On a worldwide level, looking at the coronavirus as a global issue it is interesting to see the degree to which it is able to affect issues on a degree of detail we perhaps never even thought about. There’s the obvious examples of course, us not being able to go to service at Apex Harmony Lodge due to the virus for example but even more so, although we weren’t able to go there for project week, it was quite surprising to hear how Blue Dragon did have to suspend many of their rescue operations until after the virus due to tighter border controls and it being harder to bring over people from China. The interesting consideration here though is what might happen if we AREN’T a rare generation. If there’s a virus outbreak every year like this will the world resume doing what the world does at some point? On one hand of course, we would start having to normalise eventually under such a scenario. But at the same time, if the virus is bad enough to close down schools and so on now, it would still be bad enough to close down schools even if there were 10 more such outbreaks in the next 10 years. Ethically speaking that’s quite interesting because if that were to happen, the fatality rate might stay the same but people’s perceptions might change. There are plenty of conditions after all (natural aging for starters) that most of society has come to accept after all due to how prevalent it is. It isn’t quite considered a global emergency that the biggest killer of humans is natural aging because there’s so much of it and if the outbreaks don’t end and we have corona 2, then corona 3, on to corona x… we will likely see a situation in which even though the facts of the situation might remain roughly similar, the response to it could drastically shift. I doubt that society as a whole is ready to adjust their schedule to such a degree that we would have permanent social distancing and online school. At the same time however, in some higher risk cases: elderly homes for instance, we might see drastic changes. Under such a scenario where there’s always a virus it may very well be that some of our service with the elderly may have to permanently end as we would likely be doing more harm than good. In the more generic sense though, it’s interesting to think that the virus isn’t actually so bad that if the situation were to continue indefinitely we would fundamentally change our way of life. Though that being said, the situation we are in with mandated social distancing and all has given free reign to governments around the world to exercise a degree of power that they might not have been able to get away with otherwise… if the virus doesn’t end, it would be too easy to perpetually excuse an expansion of executive power even in so called western democracies and we would likely all be worse off for it.
This service has been an interesting exercise in making plans I’ve somehow been “elected” (unopposed) as chair of my local service, and it’s been interesting to see how nothing quite seemed to work out the way we intended it to. Some of that is because of the nature of the service of course as we have to accommodate for what the dementia patients we work with want regardless of what activities we had planned. A lot of it though is purely us: the idea was we would take the first few sessions to plan the activities we would do for the next season or so then run them according to plan from then. We actually ended up only getting one planning session (two including the introduction) and people seem to have developed a habit of happening to miss the sessions which they were meant to be running.
The point though isn’t that everything is collapsing. It’s more along the lines that it’s a miracle that we’ve managed to somehow pull off every session without logistical collapse given the somewhat chaotic events behind the scene. It does show the value of planning what you are doing weeks in advance. Because we actually spent that first session making sure all (or most) of our materials were ordered/accounted for, even if somehow the people who were meant to be running the activity on a particular week don’t show up (which I thought was going to be the case last week) we can just go and collect what we need from the service office and have someone else run the activity. Just as importantly perhaps, is that we’ve learned a lesson from last year’s group and actually included two plans/activities for every week so that if, for example, if we were planning on doing origami with the elderly at the lodge, but the person who knows how to do origami “disappears”, as happened last week, we would still have the other activity we were planning, Jenga, to do instead. That’s what’s helped us run our two sessions so far without much issue. Hopefully things stay that way.
As part of CAS, I’ve recently begun a session Friday after school of Chinese calligraphy. One of the more interesting takeaways from my first session was that I think I can finally see why the “proper” versions of Chinese characters on a computer look the way they do with differing thickness across a line, tapered endings of lines etc. despite, of course, it being both insane and somewhat impossible to actually create that shape while writing with a pencil. Part of it is probably aesthetic of course, like how fonts in English typing also tend to be somewhat difficult to imitate on paper, but one thing I’ve realised while using a brush is that with the right technique, it’s actually possible to create those shapes when writing with a brush.
Now, as to the right technique part, it’s interesting how you really don’t know what you don’t know. I wouldn’t ever have thought before starting calligraphy that there was a proper way of drawing a line. It’s sort of that the way you rotate your brush can create, as I was saying earlier, differing line thicknesses, inflections on the end of a line, tapered ends etc. which are part of the “correct” form for a particular line, stroke, dot etc. It’s actually quite hard to do, and writing freehand, I can barely (or rather cannot) make the simplest characters look the way they are supposed to or “balanced” so to speak. Honestly, at the moment, it’s less art and more skills practice, tracing the same characters or strokes in our workbook? over and over again. Which is rather calming in its own way of course.
The next question then, would be why? Why calligraphy? Part of it is of course that I am a Chinese (B SL) student, and I was thinking that if I spend more time writing characters, then I will probably get better at it. A good way of ensuring efficiency of time I suppose. Furthermore, the natural answer to that question of course would be something along the usual, generic line of “aesthetics”. Which is true in a way, but then raises the question of aesthetics for whom? It is undoubtable that compared to the days of Imperial Civil Service examinations. “No one” writes with a brush on a daily basis anymore. Is it solely for the purpose of historical preservation that calligraphy has remained?
There is a certain feeling here akin to what I have already written about martial arts, as if though the modern practice has become divorced from the context in which it was started. I do have a certain attraction towards relics of the past it seems…
For the past few weeks, I’ve been working on basic drawing and sheathing work with a wooden blade and sheathe (compressed bamboo). The basic idea is quite straightforward making it surprising how many ways I can mess up pulling something out of a sheathe. It can be frustrating especially by the [insert variable] time I get the blade stuck while someone swinging at me. The fact that they are swinging slowly only makes it more aggravating. That’s what practice is for though, after a week of practicing at home, I seem to be showing some improvement in that I managed to finish the draw more times than I failed. The other interesting thing I noted is how I only seem to fail at drawing when someone is actively swinging at me. It is a rather simple task after all. It’s only difficult when performing under pressure (even if it’s simulated pressure). Which I suppose is getting in some small way at the point of a martial art. Not to be able to demonstrate a series of moves in sequence, but to be able to do so in less than ideal situations. Of course, a practice drill with blunt wooden weapons is still largely artificial, and if we were to really go there, I do suppose it would be different to perform in a practice environment, even a competitive one, and to be able to do so with a live blade swinging at you. And part of the dissonance that I would think most people in the martial arts feel is just that. You can practice for years on end without ever getting a day’s experience. Is there a solution? Perhaps not. We can simulate a pressurised environment to various degrees and try to refine our ability to perform in those, and as I’ve stated already some cracks already start to show in the most basic of drills where there is an element of competition involved, but can I honestly say that I would be able to react the same way if it were for real?
That being said though, even the artificial drills tend to lend some insight. It would have been a few weeks ago I think where we were doing much the same exercise as described above, just a bit more confrontational (the exercise would proceed until someone had hit their opponent) and with foam wrapped nylon swords to free us up to hit a bit harder. Anyways, what happened was that I accidentally messed up on the initial draw cut and my “sword” (it really isn’t one) went flying out of my hand. That in and of itself is one thing and an issue of its own, but more crucially, I stood there for several distinct seconds until I was hit (I think multiple times) without doing anything. And from a martial arts perspective, I do think that IS an insight. Why didn’t I try to at least grab the “sword” again or at the very least run or dodge or do something other than get hit? As I was saying, that’s kind of where you begin to demonstrate your ability or lack thereof. Something to think about at least…
1) What are you looking forward to?
What I am looking forward to the most this year must be kenjutsu on Saturdays if only because that is the only activity I am not being “forced” to do (of the ones that I am using to fulfil requirements). All the other experiences I’ve kind of decided to do within the last few weeks in order to fulfil requirements whereas this is an activity I’ve been doing for years now already and therefore not something I’ve picked up solely because of CAS. That doesn’t mean I won’t enjoy the other activities of course just that there’s something incredibly artificial about “inventing” something to do when you hadn’t even thought about it before CAS.
That being said, I think there is a certain aspect of CAS giving me the justification to do things that I haven’t done before in the sense that if I have to do it anyways I might as well try out the things I’ve always wanted to do right? So, that’s how I’ve come to pick up Chinese calligraphy. The strand here should be obvious I hope… martial arts, calligraphy. Part of that is of course being a history student I suppose. I wouldn’t say many of us live in the past, nor should we, but we wouldn’t be history students if we didn’t have some sort of interest in things of the past. The other aspect of it is that with these particular activities I feel like I am contributing more to everything else. As far as calligraphy goes for example, I am a Chinese student (SL B). What better to do for my creativity than to well… write Chinese characters. I also have a certain fondness for visual arts (hence why I take DT) and those two things really come together nicely here. I’ve also been a somewhat devoted student of language since IGCSE and I could go on and on and on about the Chinese underpinnings of the Korean language for example. So, calligraphy is art for sure, but academically it feeds into more than just that.
To go even further though, and to bring the kenjutsu into the mix, I am probably the only person in the grade or the school who could write a full essay on Eastern esoteric concepts. Not necessarily an accurate one, but there’s very very much an interest there and that I suppose is where a lot of this does come together. Both calligraphy and martial arts have of course been very very much aspects of the spiritual worldview. Take for example a Korean classic that I’ve read so long ago that I can’t quite remember the name (or if I even finished the book) but which from a quick google search I believe to be the “최고운전”. Its probably a somewhat obscure example but it highlights quite well the Korean (or even Chinese I would think) way of connecting scholarship (which at the end of the day, meant long essays written with a brush) to well supernatural powers. Or take the fact that talismans in Korea are still written in ink (or engraved) once again in Chinese characters. Martial arts is much the same and to say the least I would think myself quite an avid martial artist, with kenjutsu (Japanese swordfighting) being the manifestation of that within the CAS context. The Japanese do seem to have a certain focus on the martial arts as an engine of spiritual development through its connection to buddhist ideas about developing the mind and to local beliefs. The tengu after all do wield swords. Not a topic I am entirely familiar with to be honest. And since we’ve gone there the Chinese esoteric side of the martial arts is absolutely fascinating. Its quite a very very deep rabbit hole to start reading about how very poses in tai chi connect to the conception of human anatomy found in traditional Chinese though （大周天 (the large orbit of chi from feet to hands)，小周天 (smaller orbit of chi restricted to torso and head)、下丹田 (not really one that requires a lot of explanation for those in the field but basically one of three centers in the human body meant to store and circulate chi) and so on). When most people look at the movements in the park, I would not think they even stop to consider which meridians are being stimulated and in what manner for what effect.
2) What do you anticipate will be your greatest challenge?
Project Week obviously. It sounds like a pain to be honest. Just the extreme disruption in schedules, work. It feels ‘unproductive’ I suppose. And also, the possible problems getting along with people… I am not that worried about anything we will be doing in and of itself. Just about the things I won’t be doing because I will be in some place in the middle of nowhere instead of Singapore being usual productive me.
I suppose the above really applies to the rest of CAS as well. All the things I won’t be doing because I will be doing CAS. CAS itself sounds fine. Its just that we only have 24 hours in the day…
Which also means of course that as I’ve said above, I’ve tried to connect what I do in CAS to what I do outside of CAS. Efficiency of time does matter, yes, but also by doing so I think I can enjoy the experiences I have chosen quite a bit more because at the end of the day, it connects to something I enjoy doing anyways.