Saturday, April 8, 2006


How do you tell someone that she is not as talented as she thought?

I was faced with this question few weeks ago when Valerie of No Limit Artistic Design emailed me. She wanted to include some Chinese characters (she called them “symbols”) into a wall mural design she was working on. In her email, she has attached a photo of her previous work of Japanese proverbs.

Crappy Wall Calligraphy done by No Limit Design

Horrified by her attempt at Japanese calligraphy, especially when I have seen Chinese beggars with better penmanship, I politely asked her why not just hire a professional Chinese calligrapher to do the calligraphy part and she can finish the rest.

Valerie was not satisfied with my reply: “I would like to do the work on my own. I am hired to do the painting. It would be my honor.”

I did not know if I should give her the straight answer of “you might be good at painting homes, but you suck at Chinese calligraphy. Since you are so into proverbs, here is one for you: 画蛇添足” or persuade her to something else.

My friend Jon Rahoi offers his opinion on the situation:

“Wow - that is pretty ugly stuff. And what the heck are you supposed to tell her to write? She's better off using a stencil or going to a calligraphy class.

Tell her to use the zodiac symbols. They're standalone and straightforward. Plus it'll look cool to have ‘cock’ on a mural in the bedroom.

But she really needs to use a stencil – even her hiragana weren't good.”

Angela tries to steer Valerie into traditional Chinese decoration practices:

“If what Valerie's client wants is a Chinese-inspired room, I wonder why she wouldn't try to get a Chinese painting or a pair of 對聯.

I think if Valerie would look at how Chinese decorate their houses, they don't write words on the wall. Instead, they would hang 對聯 (or 揮春 during the New Years) on the wall.

And I agree with you; her writing was terrible.”

So far the best diplomatic response for Valerie is from Patrick:

“Dear (Name),

Thank you for your enquiry to

First, we must remind you that our primary purpose is to categorize the misuse of Chinese (and to some extent Japanese) in Western society, which includes the use of characters as artistic supplement simply because they are seen as 'symbols'.

While we understand that you have been asked to produce 'about ten' characters, we must refrain from offering any advice or correction on possible choices as that could be seen as an endorsement on our part.

While we admire your interest and, judging from the attached 'proverbs' picture file, must say that your writing is better than most submissions to this site, our principles prevent us from assisting in spreading the view of Chinese characters as exotic symbols that add an aura of Oriental mystique, when for us, they are a communication tool that more often than not is grossly misused in Western society.

However, you may want to enquire at Good Characters or someone who specializes in work that follows along the lines of your projects. We suggest making local inquiries as well, since depending on the size of your local Chinese population, it may be possible to hire someone with proper brushes and writing skill.

In summary, we cannot promote Chinese characters as art to be viewed and not understood. Should your clients desire a 'Chinese feel' to their homes, landscape paintings in the traditional style may be a better choice. We hope that you understand and wish you good luck in your endeavors.


etc etc.”


  1. That Japanese is horrid. I feel like crying.

    At the very most, she could've looked up calligraphy off the internet or found a calligraphy book to copy instead of doing it in handwriting. Did she even USE stroke order?

  2. while I agree with you, I do think you could have been a little more diplomatic when emailing her... think of the blow her pride and dignity must have suffered!

  3. I'm going to start a brush calligraphy class tomorrow. Seeing the photo of the Japanese proverbs, I'm getting worried. My Japanese handwriting isn't all that great either (although some would say my English writing is worse).

    Y'know, she's probably going to check the site at some point and see everything you've posted anyway, so you might see a reaction here. That would be...interesting.

  4. I think you're being a little harsh when describing Valerie's calligraphy. It's a lot better than my Nihongo no sensei's board-work. You'll just have to take my word for it, but it would make your toes curl.

    True, she's not trying to sell it as fine art, but she is supposed to be teaching us to communicate in the language....

  5. Bugger her pride and dignity, she needs to have it slapped around a little. She showed no interest in regarding Chinese or Japanese 'symbols' as actual language and appears to only see them as exotic artistic motifs. She most likely knows nothing about stroke order and probably just picked up a book and copied the characters in her own style, making her own artistic interpretations to them, again completely disregarding the fact that these are actual languages, not some cute interior decorator element.

  6. While I don't agree totally with the harshness of some of the other posters, I do agree with the general sentiment- if she's really an artist, then she needs to be able to accept criticism, and either resolve to improve her calligraphy or hire a professional. I'm glad you steered her towards the latter. Having studied Chinese for a couple years and taking calligraphy classes, writing good characters is bloody hard work! It's not something you pick up overnight, or even over a few years, and if she needs to work on a design right NOW, best to copy some of the old masters and stencil it instead. No reason to be snobby!
    - Hali

  7. nelc, there is a difference between writing on a board and calligraphy.

  8. I think you have been kind enough when describing her doodles.

    I am just hoping, whoever gets those "pieces of art" painted in his wall, will NEVER EVER get a Chinese person have a look at them.

  9. Hopefully the "japanese calligraphy" was not done for a child's room, otherwise it will give the child NIGHTMARES!

  10. Goodness. I found a practice book from my first year in Japanese class in highschool. My hiragana looked TERRIBLE! But it still puts this ladys to SHAME!
    Im not trying to be mean, but one thing I love is art. And any artist I know wants their work to looks its BEST. ALWAYS. And people with a flair and true passion are interested in where it came from (the art form) and how to do it authenticly.

  11. Using the characters as an "artwork" without understanding or attempting to do them right is no better than putting Engrish on t-shirts and packaging in an odd attempt at aesthetic appeal.

    If I saw that on a friend's wall, I'd say s/he was gipped and would advise getting it painted over.

  12. In praise of her artisitic ability, I think the proverb wall she did looks pretty passable as the work of a Japanese person, provided it's someone with bad handwriting, and the work is a shopping list written on the back of an envelope. That's pretty impressive for someone with no training or knowledge of the caracters (radicals and stroke order,etc).

    But as we all agree, characters-as-art requires two things: expert calligraphy, and some sort of understanding of the language they represent.

  13. As far as *writing* goes, that's not bad, especially for someone who (apparently) has no experience with the language--my kanji only looks that good half the time. But this isn't writing we're talking about, this is *calligraphy* and that is NOT calligraphy...

  14. I agree with rob. Why would you even feign diplomacy when you're just going to post it all on your blog anyway, which presumably she reads?

    So if you're going to be as harsh as you are in your blog, then you may as well not mince words in your e-mail.

  15. As a "western" person I only find "eastern" abuse of english annoying when it is in my instruction manual. Since she is not writing the emergency exit routines for the house, what is the problem?

    Only if she were using caligraphy for merit awards or the like should one ridicule her attempts at writing the language and calling it caligraphy.

    You should be flattered at the desire to imitate, rather than aghast at the less than stellar attempt.

  16. That is so bad that it's almost interesting. But I don't think that she tried to copy it from a book or legitimate sample of calligraphy, because anyone could do a better job copying and I have to believe that any sample would be better. Which begs the question of exactly where she got it? It almost looks as if she tried to copy the doodles and random scribblings from a Japanese kindergarten.

  17. "Since she is not writing the emergency exit routines for the house, what is the problem?"

    The problem lies in endorsement and distribution. By encouraging someone to do a piece with "calligraphy" that is clearly sub-par (and in fact distorts the characters), more inferior works get distributed, and more and more people start to think they're acceptable or even correct.

    Unless the work is being shown as an example of what not to do, it's not really helping/educating anyone.

  18. I agree with what alot of people have said on both sides, I've been learning Japanese for about a year now and one of my sensei's say my handwriting is neat, however it isn't far from where that ladies is. Granted yes caligraphy is different from just plain writing (with the use of brush etc) but still.

    But also yeah - it's total gibberish with the hiragana. That's just like writing the alphabet all over your walls .... Mmmm ... attractive!?!

  19. If I were being charitable, I might say that some of the characters look alright on their own. But the primary school big thick 目 and the horribly unbalanced 薬...

    It is considerate of her to point out where to get 'eyedrops' (目薬) from, though... :D

  20. I was wondering why I had to learn the snake with feet proverb in my Chinese class...

    now I know why...

    so many practical uses!

  21. The handwriting's not actually that bad. I'd say it's actually better than the kanji that 3rd year students of Japanese attempt. Nevertheless I agree that if you're doing this as a paid service you should get someone who can do real Japanese calligraphy.

  22. Wow, the hubris! There's no shame in being bad at calligraphy if it isn't your specialty, as long as one has the grace to recognize one's limits. She doesn't seem to get it that you can't just pick it up overnight.