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Left-handed Chinese Calligraphy

    It is said that writing left-handed was long discouraged in China.

    This was also long true in many other places, including Britain. An unlikely inspiration for left-handed Chinese calligraphers can be found in Kang Sheng (1898 – 1975). He was a feared spy, intelligence chief, and politician for the Chinese Communist Party. But he was also a widely-recognised artist.

    Chinese students have been taught for thousands of years to only write with their right hand, but Kang could wield the calligrapher’s brush with either hand – a talent possessed by only one or two major artists in a century. Using his unique skill as a political metaphor, Kang cut the motto Zuo bi you hao (“Left is better than right”) onto a seal he reserved for examples of his left-handed brushwork.

    The Claws of the Dragon (1992), John Byron and Robert Pack, p. 362

    But how is left-handed Chinese calligraphy carried out? Let’s find out.

    Is Chinese calligraphy More difficult for left-handed people?

    Most Chinese calligraphy should not be any more difficult for left-handed people than it should be for right-handed people.

    This is because a lot of Chinese calligraphy still follows the ancient Chinese format of being written in vertical rows (from the top of the page to the bottom) from right-to-left.

    Like English, modern Chinese writing is written in horizontal rows from left-to-right. With Chinese writing, this might cause students ink to smudge. But this wouldn’t make a difference to Chinese calligraphy, because it uses a calligraphy brush.

    illustration of differences in direction between modern and ancient Chinese writing
    Modern Chinese is written horizontally left to write, like English. Ancient Chinese was (and still is) written in the opposite way.

    Chinese people might tell you to write with your right hand

    If this happens, all you can do is politely tell them you would rather write with your left hand!

    How to hold a Chinese calligraphy brush with your left hand

    left hand holding a Chinese calligraphy brush
    ‘Holding the stirrup’ (the basic way to hold a Chinese calligraphy brush) with left hand

    Holding a Chinese calligraphy brush with your left hand should follow the same principles as doing it right-handed.

    Firstly, correct finger placement on the brush handle is important.

    Touching the strirrup‘ (mō dèng [摸镫]) is the standard way for beginners to do this. It’s named after riders’ feet touching each stirrup when riding a horse – controlling and firm yet also light and flexible.

    To hold the brush in this way, follow the below steps.

    Step 1: Place left thumb on right side of brush handle

    Place the upper phalange (i.e., final section) of your left thumb on the (/your) right side of the brush handle – somewhere between 1/3 – 1/5 of the way up. You thumb should be pointing slightly upwards.

    Step 2: Place top of left index finger on left side of the brush handle

    Your left index finger should be placed above your left thumb on the opposite side of the brush handle. The inside flesh on left index upper phalange (tip) should be in contact with the brush. It should be extended upwards, significantly but not fully.

    Step 3: Hook upper parts of left middle finger around the brush handle

    Your left middle finger hooks or curls around the brush handle help stabilise it. The upper fingernail should point downwards, too.

    Step 4: Place fourth (/ring) finger against the left side of the brush handle

    The finger nail and flesh of your fourth finger (also known as ring finger) should press against the left side of your brush. It stabilises the brush on the opposite side to your middle finger.

    Step 5: Place your little finger behind and against your fourth finger

    Your left little finger (or pinky) should not touch the brush handle. It presses against your nearest finger (the fourth finger) from behind, helping to steady it.

    Conclusion

    Left-handed people practicing Chinese calligraphy have long been encouraged to use their right hand. 

    However, there is no reason why they should have to. There are famous left-handed calligraphers. 

    And Classical Chinese, which is traditionally written vertically and left to write, is often used for calligraphy in China. So, there is little chance of the ink being smudged like when writing in modern Chinese.

    Left-handed calligraphers don’t need special brushes or ink, etc. They simply need to learn how to hold the brush properly and then get practicing!