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The Comeback of Calligraphy in China

In the digital age, calligraphy has not just maintained its relevancy in China; it has made a comeback. Calligraphy researcher Laura Vermeeren talks about the power of calligraphy and the status quo of this ancient art in modern China.

Manya Koetse

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In the digital age, calligraphy has not just maintained its relevancy in China; it has made a comeback. Calligraphy researcher Laura Vermeeren talks about the power of calligraphy and the status quo of this ancient art in modern China.

This interview with Laura Vermeeren, sinologist and Ph.D. researcher in Chinese calligraphy, was conducted and condensed by Manya Koetse in Beijing.

The word ‘calligraphy’ comes from the ancient Greek kallos “beauty” and graphein “writing”, referring to the visual art of decorative writing by pen or brush. In China, it is known as shufa (书法), literally meaning the method or law of writing. Calligraphy was the main form of art in traditional China, and it was appreciated as a fine art long before painting became more common.

Calligraphy has seen a boom in recent years, as part of the surge in popularity of guoxue (国学), the learning of traditional Chinese culture. It was partly fuelled by President Xi Jinping promoting Chinese traditions, which is seen by some as a way for the Communist Party to legimitize their ruling power, reinventing themselves as the “inheritor and savior of a 5000-year-old civilization”.

Dutch sinologist Laura Vermeeren moved to Beijing this year to dive into the world of Chinese calligraphy. The research is part of a larger project by University of Amsterdam on creativity in China, a 5-year programme where ten researchers collaborately research China’s shift from a “made in China” towards a “created in China” country.

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What’s on Weibo sat down with Laura to ask her about her love for calligraphy, its status quo in Chinese society, and its link to the digital era.

 

MORE THAN PAPER AND INK

“Calligraphy is entwined with Chinese language and history.”

 

“Calligraphy is a very honest form of art. Many forms of western art are about redoing, resculpting, and repainting until something is right. Painters can spend months on end working on one oil painting. But in calligraphy, it has to be right at once. You only get one chance to put your character on paper. Any hesitation in the calligrapher will reflect in the calligraphy. You can see by the strokes of the characters if it was done fast or slow, how the ink was used, how the paper is filled up. It is virtually always done with black on white, so every little drop of ink is noticeable. There is no way to hide.”

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Laura at her Beijing home.

“Calligraphy is an art with so many layers. There are millions of things written about it, there are thousands of years of history behind it. You cannot separate the art from its history. It might seem like a simple form of art, that just needs the right paper, ink and brush, but the entire tradition and culture around it makes it deep and complex. It is entwined with Chinese language and history.”

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Mi Fu calligraphy, China Online Museum.

“One of my favorite calligraphers is Mi Fu [米芾, Chinese calligrapher who lived from 1051–1107]. I cannot explain why – it is a feeling. It always makes me realize that there is so much to calligraphy; it is beautifully written, and there is an actual message. It is visual art with textual content.”

 

ALIVE AND KICKING

“It is often said that calligraphy has revived, but it has actually never been dead.”

 

“It is often said that Chinese calligraphy has been revived, but it has actually never been dead. I would prefer saying it went into some sort of hibernation mode for some time.”

“Unlike other forms of art, calligraphy was not abolished during the Mao years because Mao Zedong loved calligraphy. He has done quite a lot of famous calligraphy, just think about the People’s Daily logo (Renmin Ribao) – those are Mao’s characters. During the Mao years, calligraphy was indeed practiced, but mainly by higher officials. There were no lessons in calligraphy at the time for the common people.”

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Logo of People’s Daily, by Mao Zedong.

“After Mao’s death, in the 1980s, contemporary calligraphy emerged. It was brought to life by a group of modern calligraphers who did not want to return to previous styles. They wanted to define what Chinese calligraphy should look like in the new age, and created their own style. They were influenced by modern abstract art forms from America. People like Gu Wenda and Xu Bing belong to this group of calligraphers. Xu Bing is especially famous for his square characters.”

Picture1Xu Bing. Square Word Calligraphy, 2011, Columbia University.

“One of the reasons why calligraphy is experiencing a comeback now is because Xi Jinping is pushing for a revival of Chinese traditions. Calligraphy is an easy tradition to implement, and a relevant one: it is said that calligraphy is the source of all art in China.”

“The government will soon implement the teaching of calligraphy in schools. Because there are not enough teachers in the country, there will also be government-funded schools to train people to become calligraphy teachers. So that is one part of the ‘revival’.”

“The other part has to do with the times we live in. In the digital era, you see more and more people who turn to basic activities that are not related to their computer screens. In Europe, I have noticed that gardening is becoming a popular activity again, with some people getting busy with rooftop farming. Coloring books for adults have even become a hype. In that way, calligraphy is also part of this global movement where people turn their attention to things, from farming to knitting, that have nothing to do with the digital age.”

 

WILL THE REAL CALLIGRAPHER PLEASE STAND UP?

“There is an entire world behind Chinese calligraphy that will remain a mystery to me.”

 

“There is an entire world behind Chinese calligraphy that will remain a mystery to me. What is good or bad calligraphy? When is somebody really a calligrapher? Most people I have encountered during my interviews and research do not call themselves that, they mostly say they are doing it as a hobby. They sometimes say you have to study calligraphy for a century before you can really be good at it, and understand it. The people I spoke to who call themselves a calligrapher actually have a university degree in it – it implies that there always has to be a theoretical background to being a ‘calligrapher’. But in the Netherlands, anyone could call themselves ‘an artist’ without having done any studies for it. It is not the same with calligraphy.”

“I have spoken to calligraphy students at Renmin University here, who argue that getting up at 5.00 am is the best way to really get into the habit of practicing their brush strokes. Their teacher urges them to practice at least 4 hours a day. In the morning, your head is still ‘empty’, so you can focus. You have to practice calligraphy for years before you can give a personal touch to it.”

“Thinking of calligraphers, the cliché image of the old Chinese wise man with a beard might pop up, but there are actually many trendy twenty-somethings who practice it, both men and women. They study the theory and practice the brush. But it is not just a fashion craze: calligraphy is something they take very seriously.”

 

WHEN WEIBO MEETS CALLIGRAPHY

“Calligraphy brings some spirituality to the digital age.”

 

“In China’s digitized society, most people are on their phones and computers all the time. Calligraphy is meaningful in the digital age in multiple ways. It can reach many people through social media, so the bigger calligraphy centers have their own accounts on Weixin and Weibo so people can follow them and stay updated on any events.”

“But it is also a powerful art form in another way, which is that people are writing and less and less now that everything can be done through phone. They then tend to forget how to actually write characters, and practicing calligraphy helps with this. New media can help people practicing their calligraphy. There are even apps now where people can train calligraphy.”

“Big brands also want to tie their name to calligraphy. Take Apple for example; they used the calligraphy of Wang Dongling for the opening of their flagship store in Hangzhou. It shows that calligraphy is, actually, very modern again.”

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“In a rushed society, practicing calligraphy is very meditative. You have to rewrite the same characters again and again, you have to focus and mind your breathing. Calligraphy brings some spirituality to the digital age.”

 

THE POWER OF CALLIGRAPHY

“Practicing calligraphy requires you to dare and be impulsive, but at the same time, be in complete control of your impulses.”

 

“The more I know about calligraphy, the more I realize how complicated it is. There are so many sides to it. The way a piece is composed, how close the characters stand next to each other, how much space it takes up on the paper, the paper and ink you use, the style you choose, the way you hold your wrist. But those are just practicalities, there is also the mindset that goes with it.”

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“Doing calligraphy is actually very exciting. You can fail within seconds, possibly messing up a very expensive piece of paper. Practicing calligraphy requires you to dare and be impulsive, but at the same time, be in complete control of your impulses.”

“Calligraphy is everywhere in Chinese society. If you pay attention to the streets, you will notice its influences from adverts using calligraphy fonts to people gathering in parks to do calligraphy; it is all around. Now that there are more and more schools teaching calligraphy, it is really becoming part of people’s lives again. That means that China is still continuing to build on the thousands of years of calligraphy history- it is history in motion. It makes calligraphy a very powerful phenomenon, and a very Chinese one.”

To stay updated on Laura’s research, check out her blog on the Power of Social Calligraphy, and like her page on Facebook.

By Manya Koetse

featured image by Laura Vermeeren.

©2015 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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    China Celebs

    Meet Ding Zhen: Khampa Tibetan “Horse Prince” Becomes Social Media Sensation

    Ding Zhen’s quiet life out in the grasslands is seemingly over.

    Luke Jacobus

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    A Khampa Tibetan farmer has become an online sensation in China due to his handsome features. His overnight fame, which comes with legions of adoring fans and TV show invitations, has sparked discussions about the often-overwhelming loss of privacy that can accompany online stardom.

    The recent rise to internet fame of a young man named Ding Zhen (丁真) has sparked controversy over the benefits and downsides of e-celebdom.

    The 20-year-old farmer, who lives in Litang in the Kham region of Tibet, found accidental online fame after being captured in a blogger’s photography session in Nyima County, according to a Haixia News article.

    His handsome features attracted online attention, snowballing out of control after his appearance on a livestream. The young man shyly admitted to having little proficiency in reading or speaking Mandarin, but managed to express his love for raising horses.

    The cameraman and other villagers apparently later publicized Ding Zhen’s name, address, and other personal info, soliciting gifts and leading some netizens to mock Ding Zhen’s village neighbors as “blood-sucking vampires.”

    Ding, still unaware of his own fame, mentioned with some difficulty on the livestream that his dream was simply to become a “horse prince” (马王子) by winning his local horse races. His dream after that? To raise more horses, of course much to the delight of many Weibo users, some of whom have begun creating fan art in the young man’s honor.

    Calls for Ding Zhen to open a Douyin account of his own, or even to appear on reality television shows such as The Coming One (明日之子) and Produce Camp (创造营), have inspired heated debate.

    “This kind of person,” wrote one Weibo commenter, “should be riding horses and shooting arrows out on the grasslands; he shouldn’t be imprisoned in Vanity Fair by your fan club’s cultural values.”

    Others worried that this young man, “uncorrupted by the world,” might be taken advantage of by others for financial gain.

    This concern over the invasiveness of online fans likely stems from previous incidents where ordinary Chinese citizens became extraordinarily famous overnight, such as in the cases of ‘Brother Sharp,’ a homeless man similarly inundated with adoring praise online for his good looks and stylish appearance, and Shanghai’s ‘Vagrant Professor,’ both of whom found their privacy constantly invaded by fans seeking photos or just a chance to meet the new stars. Soon both men could hardly walk outside without being swarmed as their private life had been effectively ended- all because they happened to become popular online.

    ‘Brother Sharp’ (on the left) and the ‘Vagrant Professor’ (right) both also went viral overnight.

    Two phenomena unique to the Chinese internet seem to place these e-celebrities at a higher risk of being tracked down offline by their fans. One of them is the “human flesh search engine” (人肉搜索,) a massive online effort tapping into the knowledge and offline connections of netizens to track down and identify a person, often for shaming or as justice for perceived wrongdoing. The other is the highly-organized “super fan club” phenomenon prevalent in Chinese e-celeb culture, some of which boast structures rivaling the biggest corporations, with PR and financial departments. It’s no wonder then that some netizens fear for Ding Zhen’s personal life.

    Many of these concerned netizens seem to particularly admire the simple, pastoral lifestyle of the “grasslands” (草原) which Ding leads, one which has been popularized in novels like Jin Yong’s Legends of the Condor Heroes (射鵰英雄傳), which details the adventures of the young Guo Jing, a Chinese boy who joins the court of Genghis Khan. The novel has been read by millions across China and has become a prominent source of political metaphors on the Chinese web. One commenter exhorted others to “Let him become his own hero, a horse prince! Don’t let the worst impulses of the internet corrupt him.”

    With the question “Should Ding Zhen leave the grasslands?” (#丁真该不该离开草原发展#) becoming a trending topic all of its own, it seems opinions about his popularity are fiercely divided. “I hope this handsome guy can make his own choices,” writes one Weibo user: “..and no matter whether he becomes a star or not, I hope he can keep such an innocent heart!”

    According to the latest reports, Ding has received a job offer from a Chinese state-owned company since his unexpected rise to online fame. CGTN writes that the ‘horse prince’ has now signed the contract, but they do not mention if this new job will allow him to do what he loves most – raising horses and being out in the grasslands.

     
    By Luke Jacobus

    Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

    ©2020 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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    China Arts & Entertainment

    Oh, the Drama! Chinese Opera Performance Turns into Stage Fight as Drunken Man Attacks Actors

    This local traditional opera performance unexpectedly turned into a stage fight.

    Manya Koetse

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    On October 9 in Zhejiang’s Lishui city (Laozhu Town), a theatrical performance unexpectedly turned very dramatic when a drunken man stormed on stage to fight with the performers.

    A video showing the Chinese opera performance being disturbed by the drunkard, turning it into a chaotic stage scene, is gaining major attention on Chinese social media.

    The incident occurred Friday night around 9 pm, when the Laozhu Theatrical Troupe was performing.

    Videos of the incident that are circulating online show how one man comes on stage, attacking one of the actors. The scene escalates into a big fight when others try to intervene. The police were quick to arrive at the scene.

    Various news reports suggest the man started to act out after getting into an argument with one of the ‘Huadan’ (花旦) performers of the troupe. In traditional Chinese opera, the Huadan characters are young female roles, often seductive in appearance and quick with their words.

    Local police posted on Weibo that the chaos was caused by a 33-year-old local who started to become aggressive after he had too much to drink. The man is charged with disorderly conduct and is currently detained.

    The case received even more attention on social media when it turned out that the 33-year old troublemaker is the son of the head of a neighboring village.

    Many Chinese netizens feel that the man is spared by Chinese news media outlets, which only report about a “drunken man” who was “causing trouble.” They insist that the real story should be properly reported.

    “The son of the village chief took liberties with a huadan actress who rejected him, and then he kicked her, causing her to lose consciousness. He then beat up other actors,” some commenters explain.

    “He is not just a ‘drunkard’, he’s the son of the village secretary.”

    “What an explosive performance it was!” one Weibo blogger writes.

    By Manya Koetse

    Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

    ©2020 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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