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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 founder and editor-in-chief of whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on hotpotambassador.com. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    keltan

    August 17, 2017 at 6:04 pm

    Wow great post thank you for sharing this. my opinion is an intense artistic expression in another way, which is that individuals are composing and less and less now that everything should be possible through telephone. They at that point have a tendency to overlook how to really compose characters, and rehearsing calligraphy assists with this. New media can help individuals rehearsing their calligraphy.

    Ref: https://essayjaguar.com/

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    July 2, 2018 at 4:02 pm

    You will be glad to know that here we are having one of the best portal to fix error certificate internet explorer and will also come to know more about advanced features. These all solutions you will find out online.

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China Arts & Entertainment

Chinese Social Media Reactions to The New York Times Bad Review of ‘Wandering Earth 2’

A New York Times bad review of ‘Wandering Earth II’ has triggered online discussions: “China’s gonna save the world, the US can’t stand it.”

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This Chinese Spring Festival, it’s all about going to the movies. After sluggish years for China’s movie market during the pandemic, Chinese cinemas welcomed millions of visitors back to the theaters during the weeklong Spring Festival holiday.

Much-anticipated new movies attracted Chinese moviegoers this festive season, including Full River Red by Zhang Yimou, the suspenseful Hidden Blade, or the animated Deep Sea by Tian Xiaopeng.

But the undisputed Spring Festival box office champion of 2023 is Frant Gwo’s Wandering Earth II (流浪地球II), the sequel to China’s all-time highest-grossing sci-fi epic Wandering Earth (2019), which also became the fifth highest-grossing non-English film of all time.

The narrative of the follow-up movie Wandering Earth II actually takes place before the events of the first film and focuses on the efforts by the United Earth Government (UEG) to propel the Earth out of the solar system to avoid planetary disaster. This so-called Moving Mountain Project – which later becomes the Wandering Earth Project – is not just met with protest (the majority of Americans don’t believe in it), it also bans the Digital Life Project, which supports the idea that the future of humanity can be saved by preserving human consciousness on computers (backed by an American majority). The film is all about hope and resilience, human destiny, and geopolitics at a time of apocalyptic chaos.

Outside of China, the sequel was also released in, among others, North American, Australian, and UK cinemas.

Although the film, featuring movie stars Wu Jing and Andy Lau, received an 8.2 on the Chinese rating & review platform Douban, a 9.4 on movie ticketing app Maoyan, dozens of positive reviews on Bilibili, and was overall very well-received among Chinese viewers, a bad review by The New York Times triggered discussions on Chinese social media this weekend.

Chinese media outlet The Observer (观察者网) initiated a Weibo hashtag about “The New York Times‘s completely sour review of Wandering Earth II” (#纽约时报酸味拉满差评流浪地球2#, 6.2 million views at time of writing).

The New York Times review of Wandering Earth II, titled “The Wandering Earth II Review: It Wanders Too Far,” was written by Brandon Yu and published in print on January 27, 2023.

Yu does not have a lot of good things to say about China’s latest blockbuster. Although he calls the 2019 The Wandering Earth “entertaining enough,” he writes that the sequel is a movie that is “audaciously messy” and has lost “all of the glee” its predecessor had:

“(..) the movie instead offers nearly three hours of convoluted storylines, undercooked themes and a tangle of confused, glaringly state-approved political subtext.”

The topic was discussed on Chinese social media using various hashtags, including “The New York Times Gave Wandering Earth II a 3″ (#纽约时报给流浪地球打30分#, #纽约时报给流浪地球2打30分#).

Instead of triggering anger, the bad review actually instilled a sense of pride among many Chinese, who argued that the review showed the impact the movie has made. Some commenters pointed out that the movie is a new milestone in Chinese cinema, not just threatening America’s domination of the movie industry but also setting a narrative in which China leads the way.

“We’re gonna save the world, and America just can’t stand it,” one commenter replied.

That same view was also reiterated by other bloggers. The author and history blogger Zhang Yi’an (@张忆安-龙战于野) argued that The New York Times review was not necessarily bad; it actually shows that Americans feel threatened by the idea of China’s important role in a new international world order, and by the fact that China actually will have the capacity to lead the way when it comes to, for example, space technology innovation, robotics, and artificial intelligence.

Zhang argues that if a similar movie had been made by India as a Bollywood blockbuster – including exploding suns and wandering earths – The New York Times would have been more forgiving and might have even called it cute or silly.

But because this is China, the film’s success and its narrative plays into existing fears over China’s rise, and it clashes with American values about what the international community should look like.

Zhang writes: “The China in the movie doesn’t boast itself as the savior of the world, but in reality, China really is capable of saving the world. The United States is no longer able to do so (电影里的中国没有把自己吹嘘成救世主,现实中的中国真的有能力做救世主。而美国却已经不能了).”

One popular Film & TV account (@影视综艺君) also summarized the general online reaction to the bad review in the American newspaper: “Whenever the enemy gets scared, it must mean we’re doing it right. Our cultural export has succeeded.” That post received over 120,000 likes.

On Zhihu.com, some commenters also attached little value to the review and showed how the overseas reviews of Wandering Earth II widely varied in their verdict.

Meanwhile, a state media-initiated hashtag on Weibo claimed on January 28 that Wandering Earth II has actually “captured the hearts of many overseas audiences” (#流浪地球2海外上映获好评#), and that the film’s “imaginative” and “wonderful” visuals combined with its strong storyline were being praised by moviegoers outside of China.

On IMDB, the movie has received 5.9/10; it has gotten a 70% Rotten Tomatoes score. The Guardian gave it 2/5. Meanwhile, on Weibo, one reviewer after the other gives the film 5/5 stars.

Weibo blogger Lang Yanzhi (@郎言志) writes: “Recently, we’ve seen a lot of attacks and slander directed at the China-made science fiction movie Wandering Earth 2, especially coming from Western media and pro-Western forces, because the film’s “Chinese salvation” narrative made them uncomfortable. This was already the case when the first film in the series was released. It is very clear that Wandering Earth is not just a movie: it is a symbol of great influence.”

By Manya Koetse , with contributions by Zilan Qian

 

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China Arts & Entertainment

Behind the Short Feature Film of the Spring Festival Gala

The first-ever ‘mini film’ of the Spring Festival Gala struck a chord with viewers for its strong storytelling and authentic production.

Manya Koetse

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This precious and powerful short film by Zhang Dapeng has touched the hearts of Spring Festival Gala viewers. But there is more to the short film than meets the eye. Here’s the noteworthy story behind the 7-minute Spring Festival Mini Film.

On January 21, 2023, China’s Spring Festival Gala, hosted by China Media Group, kicked off the Year of the Rabbit. The annual show, which featured forty different acts and performances, lasted over four hours and attracted millions of viewers worldwide (see our liveblog here, and see a top 5 highlight of the show here).

Traditionally, the Spring Festival Gala always shows several short public service ad films in between the performances, but this year was the first time the Gala featured a “mini-film” or “micro film” (微电影).

Titled Me and My Spring Festival Night (“我和我的春晚”), the 7-minute film was praised among viewers. On Weibo, one hashtag dedicated to the short film received over nine million clicks (#我和我的春晚#).

The film was directed by the Beijing director Zhang Dapeng (张大鹏). Born in 1984, Zhang is a Beijing Film Academy graduate who previously attracted wide attention for directing the Peppa Pig Celebrates Chinese New Year movie and the brilliant ad campaign that came with it. Titled What Is Peppa, that short ad film featured a grandfather living in rural China who goes on a quest to find out what ‘Peppa’ is. The promotional video became an absolute viral hit back in 2019 (see/read more here).

Still from ‘What is Peppa.’ 2019.

This time, Zhang’s latest Chinese New Year film is about a hard-working former military man from China’s countryside named Zhang Jianguo (张建国), for whom coming on the show to play the trumpet has been a dream for many years. By featuring his story, the film takes us from the Chinese 1980s, 90s, 00s – as we see him change jobs, move around, and start a family – up to the present.

The main idea behind the film was to honor all the ordinary viewers who have written – and are still writing – to the Gala ever since it first aired in the early 1980s, and to tell a story inspired by these personal letters and ordinary viewers.

Short Summary of “Me and My Chunwan”

At the start of the film, we see Zhang Jianguo dusting off his military honorary awards (光荣军属), putting on his jacket, grabbing his thermos flask and trumpet, and setting out on a journey in the midst of winter.

Riding an electric tricycle in the icy cold, his driver (actor Huang Bo 黄渤) asks him where he is going. “Can you keep your mouth shut?” Zhang replies (“你嘴严实不严实”). “I can,” the driver says, and Zhang then says: “So can I.”

The voiceover narration, a first-person narrative by Zhang himself, explains that he has always been busy: “I never had time for the Spring Festival Gala. My Spring Festival fate is all because of something my captain said.”

The film jumps to a scene showing Zhang as a young military man during the Chinese New Year’s Eve, working outside while people are watching the Spring Festival Gala on a small black and white television inside. As his commander (played by Wu Jing 吴京) hands him his trumpet, he says: “Go and play your trumpet on the television.”

“If the leader asks me to go on the Spring Festival Gala, it’s a task I must complete,” the voice-over says.

But in the military scene itself, duty calls and Zhang has to blow the trumpet to announce dinner time.

In the years that follow, Zhang is always busy during the Spring Festival Gala. Working in the factory, getting married, working on a train, farming cattle, taking care of his family, and always cooking. His trumpet is still there with him, to announce dinner time or hanging on the wall as a memory of times past.

As the years pass by, Zhang realizes that he has gradually forgotten about his commander’s words. Time moves fast. First, he had a son, then his son grew taller than himself, and then his son had his own son. “And I still had never been to the Spring Festival Gala.”

With his captain’s words back on his mind, Zhang, now an older man, sets out on his journey without telling anyone. By foot, by electric tricycle, by bus, and by train, Zhang travels all the way to the famous Beijing Studio 1 to perform at the Spring Festival Gala after being “too busy” for forty years.

Backstage at the Spring Festival Gala, Zhang sits down with famous Chinese Spring Festival Gala performers (Ma Li 马丽 and Shen Teng 沈腾). While unpacking his lunchbox, he tells them he was finally not too busy to come on the show: “I wrote a letter and here I am.” “It’s that simple?” Ma Li wonders.

The producer then rushes to come and get Zhang, who bravely walks towards the stage with his old little trumpet.

A female voice-over then reads out a message, while we see various scenes throughout the years showing Zhang – from young to old – writing letters to CCTV from wherever he is.

The female narrator says: “Dear Uncle Zhang, we’ve received your letter regarding your hopes to realize your cherished stage dream. In this age of emailing, and knowing that you’ve been writing us for 39 years, we’re moved and feel guilty. Our reply may be late, but not our sincerity..

Meanwhile, we see a flashback to a mailman pulling up to old Zhang’s home (the mailman is the actor Wang Baoqiang), and the old Zhang finally receives that much-anticipated letter from CCTV at his remote rural home.

The female narrator continues: “This year, we proudly invite you to be a guest at the Spring Festival Gala and to “ring the dinner bell” [play the sound announcing dinner]. Sincerely, the Spring Festival Director Committee.

In the final shot, we see Zhang blowing the trumpet at the Gala, with flashbacks showing him blowing that trumpet in all those decades before. He has finally made it to the big stage.

A Noteworthy Story

While Me and My Spring Festival Night received a lot of praise on Chinese social media, the story behind the film was not immediately clear to many viewers celebrating the Chinese New Year, but it was explained in several articles and interviews with director Zhang Dapeng.

During the live-televised Spring Festival Gala itself, the airing of Me and My Spring Festival Night was directly followed up by a shot featuring a person (a veteran) in the audience standing up and actually playing the trumpet.

Directly after, the song “Goodmorning Sunshine” began, representing multiple people from all kinds of professions and social groups. About one minute into the song, the camera turns to another audience member: the person who plays ‘Uncle Zhang’ in the mini-film. Later in the song, we can see he is wiping away tears, visibly moved.

Why was he so moved? The older man in the audience, the main ‘Uncle Zhang’ actor in the film, is Jin Changyong (金长勇), and he actually is not a professional actor.

Somewhat similar to the character Zhang Jianguo, Jin Changyong or “Uncle Jin” (金叔) is a hardworking veteran from Hebei’s Huailai County in Zhangjiakou.

Jin Changyong is a 63-year-old farmer who is also active at the Hebei Tianmo Film and TV Park doing security and logistics-related jobs. He served in the army for four years from the age of 19, as, among others, a military chef.

Director Zhang Dapdeng came across ‘Uncle Jin’ one day while shooting another film at the studio. While Jin was busy doing kitchen work, director Zhang saw him and, as he later recounts, was struck by his face that showed he had “lived through many changes” (“这种饱经沧桑的脸”).

Zhang later invited Uncle Jin to star in the movie, and he also made sure Jin’s own story played a role in the script.

Director Zhang Dapeng, image via CCTV.

This makes this short movie all the more special, something which has since been discussed on Chinese social media (#春晚微电影的主演是普通农民#).

The surprising twist in the story is how Zhang Jianguo tells other people he has just always been “too busy” to attend the Gala, while he had in fact already written to the show for 39 years with the hope of one day being invited.

Another noteworthy aspect of the film is how Zhang Dapeng chose to cast some of China’s most celebrated actors as supporting roles to lift up the main character and actor, Jin, who was inexperienced and learnt from his fellow players.

In an interview, Jin expressed that the entire experience of playing in this short film left his overcome with emotion. After the filming had ended, he told reporters that he had sleepless nights because he had not received an actual invitation to the Spring Festival Gala yet, something which he so very much hoped for. Just one week before the show, that invitation finally came.

The fact that Jin, in a way, played a man like himself in the short movie has added to the film’s popularity.

“I was sincerely moved by this film,” one commenter wrote, with others saying: “This was the best program I’ve seen on the Gala over the past decade.”

While some people also remarked that the short film seemed to have been influenced by The Grand Budapest Hotel by Wes Anderson, others praised it for its originality.

“This was just the best part of the night,” several commenters said: “It made me cry.”

“Zhang Pengda – a name to remember,” others wrote.

You can watch the short film on Youtube here.

By Manya Koetse 

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