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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.

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.

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China Celebs

Chinese Social Media Users Stand up Against Body Shaming

Manya Koetse

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Recent photos of famous actress Gong Li that showed her curvier figure have gone viral on Sina Weibo, receiving over 850 million clicks. With Gong Li’s weight gain becoming all the talk on Weibo, the public’s focus on her appearance has sparked an online wave of body positivity posts, with web users rejecting the all-too-common phenomenon of body shaming on Chinese social media.

First, there was the ‘A4 Waist‘ hype, then there was the ‘iPhone6 Legs‘ trend, the ‘belly button backhand,’ and the online challenge of putting coins in your collarbone to show off how thin you are (锁骨放硬币). Over the past five years, China has seen multiple social media trends that propagated a thin figure as the ruling beauty standard.

But now a different kind of trend is hitting Weibo’s hotlists: one that rejects body shaming and promotes the acceptance of a greater diversity in body sizes and shapes in China.

On August 26, Weibo user @_HYIII_ from Shanghai posted several pictures, writing:

Reject body shaming! Why should we all have the same figure? Tall or short, thin or fat, all have their own characteristics. Embrace yourself, and show off your own unique beauty!

The post was soon shared over 900 times, receiving more than 32,000 likes, with the “body shame” phrase soon reaching the top keyword trending list of Sina Weibo.

 

Gong Li Weight Gain

 

The body positivity post by ‘_HYIII_’ is going viral on the same day that the apparent weight gain of Chinese actress Gong Li (巩俐) is attracting major attention on Chinese social media platforms such as Weibo and Douyin.

The 54-year-old actress, who is known for starring in famous movies such as Farewell My Concubine, To Live, and Memoirs of a Geisha, was spotted taking a walk with her husband in France on August 24. The photos went viral, with media outlets such as Sina Entertainment noting how Gong Li had become “much rounder” and had put on some “happy fat” (幸福肥).

By now, the hashtag page “Gong Li’s Figure” (#巩俐身材#) has received more than 850 million (!) views on Weibo, with thousands of people commenting on the appearance of the actress. In the comment sections, there were many who lashed out against the focus on Gong Li’s weight gain.

“She just has a regular female body shape. Stop using ‘white / skinny / young’ as the main beauty standard to assess other people,” one commenter said, with another person writing: “Why do you all keep focusing on her figure, did she steal your rice and eat it?!”

 

“Why do you all keep focusing on her figure, did she steal your rice and eat it?”

 

Some people suggested that the COVID19 pandemic might have to do with Gong Li’s weight gain, with others writing: “If she is healthy is what matters, skinny or fat is not the way to assess her beauty.”

What stands out from the discussions flooding social media at this time, is that a majority of web users seem to be fed up with the fact that a skinny body is the common standard of women’s beauty in China today – and that accomplished and talented women such as Gong Li are still judged by the size of their waist.

 

Say No to Body Shaming

 

In light of the controversy surrounding Gong Li’s recent photos and the following discussions, posts on ‘body shaming’ (身材羞辱) are now flooding Weibo, with many Weibo users calling on people to “reject body shaming” (拒绝#body shame#) and to stop imposing strict beauty standards upon Chinese women.

The pressure to be thin, whether it comes from the media or from others within one’s social circle, is very real and can seriously affect one’s self-esteem. Various studies have found an association between body dissatisfaction and social pressure to be thin and body shaming in Chinese adolescents and young adults (Yan et al 2018).

The main message in this recent Weibo grassroots campaign against body shaming, is that there are many ways in which women can be beautiful and that their beauty should not be merely defined by limited views on the ideal weight, height, or skin color.

Over the past decades, women’s beauty ideals have undergone drastic changes in China, where there has been a traditional preference for “round faces” and “plump bodies.” In today’s society, thin bodies, sharp faces, and a pointy chin are usually regarded as the standard of female ideal beauty (Jung 2018, 68). China’s most popular photo apps, such as Meitu or Pitu, often also include features to make one’s face pointier or one’s legs more skinny.

This is not the first time Weibo sees a growing trend of women opposing strict beauty standards. Although the word ‘body shaming’ has not often been included in previous trends, there have been major trends of women opposing popular skinny challenges and even one social media campaign in which young women showed their hairy armpits to trigger discussions on China’s female aesthetics.

Especially in times of a pandemic, many netizens now stress the importance of health: “Skinny or fat, it really doesn’t matter how much you weigh, as long as you’re healthy – that’s what counts.”

Also read:

 

By Manya Koetse

 

References

Jung, Jaehee. 2018. “Young Women’s Perceptions of Traditional and Contemporary Female Beauty Ideals in China.” Family and Consumer Sciences Research Journal 47 (1): 56-72.

Yan, Hanyi ; Wu, Yingru ; Oniffrey, Theresa ; Brinkley, Jason ; Zhang, Rui ; Zhang, Xinge ; Wang, Yueqiao ; Chen, Guoxun ; Li, Rui ; Moore, Justin. 2018. “Body Weight Misperception and Its Association with Unhealthy Eating Behaviors among Adolescents in China.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 15 (5): 936.

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China Arts & Entertainment

China’s New Hit Drama ‘Nothing But Thirty’ Thrives in the “She Era”

Chinese latest hit drama ‘Nothing but Thirty’ has 20 billion views on its Weibo hashtag page.

Yin Lin Tan

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China’s latest TV drama hit Nothing But Thirty is flooding Weibo discussions. With over 20 billion views on its hashtag page, the show is one of the most popular shows of the season and demonstrates that China’s ‘she era’ (ta shidai 她时代) dramas are all the rage. What’s on Weibo’s Yin Lin Tan explains.

“Have you heard of ‘independent at the age of thirty’ (sān shí ér lì 三十而立)?” Wang Manni asks, her hair pulled back neatly and white shirt cleanly pressed. “I hope that, before I’m thirty, I’ll be promoted to supervisor.”

Riding on the wave of female protagonist (‘heroine’ 大女主) shows that have been taking over China’s entertainment scene, Nothing But Thirty (三十而已) is a 43-episode drama by Dragon Television that follows the challenges of three different women who have reached the ever-important age of thirty.

In a society where women are often expected to be married by their late twenties, a show like this, which tackles women’s present-day struggles, both in their personal and professional lives, has resonated with many.

In fact, the show is so popular that at the time of writing, the show’s hashtag (“Nothing But Thirty”, #三十而已#) has over 20 billion (!) views on Weibo.

 

Depicting the struggles of China’s thirty-something women

 

Nothing But Thirty revolves around the lives of three female leads from different walks of life. Gu Jia (Tong Yao) is a capable businesswoman turned full-time housewife; Wang Manni (Jiang Shuying) is an independent, career-oriented sales assistant; and Zhong Xiaoqin (Mao Xiaotong) is your run-of-the-mill office lady.

For Gu Jia, the birth of her son was what truly transformed her into a full-fledged housewife. In many ways, she seems like a perfect wife and mother: well-educated, capable, and thoughtful. But, eventually, she too has to face life’s challenges.

Driven and hardworking, Wang Manni is confident in both her looks and abilities. Her immediate goal, at least at the start of the show, is to achieve professional success. Throughout the show, her resilience is put to the test, personally and professionally.

Zhong Xiaoqin is described by many netizens as the most “average” or “normal” character. She is kind-hearted -sometimes to the point of being a pushover -, and has spent years at the same company without rising the ranks. Though her story might seem mundane at first, this peace is disrupted when her marriage takes a turn for the worse.

 

A story that resonates with the masses

 

“The show attracted wide attention, and it strongly resonated with female audiences. Many thirty-something working women saw their own lives reflected in the show,” Xinhua recently wrote about the show.

Nothing but Thirty currently carries a 7.6 out of 10 rating on Douban, an online reviewing platform.

Though some reviewers criticized how the later episodes of the show were unnecessarily draggy, most praised it for its portrayal of strong female characters, good acting, and largely realistic depiction of women above the age of thirty.

“I saw myself, and also saw the friends beside me,” a reviewer notes.

In China, women are, more often than not, burdened with expectations of getting married and settling down by the time they are in their late twenties. If you’re single and thirty, that’s made even worse.

Those who fall into this category carry the derogatory label of “leftover women” (剩女), a term that reflects how single women above the age of thirty are seen as consolation prizes or even unwanted goods.

Thirty is thus an incredibly important number, especially for women — something that’s clearly reflected in the show’s concept trailer.

Aside from societal expectations of starting a family, some women now also take it upon themselves to build their careers. In fact, you can chase after professional success without burdening yourself with the idea that you must be married – a notion exemplified by the character of Wang Manni.

Nothing But Thirty also showcases the sheer diversity of experiences for women above thirty: you don’t have to be married, you don’t have to be super capable, and you don’t have to be thinking about having children. Each woman goes through her own unique struggles and isn’t necessarily endowed with the so-called “protagonist’s halo.”

Ultimately, the popularity of the show is driven by the three female leads and the actresses who bring these strong characters to life.

By telling a story that is relatable and touches on relevant social issues, namely on expectations of women in society, Nothing But Thirty was able to achieve widespread popularity and is adding another notch on the trend of China’s ta shidai (她时代) dramas. 

 

The rise of ta shidai shows

 

Ta shidai literally translates to “her era” or “the ‘she’ era.”

Ta shidai shows explore what it’s like to be a woman in China today. The female characters are diverse when it comes to both their backgrounds and character arcs; they might have different jobs, different levels of education, or different personalities. These shows mostly center around a strong female lead and/or a main cast that is primarily female.

More importantly, they often feature capable women and how these women overcame the odds to achieve success.

Recent shows like The Romance of Tiger and Rose (传闻中的陈芊芊) and Sisters Who Make Waves (乘风破浪的姐姐) also fall under this category, as do somewhat older hit shows such as Ode to Joy (欢乐颂) and Women in Beijing (北京女子图鉴).

The Romance of Tiger and Rose is set in a society in which women are in charge and men are subordinate, in a daring reversal of gender roles. Though the show has been criticized for using social issues to attract attention, it gained a decent following for tackling topics like gender inequality and women’s rights.

The Romance of Tiger and Rose (传闻中的陈芊芊)

A reality TV competition that swept the Chinese entertainment scene, Sisters Who Make Waves attempted to rebuke stereotypes of women over 30 as “leftover women.”

The show brought together female celebrities above the age of 30 (the oldest competitor was 52), and had them go through a series of challenges, culminating in a girl group formed by the final competitors.

Nothing But Thirty is just another example of a show that’s attempted to depict the realistic struggles of women in modern-day China.

More Chinese dramas that feature women — specifically, their struggles and the expectations that society places on them — are slated to be released in 2020.

Over the past few years, more attention has been focused on women’s rights in China. As feminism becomes an increasingly important topic of discussion in China, strongly facilitated by social media and not without controversy, companies are likely to hop on the bandwagon and continue producing shows that fall squarely in the ta shidai category, given the genre’s rising popularity.

Though we can’t expect every single show to perfectly, accurately, and realistically portray women’s struggles, the fact that more stories like these are being produced already helps bring such conversations into the mainstream. 

Hopefully, the trend of ta shidai shows is a sign that these issues won’t just be tackled on camera, but in real life as well. 

 
Read more about Chinese TV dramas here.
 

By Yin Lin Tan

 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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