Senior produces world-class calligraphy — in her spare time

Lu Shan Zhang '14 poses with some of her calligraphy work and the supplies she brings with her to campus from China. Photo by Miguel Salcedo '14.
Lu Shan Zhang '14 poses with some of her calligraphy work and the supplies she brings with her to campus from China. Photo by Miguel Salcedo '14.

Like all college students, Lu Shan Zhang ’14 can get a little stressed.

It’s no wonder. “Lou,” as she is known to friends, is a government and German studies double major. She also works as a Theater Services electrician, she spent two years as the coxswain on the men’s rowing team and she studied abroad in Germany for an entire year. And she does it all thousands of miles from her hometown of Beijing.

When she needs a break from her busy schedule, Zhang pulls out the brushes, ink and rice paper she brings to campus from China and begins the time-intensive task of painting hundreds of tiny characters onto a single sheet of paper.

“If I can’t concentrate, I do calligraphy,” Zhang says. “I see it less as an art and more of a self meditation.” See examples of Zhang's work below.

Zhang is decidedly modest about her work. In the College’s bright student-run coffee shop, she pulls pages and pages of her calligraphy out of her backpack. The neat rows of complex Chinese characters look nothing short of perfect.

That’s because, in most cases, they are.

“Lu Shan is absolutely world class in terms of her calligraphy,” says Sayumi Harb, assistant professor of Japanese. Harb teaches Japanese calligraphy at Connecticut College. Zhang took her class in order to better understand the differences in Japanese and Chinese calligraphy, a tradition shared between the two countries.

Zhang’s specialty is sutra copying, or reproducing Buddhist texts that can be tens of thousands of characters long. She works on a small scale, with tiny characters, so a single mistake will require her to start over completely. She will often do the same piece as many as 10 times to get it right. Last summer, she completed a 5,000-character Buddhist sutra, which now hangs in her father’s office. She used just six pieces of black paper, creating each tiny character – in silver ink – with careful, controlled brushstrokes.

“The amount of skill and concentration that takes cannot be underestimated,” Harb says.

Zhang began developing her skill at just 4 years old. Her parents, who grew up during China’s Cultural Revolution, enrolled her in a special calligraphy school. Because of the policies of the time, they received little formal education and weren’t taught calligraphy, a tradition in which the family has a rich history. They hoped that tradition might be restored with their only daughter.

It almost didn’t happen, Zhang admits. “I didn’t like it at all,” she says. As a child, she found the repetition of calligraphy boring and didn’t appreciate its cultural significance. She stuck with it through elementary school, but gave it up in high school.

Then she enrolled as a journalism major at a college in Beijing. She quickly decided she wasn’t happy with her major choice, but switching majors at the large institution isn’t typical and wasn’t an option. She began to research colleges in the United States that would let her explore her diverse interests. She came across a YouTube video – before YouTube was banned in China – about Connecticut College. She applied, and suddenly, she found herself in New London, Conn. It was far from home, a very different environment and still, a perfect fit. 

“Everybody is doing a little bit of everything here. I like that,” she says.

Connecticut College has opened Zhang’s eyes to new perspectives and nurtured her interests in international issues. One particularly transformative class, Zhang says, was Government Professor MaryAnne Borrelli’s “Women in U.S. Politics” course, which taught her about gender inequalities in the U.S. and throughout the world.

“I didn’t really have this gender awareness before,” she says. “The class inspired me to observe more in China. Maybe one day I can do something to improve this; to have my own movement to improve awareness.”

Borrelli says Zhang’s perspective helped the other students in the class reconsider their own understanding of gender issues. She describes Zhang as an adventurous, gifted learner who isn’t afraid to ask difficult questions.

“She is willing to step way out of her comfort zone,” Borrelli says.

As she learned more and more about other cultures, Zhang gained a new appreciation for the tradition of calligraphy. She began to practice again, and discovered that the repetition she once found boring was now calming. She now takes her craft very seriously, studying different styles, techniques, history and tradition.

“She has a great sense for what is really beautiful about the particular style she is working on,” says Harb, who describes Zhang as both an artist and a scholar. “You have to be a good art historian to pick up on these things.”

As she looks forward to graduation, Zhang says she hopes to work for a think tank or NGO in the U.S., Germany or China, although she hasn’t ruled out a career in calligraphy. Even if she doesn’t pursue it professionally, Zhang says calligraphy will always be part of her life.

“It is a part of me,” she says.

Samples of Zhang's calligraphy

April 17, 2014