Sini Calligraphy

As I am interested in the boundaries of language and calligraphy I have been researching examples of “hybrid” script. That is, the combining of different writing systems into new calligraphic forms. One notable example is “Sini script”.

Sini is Arabic for Chinese and the script is written in Arabic, although modern works often contain or use Chinese characters too. It is often used for the placards carrying the tasmia (a prayer), shahada (a creed) or other invocations, which are hung above the main entrances to the prayer halls of mosques in western China. Examples can also be found on ceramics, metal ware, stone carvings and as wooden window screens. Last month I traveled to Taipei to photograph examples on gravestones at the Islamic cemetery (see fig.1). Formally it is characterized by an exaggerated roundness of finals and broad, lithe stokes, which are tapered in ways that recall the “goose tail” endings of Chinese Clerical script. This tapered effect may be the result of the (Chinese) calligraphy brush that is generally used (fig. 2), as opposed to the reed pen (qalam), short bristled brushes and wooden spatulas of traditional Arabic calligraphy.

The layout of Sini script also reflects traditional Chinese practice. Arabic writing is most readily distinguished by the long flowing tails of its letters, usually organized along strong horizontals from right to left. The dot is its basic unit of measurement and letters are proportioned accordingly. Sini script however, is frequently written vertically, like Chinese, and a certain disregard for the conventionally approved relationships between letters is evident. Further, Sini frequently adopts diamond forms to structure Arabic words, presumably influenced by the square, modular arrangement of characters in Chinese texts (fig. 3). Finally, when single Arabic words are written in Sini, letters are often wrapped around an elongated central vertical stroke, reminiscent of the strong verticals and balanced composition of individual characters in Chinese calligraphy (fig. 2).

The calligrapher Haji Noor al-Din is the acknowledged master of contemporary Sini script. He lectures and gives workshops around the world on its practice. Another notable Sini calligrapher is Ma Yi Ping, an Imam at Central Mosque in Xian. He invents stylized words which can be read in both Chinese and Arabic. The text of fig. 4 reads 真主至大 (zhen zhu zhi da, “God is the greatest”), but if the paper is turned 90 degrees counterclockwise, the Arabic phrase بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم (Bism-Allah-Alrahman-Alraheem, “In the name of Allah, the most gracious, the most merciful”) becomes legible.

I have written a short essay on Hybrid Calligraphy for the American publication “Letter Arts Review”, an award-winning quarterly journal of calligraphy and graphic art. It should be out in the autumn / fall of 2016.

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