How do you tell someone that she is not as talented as she thought?

I was faced with this question few weeks ago when Valerie of No Limit Artistic Design emailed me. She wanted to include some Chinese characters (she called them “symbols”) into a wall mural design she was working on. In her email, she has attached a photo of her previous work of Japanese proverbs.

Crappy Wall Calligraphy done by No Limit Design

Horrified by her attempt at Japanese calligraphy, especially when I have seen Chinese beggars with better penmanship, I politely asked her why not just hire a professional Chinese calligrapher to do the calligraphy part and she can finish the rest.

Valerie was not satisfied with my reply: “I would like to do the work on my own. I am hired to do the painting. It would be my honor.”

I did not know if I should give her the straight answer of “you might be good at painting homes, but you suck at Chinese calligraphy. Since you are so into proverbs, here is one for you: 画蛇添足” or persuade her to something else.

My friend Jon Rahoi offers his opinion on the situation:

“Wow - that is pretty ugly stuff. And what the heck are you supposed to tell her to write? She's better off using a stencil or going to a calligraphy class.

Tell her to use the zodiac symbols. They're standalone and straightforward. Plus it'll look cool to have ‘cock’ on a mural in the bedroom.

But she really needs to use a stencil – even her hiragana weren't good.”

Angela tries to steer Valerie into traditional Chinese decoration practices:

“If what Valerie's client wants is a Chinese-inspired room, I wonder why she wouldn't try to get a Chinese painting or a pair of 對聯.

I think if Valerie would look at how Chinese decorate their houses, they don't write words on the wall. Instead, they would hang 對聯 (or 揮春 during the New Years) on the wall.

And I agree with you; her writing was terrible.”

So far the best diplomatic response for Valerie is from Patrick:

“Dear (Name),

Thank you for your enquiry to

First, we must remind you that our primary purpose is to categorize the misuse of Chinese (and to some extent Japanese) in Western society, which includes the use of characters as artistic supplement simply because they are seen as 'symbols'.

While we understand that you have been asked to produce 'about ten' characters, we must refrain from offering any advice or correction on possible choices as that could be seen as an endorsement on our part.

While we admire your interest and, judging from the attached 'proverbs' picture file, must say that your writing is better than most submissions to this site, our principles prevent us from assisting in spreading the view of Chinese characters as exotic symbols that add an aura of Oriental mystique, when for us, they are a communication tool that more often than not is grossly misused in Western society.

However, you may want to enquire at Good Characters or someone who specializes in work that follows along the lines of your projects. We suggest making local inquiries as well, since depending on the size of your local Chinese population, it may be possible to hire someone with proper brushes and writing skill.

In summary, we cannot promote Chinese characters as art to be viewed and not understood. Should your clients desire a 'Chinese feel' to their homes, landscape paintings in the traditional style may be a better choice. We hope that you understand and wish you good luck in your endeavors.


etc etc.”


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