannot be applied here. 周禮 says: "天有時,地有氣,材有美,工有巧". In the postface of 文心雕龍, Liu Xie alludes to 王孫巧心, in which Prof. Knechtges translated 巧 as "ingenuity". These two sentences, both containing 巧, are what this video instantly reminds me of.

The following comments are by non-native, but advanced, learners of Chinese:

1. Truly awe-inspiring.

2. I was hounded by Chinese teachers in HS for my handwriting being so bad — they threatened to call my English teachers to see if my English handwriting was as atrocious as well. I always found that to be a bit of a fallacy — writing in Chinese is different than English as you add a height dimension in addition to writing L to R when writing characters. Also, I felt I had more room to take "artistic liberties" with characters as they made the mistake of teaching us about calligraphy (although I am far from a calligrapher). As I am writing this, I'm sure my teacher would equate "artistic liberties" with "laziness."

As for the video, I envy that kind of writing. It looks exactly like KaiTi font. Super impressive.

After reading all of these comments on the writing in the video, and after watching a dozen more times, I still find it uncanny and almost unbelievable.  However, all things considered, I'm willing to concede that a human being could be mechanized in this manner.  One thing that finally convinced me is what the tenth commenter in the first section above pointed out about this robotic writer not being absolutely perfect after all.  Indeed, I myself had even earlier begun to notice inconsistencies, for example, in the length and thickness of some of the inner horizontal strokes within the "boxes" of characters like 悬, 爆, 宣, 垣, 棍, and 射.  So the writer, despite all of his / her anal obsessiveness, is prone to human imperfection in the end.

As a matter of fact, I know two very human individuals who are spectacular calligraphers whose works leave one breathless, without in the least succumbing to mechanistic lifelessness.

One is John Mullan, the work-study student in our department.  From time to time, John leaves incredibly fine Arabic, Persian, and other calligraphy on the whiteboard in our seminar room.  I stare at it with tremendous admiration, wondering how he could possibly create such elegant, graceful forms with those clumsy dry erase markers.  And the next day he'll erase it and make another splendid creation.

The other natural calligrapher is Dan Heitkamp, who has done the artwork (usually woodcuts) for many of my books.  Dan doesn't know Chinese, but he can accurately replicate whole poems and prose paragraphs written in Chinese.  It's surprising that he doesn't make mistakes, even in the tiniest details, but what's most astonishing of all is that his Chinese characters have a distinctive style and flavor all their own:  the mark of a true artist.  Of the countless works of art that Dan has produced throughout his life — all without ever attending a college or academy — each has its own singular quality of being by Dan Heitkamp, done for his own love of imaginative design, made for himself, his family, and his close friends.

A final note.  The imgur video generated a lot of comments.  Nearly all of them are by people who don't have the foggiest clue about how the Chinese writing system works.  I read through them all and found them to be tremendously revealing about the utter incomprehension of people who are outsiders to the script concerning how it works.  Here we have bewilderment in its purest form.  However, as I learn every time I teach "Language, Script, and Society in China", as I am this semester, even more stupefying is the lack of understanding of the nature of the script by the overwhelming majority of those who are insiders and use it for communicating every day.  A mystery of mysteries.

[h.t. Tim Leonard; thanks to Qianshen Bai, Lin Zhang, Xiuyuan Mi, Tong Wang, Yijie Zhang, Qing Liao, Yuqing Yang, Leqi Yu, Rebecca Schleimer, Siyuan Yang, Chenfeng Wang, Nicholas Tursi, and Diana S. Zhang]