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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.

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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. 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.

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China and Covid19

King of Workout Livestream: Liu Genghong Has Become an Online Hit During Shanghai Lockdown

Liu Genghong (Will Liu) is leading his best lockdown life.

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With their exercise livestreams, Liu and his wife are bringing some positive vibes to Shanghai and the rest of China in Covid times, getting thousands of social media users to jump along with them.

On Friday, April 22, the hashtag “Why Has Liu Genghong Become An Online Hit” (#为什么刘畊宏突然爆火#) was top trending on Chinese social media platform Weibo.

Liu Genghong (刘畊宏, 1972), who is also known as Will Liu, is a Taiwanese singer and actor who is known for playing in dramas (Pandamen 熊貓人), films (True Legend 苏乞儿), and releasing various music albums (Rainbow Heaven 彩虹天堂). He is a devout Christian.

Besides all of his work in the entertainment business, Liu is also a fitness expert. In 2013, Liu participated in the CCTV2 weight loss programme Super Diet King (超级减肥王, aka The Biggest Loser) as a motivational coach, and later also became a fitness instructor for the Jiangsu TV show Changing My Life (减出我人生), in which he also helped overweight people to become fit. After that, more fitness programs followed, including the 2017 Challenge the Limit (全能极限王) show.

During the Covid outbreak in Shanghai, the 50-year-old Liu Genghong has unexpectedly become an online hit for livestreaming fitness routines from his home. Together with his wife Vivi Wang, he streams exercise and dance videos five days of the week via the Xiaohongshu app and Douyin.

In his livestreams, Liu and his wife appear energetic, friendly, happy and super fit. They exercise and dance to up-beat songs while explaining and showing their moves, often encouraging those participating from their own living rooms (“Yeah, very good, you’re doing well!”). Some of their livestreams attract up to 400,000 viewers tuning in at the same time.

The couple, both in lockdown at their Shanghai home, try to motivate other Shanghai residents and social media users to stay fit. Sometimes, Liu’s 66-year-old mother in law also exercises with them, along with the children.

“I’ve been exercising watching Liu and his wife for half an hour, they’re so energetic and familiar, they’ve already become my only family in Shanghai,” one Weibo user says.

“I never expected Liu Genghong to be a ‘winner’ during this Covid epidemic in Shanghai,” another person writes.

Along with Liu’s online success, there’s also a renewed interest in the Jay Chou song Herbalist’s Manual (本草纲目), which is used as a workout tune, combined with a specific dance routine. Liu is also a good friend and fitness pal to Taiwanese superstar Jay Chou.

This week, various Chinese news outlets such as Fengmian News and The Paper have reported on Liu’s sudden lockdown success. Livestreaming workout classes in general have become more popular in China since the start of Covid-19, but there reportedly has been no channel as popular as that of Liu Genghong.

The channel’s success is partly because of Liu’s fame and contagious enthusiasm, but it is also because of Vivi Wang, whose comical expressions during the workouts have also become an online hit.

While many netizens are sharing their own videos of exercizing to Liu’s videos, there are also some who warn others not to strain themselves too quickly.

“I’ve been inside for over 40 days with no exercise” one person writes: “I did one of the workouts yesterday and my heart nearly exploded.” “I feel fine just watching,” others say: “I just can’t keep up.”

Watch one of Liu’s routines via Youtube here, or here, or here.

For more articles on the Covid-19 topics on Chinese social media, check here.

By Manya Koetse

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China Music

Weibo is Watching the DJs & Sports Presentation Team at the Winter Olympics Venues

Chinese netizens are not just closely following the athletes, they are also paying more attention to the “atmosphere enliveners” at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

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Chinese netizens are not just closely watching the athletes at the 2022 Winter Olympics – the DJs who are performing at the various venues and their noteworthy song selections have also become a popular topic on social media.

On Feb 8th, the US-born freestyle skier Eileen Gu (谷爱凌, Gu Aling) became the youngest ever gold medalist in freestyle skiing, winning the big air event for China. The American-born Gu has become a superstar in China, and everything related to her is going viral these days, including the songs that were playing when Gu had won gold.

The hashtag “When Gu Ailing Won the Gold, Jay Chou’s Song Huo Yuan Jia is Played” (#谷爱凌夺冠现场放周杰伦的霍元甲#) has received more than 29 million on Weibo. Chinese netizens praised the DJs for the song selection, saying it perfectly captured the scene as the song has a strong rhythm, and is also known as ‘Fearless.’

Before the hashtag about Gu went trending, the DJ team already attracted attention on Chinese social media for the interesting and noteworthy music selection at various events.

During the Ice Hockey Women’s Preliminary Round Group A, when Team US competed against Team ROC, there was a conflict between the two teams and the DJ played a remixed version of Katyusha, a Russian song that became famous during World War II. The dramatic effect of the scene and wartime song pairing made the song’s name (#喀秋莎#) and a video of the DJ trying to ‘make some noise’ on the venue go trending on Weibo with over 53 million views. Many netizens thought the music selection was humorous, with some joking that the DJ was adding oil to a burning fire.

Xie Xiao (@篮球DJ小牛), the ice hockey stadium music director for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics who played the song that day, later clarified on Douyin that the selection of Katyusha was not a response to the conflict. Before that game, he allegedly had already planned to use it because it is a famous song in Russia, and he already played a lot of well-known American songs.

Photo via Xie Xao, @篮球DJ小牛

Another creative song choice by this DJ team that resonated with Chinese netizens occurred during another ice hockey match between Team China and Team Japan, when an American DJ performed Defending the Yellow River on a keyboard. In China, Defending the Yellow River is a famous patriotic song. It was the seventh chapter of the classic Yellow River Cantata, written in 1939 to praise the fighting spirit of the Chinese people (#美国DJ现学后现场弹奏保卫黄河#).

A list of popular hashtags on Weibo relating to which songs are played at the venue of the Winter Olympics also demonstrates that music has become a more relevant and popular part of the Olympics, and is also an attractive component of the event that is encouraging more people, especially younger generations, to watch and participate in the Games.

Xie also said that the team is only allowed to select songs from a specific Winter Olympics music library due to copyright and licensing. The library includes 16000 musical tracks divided into various (sub)categories based on music styles, language, and themes, covering many hit songs and different music from all across the world. On the first event day of speed skating, for example, Adele’s Rolling in the Deep blasted through the speakers.

The pandemic has made the role of so-called ‘atmosphere enliveners’ or ‘vibe teams’ (气氛组, 氛围组) more important. This already became clear during the Tokyo Olympics, where we saw empty stadiums due to coronavirus measures, with DJs creating playlists to motivate athletes in the absence of cheering fans. This shift has also brought more online attention for DJs and other crew members, who would usually stay behind the scenes.

On the venues, the atmosphere is raised by Olympic mascots walking, jumping, and running around the venues interacting with smaller audiences. Meanwhile, the DJs are playing energetic tracks or are creating remixes and mash-ups while producers use different elements at the venue to enhance the audience’s experience.

Li Helin, the deputy manager of the venue operations team at Beijing National Speed Skating Oval, takes care of the event presentation at the venue. He also worked as an MC at the volleyball stadium during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Li has also been in charge of some popular music selections played by the DJs during events involving the China team, including Calorie (卡路里) by the Chinese idol girl group Rocket Girls 101 and Immortal Sound Above Cloud Palace (云宫迅音), the opening theme of Journey to the West, a 1986 TV series that is still considered one of China’s most popular TV dramas. These song selections also were popular on Weibo.

Li Helin, image via Sina.

Li previously said he believed that using DJs to connect with the audiences and to enliven the atmosphere at the venues will become a bigger trend for big sports events in the future. As the standard of sports presentation and fan engagement rises, more new elements, such as spectacular lighting, drones, 3D projects, etc. will also be included: “Sports presentation serves the game, but also adds fresh elements to it.”

Meanwhile, many social media users praise the music crew: “This time, the DJs at the Olympics are really awesome and their song selection is on point.”  “If you don’t know what kind of work you want to do, becoming an Olympic DJ is a good choice,” one Weibo user writes, with others agreeing: “Seriously, if I cannot be an Olympic athlete, then I’ll strive to be an Olympic DJ.”

 

By Wendy Huang

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©2022 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

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