Chinese Calligraphy in Malaysia

02 July 2018

Nai Chuang Hak has devoted over 50 years in pursuing his passion for calligraphy, a technically demanding practice of handwriting that’s considered to be the highest art form by the Chinese.

Armed with an ink-dipped brush, Nai Chuang Hak applies swift, deliberate strokes onto the mounted sheet of rice paper. What initially resemble indistinct blobs and strokes seem to morph and merge into a pair of lifelike koi fish swimming below a wind-blown willow tree.

Impressively, the whole process – including signing, annotating the artwork with a Chinese couplet, and stamping his seal on the artwork – takes Nai less than five minutes to complete.

If you observe closely, you will notice that a brush painting is actually made up of calligraphic strokes.

Founded during the Qin dynasty (221-207 BC), calligraphy or su fat – the practice of handwriting considered the highest art form by the Chinese – requires years of dedication and practice to perfect. A highly sought after speaker and advocate of the arts in Malaysia, 58-year-old Nai has been a calligraphy practitioner for over 50 years.

Born in a fishing village in Klang, Nai discovered his “stroke sensitivity” (tui sian thiau hen ming kan) at a young age, thanks to his father. Like many Chinese of his generation, Senior Nai liked to mount signages bearing auspicious Chinese letterings in his house every Lunar New Year. Fascinated by the curves and strokes of the Chinese script on the signages, six-year-old Nai began writing out the characters freehand, initially with a pencil.

Teachers at the Chinese-medium school that Nai attended acknowledged the boy’s natural gift, further fuelling his interest to pursue the art. However, calligraphy was not included in the school curriculum, so he learned by studying and copying exemplary works by ancient Chinese scholars.

The ink brush, along with ink, paper, and inkstone are essential implements of Chinese calligraphy.

It was not until Nai furthered his studies at the Kuala Lumpur College of Arts (KLCA) that he met a bona fide calligraphy master. For six years, after college hours, he would take the mini-bus from Chow Kit to his teacher’s house in Bukit Bintang and learn various styles of script writing including li shu (clerical script), sing su (running script), and khai su (regular script). Developed at different points in Chinese history, each style is unique in terms of brushwork, linkage of characters, and difficulty. “I took three years to master li shu, a script developed during the Han dynasty,” he recalls.

The calligraphy training helped him improve his brush painting skills by leaps and bounds. “Calligraphy is the foundation of brush painting,” he explains. “If you observe closely, brush paintings are really made up of calligraphic brushstrokes.” These days, Nai often combines the two artistic forms in his artwork.

The character ‘jing’ (inner peace). Calligraphy artists typically select beautiful poems or words of good tidings for calligraphy.

Upon graduating from KLCA in 1997, Nai set up Pusat Latihan Kaligrafi Indah in Klang, Malaysia’s first ever learning centre dedicated to teaching Chinese calligraphy. He soon opened another two centres to cope with the demand, but then 12 years ago, he decided to semi-retire from teaching full-time to concentrate on developing his own portfolio.

Like the best calligraphy artists, Nai has developed a signature style, which he roughly describes as “using what I draw to represent what I don’t draw.” Pointing to the painting that he has just completed, he explains, “Although I am drawing fish and willow tree, my real subject is not the fish or willow. The real subject is the motion of the water and wind, which are implied by the curved willow branch and body of the fish.”

Nai has a fondness for ample white space, evident from the starkness of his house which doubles as a studio – there’s not a single sofa in sight. “The minimalism of my house reflects my approach to art,” he smiles.

“To live in a home, one needs lots of space or room to breathe. Similarly, I like a lot of space in my artwork. Only then can art breathe.”

Nai’s home studio

In the tradition of classical Chinese artists, Nai’s favourite subject is nature: landscapes, plants and animals. Where his artwork departs from other artists is his penchant for monochromatic colours.

At the peak of his form, a highly skilled calligrapher can use a single brush to achieve the effects that others need several brushes to achieve.

A calligraphy artwork is deemed complete when the artist stamps his seal on it.

To convey nuances, he mainly uses varying tones of dark Chinese ink which he dilutes with water. “There are already so many elements in a painting to appreciate, why distract the experience with colours?”

Through the years, Nai has won multiple competitions and is often invited to exhibit overseas. His works have attained the status of collector’s items, but don’t expect him to rest on his laurels. As a testament to his drive for perfection, he spent the whole of last year studying and drawing only fish so that he can perfect it. Nai estimates that he’s made at least 1,000 fish drawings so far – and thinks nothing of it.

Nai frequently combines calligraphy and brush painting in his artworks.

“The most important principle in Chinese brush painting is to capture its chi [spirit],” he says. “You can only do that by spending enough time with the subject, studying the subject in its natural environment and observing how it relates to its surrounding elements.”

To Nai, this intense, rigorous discipline is part of the beauty of calligraphy. “Devoting my life to the art of calligraphy has rewarded me with much more than beautiful script. Calligraphy has helped me develop patience, attain inner peace and achieve happiness. There is nothing else I’d rather be doing.”

Nai Chuang Hak’s works are for sale at

By Alexandra Wong
Photos and video by Teoh Eng Hooi


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