Iowa City, IA
Ramon Lim is a Professor Emeritus of Neurology at the University of Iowa. At a younger age, he reveled in abstract painting and was a winner in a national competition held by the Art Association of the Philippines. While doing science mid-career in America, he discovered calligraphy as a means of artistic expression. Currently Vice President of the Calligraphic Society of the Rocky Mountain Area, Lim was a winner in the 8th International Calligraphic Competition held in Shanghai in 2005. Lim teaches calligraphy at the Confucius Institute of the University of Iowa.
Chinese calligraphy is an art form, a visual art form. And more precisely, an abstract visual art form.
Therefore, first, don't ask what it says. Rather, ask yourself, does it create a visual immpact on your inner feeling? If it does, you've got it, and the literary content would be superfluous. If it doesn't, knowing what it says does not really help, as far as art appreciation is concerned.
Picasso once told a visiting Chinese calligrapher: "If I were born Chinese, I too would have been a calligrapher." I cannot vouch for the authenticity of the story, but if he did say that, I can easily understand why. The tension, the movement, the rhythm, the interactive composition, and even the textural variation, are all there. It is a genre of abstract art that's been in practice for almost two thousand years.
Of the several categories of Chinese calligraphy, I prefer the cursive style as it is closest to abstract expressionism. Within a certain convention, it is fluid, spontaneous, and intensely personal. No two pieces, even by the same artist writing the same words, turn out to be identical. It is common place to see two calligraphers conveying totally different emotions with the same subject matter, much as Picasso and Chagall portraying different moods with the human face.
Now, a word about the literary content. Though of secondary importance, one would like to write (or copy) a sentence of lasting value. For this reason, classical poems are the usual subject matter. Although an educated Chinese without artistic inclination may strain to figure out each word and be oblivious to the visual message, a true connoisseur, Chinese or otherwise, transcends the literary value and delves in the visual outcome. In calligraphy the artist starts with words but arrives at forms. As a spectator, you don't have to know the characters to appreciate the work, for the language of art is universal and does not require explanation. After all, you can appreciate La Traviata without really knowing Italian.