Dr Farzam Kamalabadi, centre, shows his calligraphy to Chinese Vice-Premier Zhang De Jian. Image Credit: Supplied

“When viewing calligraphy, I have seen the wonder of a drop of dew glistening from a dangling needle, a shower of rock hailing down in a raging thunder, a flock of geese gliding, frantic beasts stampeding in terror, a startled snake slithering away in fright..” and so goes on the metaphors by Sun Guoting, a 7th-century Chinese calligrapher of the early Tang Dynasty.

For an art form that developed more than 3,000 years ago and has neither any alphabets or a phonetic system, Chinese calligraphy remains an exquisitely difficult subject even for the vast majority of native speakers.

But for Dr Farzam Kamalabadi, a Boston-educated Iranian-American settled in Shanghai for the last 20 years, it was too good a challenge to let go.

Regarded as a leading authority on China, Kamalabadi reads and writes Chinese, including writing brush calligraphy and composing papers on ancient Chinese philosophy. A fluent speaker of dialects such as Cantonese and Shanghainese, apart from the regulation Mandarin, he is also the only foreigner known to have mastered ancient Chinese hieroglyphic language and the only non-Chinese to compose classical Chinese poetry.

But his initial enthusiasm for calligraphy did not quite match the feedback he managed to get.

“When I was in Boston in 1981, I went to Chinatown and got a brush and some other tools to start practicing calligraphy,” says Kamalabadi in an interview with Weekend Review. “So I used a Chinese brush, Western ink and newspapers on which I would practice. I wrote a few pieces of calligraphy as a gift to some top Chinese officials, and they all laughed at it — they said even a junior school student in China could produce better work,” he says.

Unperturbed by the criticism, Kamalabadi decided to nurture his love for calligraphy, though, he says, the path was painstaking. China was not as great a presence in either public discourse or imagination as it is now. “Prior to my brush with calligraphy, I was perhaps the only one in Boston in the early 1980s looking on how I could learn Chinese,” he says. “I knocked on 50 people’s doors and asked where in the US I could learn Chinese, but no one could tell me anything. It took me more than nine months to learn the language.”

The learning process was further compounded by the fact that there is no alphabet or phonetic system in Chinese — each written word is represented by its unique symbol and must be learnt and memorised separately through a laborious process. Chinese language experts estimate that to read a newspaper requires a knowledge of around 3,000 characters, while a well-educated person is expected to be familiar with about 5,000 characters. In total, there are about 50,000 Chinese characters, a majority of which are never used.

Elaborating on his description of the various phases of China’s progress through the ages, Kamalabadi says: “At that time, it was not about China’s peaceful rise or China’s threat, but it was about China’s non-existence. When I started my Chinese language class in Harvard, the first day there were 70 students. A week later, there were only 30 and after a month only 10 students were left. There were only 12 non-Chinese in the class: one was an old war veteran who wanted to learn the language for nostalgia; one wanted to do business with Thailand and thought may be he should learn Chinese, and one of them didn’t even know the difference between China, Taiwan and Thailand.”

But for Kamalabadi, calligraphy was more than brushstrokes and characters. “For me, it was not just about the art. I wanted to use a concept — there was a visible Great Wall in the past when the Chinese became introverts and kept foreigners away from mingling with the Chinese. For me, the idea of China’s peaceful rise and its global perception in the 21st century was a new Great Wall that was invisible. Some of the most vivid manifestations of the area where we could pierce through that invisible wall was Chinese calligraphy.”

This was a thought that preoccupied him shortly after the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Kamalabadi, who had settled down in Shanghai by this time, decided to revive something he had given up: “Why is it that in the history of the world, no foreigner wrote Chinese calligraphy? Even Marco Polo or Jesuit priests could not compose Chinese calligraphy. I took this as a challenge. I was convinced that if one person breaks into that, in future many others will.

“I took up the brush again in 2009. This time, the works of calligraphy went on to top art exhibits in China and I became the only foreigner to practice Chinese calligraphy. In 2010, I published my first calligraphy book, with patronage from top Chinese officials. I also mastered Naxi, the Chinese hieroglyphic language used in southwestern provinces, which only a few thousand Chinese know.”

From Boston to the inner circles of China and mastery of calligraphy, it has indeed been a long journey for Kamalabadi.

“I got involved in China and learnt Chinese in Boston in 1981. That was right before the first group of Chinese visiting scholars came to the US, to visit Harvard University and MIT. I was the one who went to the airport in Boston to receive them,” he says. “While learning the language and mingling with the visitors, I also learnt about the culture and mindset and experience of China and its people. I learnt Mandarin and Cantonese, and also taught the Chinese visiting scholars English and got them to teach me Shanghainese. I thus learnt three dialects and I began teaching Cantonese at the Boston Language Institute for my university earnings.”

Following his long-distance involvement with China, Kamalabadi moved to Macau in 1987, staying there for three years. Most of this time was spent bringing more than 100 business and cultural delegations to the mainland, helping strengthen relations between the east and the west. One particular milestone he remains fond of was bringing the chief of American Lakota Sioux tribe to China.

“This was the first time in centuries that a native American tribal leader came to the tribal villages of China,” he says. “And I was also right there at the Tiananmen Square on that fateful day in 1989, with a delegation from Outer Mongolia. On that day, I was the only one who asked my delegation to stay back — because we were friends of China.”

When the moment came for the move into the mainland from Macau, says Kamalabadi, “I gave all my money to a Chinese charity for floods. I told my wife we should move to a new country with no money and build our lives from scratch. We went to a village area of Shanghai, where we put up on the fifth floor of a building with no elevator. The only telephone in the area was in our home, secured with a special permit from the local mayor.”

In 1993, Kamalabadi set up the Future Trends International (Group) Corporation, a US corporation specialising in China and engaged in investment and trade consulting.

“I was well aware of the emergence of China in the global community. The question in my mind was how would 1.5 billion Chinese people interact with 5.5 billion from the rest of humanity? This would shape the course of human destiny for the next many centuries. If the interaction was peaceful and there was mutual trust, it would an era of progress. But if not, then the world would enter a long and slow era of conflict. So in my mind, the reason why I initiated these cultural exchanges and the delegations’ visits was to create global harmony and spirit of positivity.”

Following his arrival in China for permanent residency in 1992, Kamalabadi says he began to work on outbound investments from China through joint ventures.

Predictably, this triggered initial reactions ranging from indignation to bewilderment. “Everyone went crazy because the policy [in China] at that time was inbound investments ... There were investors from Taiwan, from the Far East, from Europe and the US — and here somebody was asking them to do just the opposite.”

But Kamalabadi persisted, and in 1997 he was appointed the representative of Vernon in California to help grow the Asian businesses in the exclusively industrial city. “I was hired from 1997-2002, during which I brought the number of Asian factories from 2 to 275. In Shanghai, the government eventually issued a statement explaining why it was to the advantage of China to do business in the US. Six months later, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce allowed investments under $1 million (Dh3.67 million) not to be signed by the central government.”

The hurdles Kamalabadi faced to convince business leaders from the US and China to engage in mutual trade were similar to the ones when he proposed the cultural concept of “Mankind is One”, he says. “When I brought this concept, many Chinese leaders were against it. ‘What do you mean by Mankind Is One? We are about class struggle, we do not approve of this,’ they said. But I peacefully disagreed, explaining that a new era was coming and China would soon have to open its doors to the outside world. In that world, I asked them, does China need more friends or more enemies?”

With the global perception of China split between a threat and a peaceful partner, Kamalabadi says he spends his time advising Chinese government officials on the merits of more openness in embracing the world.

“But when they were promoting China as the manufacturing capital, I was against it. I underscored the need to become service-centred instead and allow international participation in closed industries ... The Shanghai Free Trade Zone, for example, will spread to 30 cities in two years and after five years to all major cities in China.”

Kamalabadi’s advocacy has not always been limited to Chinese borders.

“In 1997, I sat with the chairman of the Haier Group, Zhang Rui Ming,” he says. “He asked me how I learnt Chinese, and I told him that since I was left handed, I preferred learning in reverse: first the classics [The Book of Tao] and then on to the pop culture. Zhang said he also loved to do things from difficult to easy. I told him, if you love that, then here’s a challenge — go build a factory in the US first, and then you can compete in China. He liked the idea and went to south Carolina to set up a factory in 1997.”

For Kamalabadi, the future of China as a business entity looks extremely promising. “The financial and energy sectors will open to private and international participation — this is a major peaceful fight for openness and liberalism in the economy. Media is also going to be privatised with international companies allowed to invest — this means a lot of new thought will be allowed to flourish in China.”

On his future goals, Kamalabadi says: “I still haven’t mastered the cursive calligraphy style because it’s the most difficult one to learn. That’s one of my goals for the next 10 years’ surprise.” And what keeps him going apart from his business and love for all things Chinese in general and calligraphy in particular?

“During my leisure I read poetry. But at a more realistic level, films and ice-creams are my biggest weaknesses,” he says. “I have never ever refused an invitation for an ice-cream, even if it was in the middle of the night or if I had high fever!”