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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.

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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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2 Comments

2 Comments

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    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 Arts & Entertainment

Bizarre Buildings & Ambitious Architecture of Rural China: Here’s Chinese Vlogger ‘Schlieffen’

Chinese vlogger Schlieffen explores a bizarre and amazing side of rural China many have never seen before.

Anna Wang

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“Making Hebei great again” is one of his slogans. Schlieffen is China’s first self-proclaimed ‘agritourism’ vlogger, showing Chinese netizens the unexpected sides of Hebei, an “almost invisible” province in Northern China. Anna Wang explains.

It all started in May of 2018 when Schlieffen (@史里芬Shǐlǐfēn) launched his first video titled “World’s Biggest Tortoise” (“世界上最大的王八“), introducing a 1680-square-meter turtle-shaped sports venue at Hebei’s Lake Baiyangdian.

An example of wondrous Hebei architecture (image via https://xw.qq.com).

Ever since that time, Schlieffen has grown out to become a popular Chinese vlogger and blogger who is active on various social media platforms. Focusing on unexpected architecture in lesser-known parts of China, he has a fanbase of thousands of followers, from Weibo to Bilibili.

His fourth video, “A Trip to Hogwarts Hebei” (“霍格沃茨河北分校之旅”) launched him to stardom in his channel’s first month.

The video documents the bizarre architecture of the Hebei Academy of Fine Arts, which has been compared to the ‘Hogwarts’ School of Witchcraft and Wizardry from Harry Potter due to its bizarre castle campus.

The Hebei Academy of Fine Arts is one of the wondrous places Schlieffen introduces in his vlogs. (Image via Twoeggs.com).

Schlieffen’s 4-minute video shows the vlogger’s exploration of the ‘Hogwarts’-like area. After a long drive down a country road, he arrives at the so-called ‘Empire Square’, which is surrounded by three magnificent rococo, Renaissance and Gothic-style buildings.

The center building, adorned with dramatic towers and turrets, is the school’s administration building. Imagine grading student work in a medieval castle in the middle of a cornfield!

Guiding the viewer through the premises, Schlieffen shows the hotel and conference center on the left; the interior is crammed with densely arranged pillars and painted ceilings  – which might be a homage to the Sistine Chapel, without the high ceilings.

The pseudo-European buildings are somewhat laughable on their own, but there’s a lot more. The campus is divided in two halves: one is European-themed, and the other one focuses on ancient China. The two are separated by a manmade “Mediterranean” lake complete with manmade islands covered in artificial palm trees.

Schlieffen’s videos always follow a similar pattern. He often uses a wide-angle lens and speeds up the video to four or even eight times its normal speed, with quick edits – no shot lasts longer than 3 seconds. Each video begins with the vlogger getting off from a train or getting out of a car from where he starts his tour. “Please hold on and sit tight,” is one of his signature phrases.

 

They suddenly seemed to realize that there were parts of China they had no clue about.

 

“A Trip to Hogwarts Hebei” soon started making its rounds on Chinese social media, and was especially shared among well-educated netizens and white-collar workers, who suddenly seemed to realize that there were parts of China they had no clue about.

The Chinese term “shanzhai” (山寨) is a derogatory term for “knock-off goods,” but it literally means “mountain village.” The assumption is that people from rural mountain villages cannot afford real luxury goods, so they buy cheap counterfeits made in poorly run factories. The metropolitan middle class already knew about shanzhai Louis Vuitton bags, but they weren’t aware that hillbillies were capable of building a 288-acre shanzhai Hogwarts.

Schlieffen’s video on the noteworthy Hebei Academy of Fine Arts has currently been viewed over nine million times on Miaopai alone.

After the success of his initial videos, Schlieffen continued filming knock-off world wonders in Hebei. By now, he has made fifty vlogs, including those on wondrous places such as Hebei Jerusalem or Hebei Venice.

‘Hebei Venice’ is one of the spots highlighted in one of Schlieffen’s vlogs. Image via http://blog.sina.com.cn.

Through the course of his vlogging career, Schlieffen expanded his field of interest to include any attraction teetering on the thin line between ambitious and ridiculous.

Whether sharing images and videos on the world’s largest cement elephant or the biggest turtle sculpture, Schlieffen’s posts always attract hundreds of likes. One of his other popular videos explores the somewhat bizarre site of the Baoding Zoo.

 

Hebei is an almost invisible province, as transparent as the air – I used that invisibility to make myself visible.

 

There are not many online influencers focusing on Hebei, a place that is not exactly known for its glamor and charm. At a December 2018 event hosted by Chinese tech news site Huxiu.com, Schlieffen said that “Hebei is an almost invisible province, as transparent as the air – I used that invisibility to make myself visible.”

Hebei, a coastal province in Northern China, contains two municipalities under the direct control of the central government: Beijing and Tianjin. People often say that Beijing and Tianjin are the flavorful ‘fillings of a dumpling’ while Hebei is ‘the plain wrapper.’

Under the current household registration system, being a resident of Beijing or Tianjin means better social welfare than the rest of Hebei. Thus, the ‘brain drain’ from Hebei to the cities has been ongoing for decades.

When people talk about Hebei, they usually describe it as an uneventful place, but Schlieffen’s representation of Hebei completely changes their idea of the region, turning it into a place where people can be wildly ambitious.

Their ambitions can take on two forms: first, they are obsessed with huge, grand buildings. Second, they want to include every aesthetic they can think of, Chinese or European, ancient or contemporary. These ambitions come together in a brazenly unsophisticated form of architecture.

Hotel in Hebei in one of Schlieffen’s videos (天子大酒店).

Schlieffen (1992) was born and raised in Hebei. After college, he went to England for graduate school until 2018.

While he was studying abroad, a new wave of Chinese vloggers launched their careers in mainland China. Many of them, such as the female vlogger Zhuzi (@你好_竹子), were studying abroad in Western countries. They shot and shared short videos of their daily lives, satisfying their audience’s curiosity about life in a strange land.

Schlieffen began to seriously consider vlogging as a career after finishing his studies and returning to his hometown. He found that his prospective audience seemed to have grown tired of watching Chinese exchange students living happy, fashionable lives overseas. As a lover of traveling, he decided to start his own travel vlog.

Schlieffen, image via Sina News.

In an interview with Li Dangxin for Huxiu.com, Schlieffen explains: “You have to ask yourself time and time again why the audience wants to watch your videos.” Careful consideration led him to shoot the bizarre buildings in Hebei.

There are tens of thousands of Hebei natives working in big cities, Schlieffen thought; they care about what’s going on in their hometowns, but they haven’t necessarily seen these incredible buildings in person. They would be his first audience and if they shared his posts, his videos would surely go viral.

Things happened just as Schlieffen expected. Well-educated white-collar workers who had left their hometowns behind were stunned by Schlieffen’s discoveries and collectively reposted his videos with their friends.

 

“Making Hebei great again.”

 

Even after having produced dozens of vlogs and posts, Schlieffen is not worried about running out of stories. After his initial success, he also began covering stories in other provinces.

Schlieffen found that if a village’s richest man happens to be the local party secretary and is also a Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) member, you’re sure to find ridiculous architecture in that village.

These locally powerful people often want to put up monuments and realize impressive structures to build on their legacy. Their power often goes largely unchecked in the various corners of Chinese -more rural- provinces, and their subordinates will not question them – those with the ability to challenge them aesthetically have probably already fled to bigger cities.

One example features in Schlieffen’s video on the Long Wish Hotel International. Boasting an elevation of 328 meters, the hotel is ranked No. 8 in China and No. 15 worldwide in terms of height. It isn’t in densely populated Beijing or Shanghai, but in Huaxi village in Jiangsu province. When asked why one would build such a gigantic hotel in a rural area, the village party secretary answered: “Because we can.”

The gigantic hotel in Jiangxi, image via http://blog.sina.com.cn.

The hotel in Huaxi has nouveau riche written all over it. Every corner is decorated with glittering sculptures made with gold, silver or crystal. There are miniatures of Tiananmen, the White House and Arc De Triomphe in the village. On top of the White House stands a miniature Statue of Liberty.

In reporting on all these wondrous places and buildings, Schlieffen avoids making strong statements about them. Instead, he often makes playful or edgy comments. His slogan “Make Hebei great again” also means different things to different people. Some instantly understand his application of the phrase, while others simply take it literally.

What is noteworthy is that Schlieffen rarely offends locals. He’s welcomed wherever he visits. After he made a video about Wan Jia Li, a hotel/shopping mall in Hunan, the owner supposedly even invited Schlieffen to visit his home, saying: “My home is more fun than my business.”

Being featured in one of Schlieffen’s video can be lucrative for places in Hebei and elsewhere, as these places in rural areas will suddenly see a flux of visitors. Hebei Academy of Fine Arts has even become a popular destination for wedding photos.

Schlieffen is convinced he has found the right perspective from which to observe China’s rapidly changing areas. Meanwhile, his next video is on its way. “Please hold on and sit tight,” Schlieffen says again. Enjoy the ride. 

By Anna Wang

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. Please note that your comment below will need to be manually approved if you’re a first-time poster here.

©2019 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

‘First Lady of Hong Kong TV’ Lily Leung Passes Away at Age 90

Chinese netizens pay their respects to veteran actress Lily Leung Shun-Yin (1929-2019), who passed away on August 13.

Manya Koetse

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Lily in 1996, image via Sing Tao Daily.

While the Hong Kong protests are dominating the headlines, the death of Hong Kong veteran actress Lily Leung Shun-Yin (梁舜燕) has become a top trending topic on social media site Sina Weibo under the hashtag “Hong Kong Actress Liang Shunyan Dies from Illness” (#香港演员梁舜燕病逝#).

Lily Leung, image via http://www.sohu.com/a/333418087_161795.

The actress was born in Hong Kong in 1929. She starred in dozens of television series, including the first TV drama to be locally broadcasted. She became known as “the first lady of Hong Kong TV.”

Leung acted for TVB and other broadcasters. Some of her more well-known roles were those in Kindred Spirit (真情) and Heart of Greed (溏心风暴).

Leung, also nicknamed ‘Sister Lily’ (Lily姐), passed away on August 13. According to various Chinese media reports, the actress passed peacefully surrounded by family after enduring illness. She was 90 years old.

“I’ve seen so much of her work,” many Weibo netizens say, sharing the favorite roles played by Leung. “I always watched her on TVB while growing up, and will cherish her memory,” one commenter wrote.

Another well-known Hong Kong actress, Teresa Ha Ping (夏萍), also passed away this month. She was 81 years old when she died. Her passing away also attracted a lot of attention on Chinese social media (
#演员夏萍去世#).

Many people express their sadness over the fact that not one but two grand ladies from Hong Kong’s 20th-century entertainment era have passed away this month.

“Those people from our memories pass away one by one, and it represents the passing of an era,” one Weibo user wrote.

“Two familiar faces and old troupers of Hong Kong drama – I hope they rest in peace.”

By Manya Koetse

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. Please note that your comment below will need to be manually approved if you’re a first-time poster here.

©2019 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

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