Wu Cheng-tsai, a former underworld hard man who spent almost 30 years behind bars, has emerged from prison adept at the art of calligraphy. The semi-literate Wu, also known as “Brother Tsai,” received no formal calligraphy training, which made it easier for him to break away from traditional styles. He is the inventor of a style derived from traditional techniques known as “embossed-engraved” calligraphy, and claims to be the only practitioner of it.
Wu, 58, hails from Kaohsiung. He was the leader of a group of young hoodlums who hung around the “Yundong Bridge” (or literally “Reliable Bridge” in Hoklo) in Kaohsiung City’s Cianjhen District, where he earned the moniker “Brother Tsai of Reliable Bridge.” As a reckless youngster, he was first jailed at the age of 17, and it was not until last August that he finally completed his jail terms, serving almost 30 years in total.
While in jail, Wu met an inmate skilled in the art of Chinese calligraphy. Out of boredom, he took up the brush with the inmate and after years of practice, was able to write well in clerical script, regular script, and grass script. He even used his ingenuity to invent his own individual embossed-engraved calligraphy style.
PHOTO: LIBERTY TIMES, WANG JUNG-HSIANG 照片：自由時報記者王榮祥
Wu said he threw himself into embossed-engraved calligraphy from the word go. It took him more than a decade to invent more advanced versions, starting from engraved calligraphy, then going to embossed calligraphy, and then advancing to the fancy embossed-engraved calligraphy. In recent years, Wu has even studied stippling, a technique that uses shading and dots to create the appearance of texture.
After being released from prison last year, Wu happened to meet a policeman surnamed Lin. Lin was amazed by Wu’s unique skills, especially given that his education ended at elementary school and was once an underworld hard man. Lin actively introduced Wu to others and recommended that he participate in exhibitions. Wu’s work has drawn local attention, and even China-based Taiwanese business people are eager to invite him to put on exhibitions.
Ding Wei-an, who has a master’s degree in calligraphy from National Kaohsiung Normal University and teaches at Kaohsiung’s Lide Junior High School, said that no one else in the calligraphy world has learned so much about engraved calligraphy as Wu. Engraved calligraphy wasn’t even considered a separate technique, and while Ding says he had heard of it before and believes that everyone can write it, it is not easy to excel at it.
Wu has been immersed in calligraphy for decades, but he is not just in a class of his own. With every character he writes, he learns more about the meaning of life and attains inner tranquility.
(LIBERTY TIMES, TRANSLATED BY LIN YA-TI)
1. calligraphy n.
書法 (shu1 fa3)
例: The president’s calligraphy demonstration was very well received.
2. moniker n.
綽號 (chuo4 hao4)
例: Arnold has never been happy with the moniker he picked up in high school.
3. inmate n.
監獄犯人 (jian1 yu4 fan4 ren2)
例: Three out of four inmates complained about overcrowding in the prison.
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