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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 Arts & Entertainment

Two Hour Time Limit for KTV: China’s Latest Covid-19 Measures Draw Online Criticism

China’s latest COVID-19 infection prevention and control measures are drawing criticism from social media users.

Manya Koetse

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First published

No more never-ending nights filled with singing and drinking at the karaoke bar for now, as new pandemic containment measures put a time limit as to how long people can stay inside entertainment locations and wangba (internet cafes).

On June 22nd, China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism (文旅部) issued an adjusted version to earlier published guidelines on Covid-19-related prevention and control measures for theaters, internet cafes, and other indoor entertainment venues.

Some of the added regulations have become big news on Chinese social media today.

According to the latest guidelines, it will not be allowed for Chinese consumers to stay at various entertainment locations and wangba for more than two hours.

Singing and dancing entertainment venues, such as KTV bars, can only operate at no greater than 50% maximum occupancy. This also means that private karaoke rooms will be much emptier, as they will also only be able to operate at 50% capacity.

On Weibo, the news drew wide attention today, with the hashtag “KTV, Internet Cafe Time Limit of Two Hours” (#KTV网吧消费时间不得超2小时#) receiving over 220 million views at the time of writing. One news post reporting on the latest measures published on the People’s Daily Weibo account received over 7000 comments and 108,000 likes.

One popular comment, receiving over 9000 likes, criticized the current anti-coronavirus measures for entertainment locations, suggesting that dining venues – that have reopened across the country – actually pose a much greater risk than karaoke rooms due to the groups of people gathering in one space without a mask and the “saliva [drops] flying around.”

The comment, that was posted by popular comic blogger Xuexi, further argues that cinemas – that have suffered greatly from nationwide closures – are much safer, as people could wear masks inside and the maximum amount of seats could be minimized by 50%. Karaoke rooms are even safer, Xuexi writes, as the private rooms are only shared by friends or colleagues – people who don’t wear face masks around each other anyway.

Many people agree with the criticism, arguing that the latest guidelines do not make sense at all and that two hours is not nearly enough for singing songs at the karaoke bar or for playing online games at the internet cafe. Some wonder why (regular) bars are not closed instead, or why there is no two-hour time limit for their work at the office.

Most comments are about China’s cinemas, with Weibo users wondering why a karaoke bar, where people open their mouths to sing and talk, would be allowed to open, while the cinemas, where people sit quietly and watch the screen, remain closed.

Others also suggest that a two-hour limit would actually increase the number of individuals visiting one place in one night, saying that this would only increase the risks of spreading the virus.

“Where’s the scientific evidence?”, some wonder: “What’s the difference between staying there for two hours or one day?”

“As a wangba owner, this really fills me with sorrow,” one commenter writes: “Nobody cares about the financial losses we suffered over the past six months. Our landlord can’t reduce our rent. During the epidemic we fully conformed to the disease prevention measures, we haven’t opened our doors at all, and now there’s this policy. We don’t know what to do anymore.”

Among the more serious worries and fears, there are also some who are concerned about more trivial things: “There’s just no way we can eat all our food at the KTV place within a two-hour time frame!”

By Manya Koetse

*” 餐饮其实才更严重,一群人聚在一起,而且不戴口罩,唾沫横飞的。开了空调一样也是密闭空间。电影院完全可以要求必须戴口罩,而且座位可以只出售一半。KTV其实更安全,都是同事朋友的,本身在一起都不戴口罩了,在包间也无所谓。最危险的餐饮反而都不在意了”

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

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

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China Arts & Entertainment

Chinese Idol Survival Shows – The Start of a New ‘Idol Era’

Idol reality survival shows are riding a new wave of popularity in China.

Yin Lin Tan

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China has a vibrant online popular culture media environment, where new trends and genres come and go every single day. Chinese idol survival shows, however, have seen continued success and now seem to go through another major peak in popularity. What’s on Weibo’s Yin Lin explains.

On May 30, the finale of Chinese online video platform iQIYI’s Youth With You 2 (青春有你2) broke the Internet. Official videos on iQIYI’s Youtube channel garnered over 300 million views. At the time of writing, the hashtag “Youth With You 2 Finale” (#青春有你2总决赛#) has 3.15 billion views; the hashtag “Youth With You 2” (#青春有你2#) has 14.5 billion views. 

In recent years, China has produced a slew of so-called ‘idol survival shows.’ They have enjoyed much popularity among local audiences, as well as overseas—more than 393 hashtags related to Youth With You 2 trended in Asia, Europe, South America, and North America. In this overview, we explore the background, status quo, and future of China’s idol survival shows.

 

The Start of The ‘Idol Wave’ in China 

 

In China’s idol survival reality shows, so-called ‘trainees’, or aspiring idols, participate in a series of different challenges to compete for a chance to debut.

The ‘idol culture’ (偶像文化) has been dominating popular culture in Japan and South Korea for many years. An idol is, in short, a heavily commercialized multi-talented entertainer that is marketed – sometimes as a product – for image, attractiveness, and personality, either alone or with a group.

Especially K-pop and the Korean entertainment industry have since long been extremely popular among Chinese youth, heavily influencing pop culture in China today (more about Korean and Japanese idols here and here, and also read our article “Why Korean Idol Groups Got So Big in China and are Conquering the World“).

These kinds of shows are ubiquitous in South Korea’s popular culture, with Produce 101 (2016) becoming one of the most popular and successful South Korean reality series ever. 

The concept is simple. Every week, viewers vote for their favorite contestant. Trainees with insufficient votes during elimination rounds are eliminated from the competition. 

Nine Percent, the group formed from Idol Producer (Source).

The group formed from the final trainees then goes on to ‘promote’ for a period of time, usually one to two years.

This method of creating an idol group, in which the members are basically selected by their own fans, is a major way to bridge existing distances between fans and their idols. Fan participation is a key factor in the success of idol reality shows.

While China has had several idol survival shows, iQIYI’s Idol Producer (青春有你, 2018) was the first to reach levels of popularity similar to that of South Korea’s Produce 101

Idol Producer premiered in January 2018 with Zhang Yixing as the host and Li Ronghao, MC Jin, Cheng Xiao, Zhou Jieqiong, and Jackson Wang serving as mentors.

This first season of Idol Producer brought together a total of hundred trainees. Though most trainees were from China, there were a few from overseas, such as You Zhangjing from Malaysia and Huang Shuhao from Thailand. The younger brother of Chinese actress Fan Bingbing, Fan Chengcheng, also participated in the show.

The first episode of Idol Producer attracted more than 100 million views within the first hour of broadcasting. In the final episode, more than 180 million votes were cast, with first-place winner Cai Xukun raking in more than 47 million votes.  

Trainees performing on Produce 101 China (Source).

Two months after Idol Producer, Tencent launched Produce 101 China (创造101) in March 2018. Both shows marked the start of the ‘idol wave’ in China. 

In the next two years, more idol survival shows would dominate the Chinese entertainment scene. iQIYI released Youth With You 1 (青春有你) and Youth With You 2 (青春有你2) in 2019 and 2020 respectively. Tencent, too, released Produce Camp 2019 (创造营2019) and Produce Camp 2020 (创造营2020), the latter of which is currently airing. 

 

China’s New Idol Survival Show Era 

 

In 2018, both Produce 101 China and Idol Producer enjoyed overwhelming popularity, accumulating more than 4.73 billion views and 3 billion views respectively. Their sequels, however, have failed to achieve the same level of success.

At the time of writing, 150,000 viewers have completed Youth With You 1 on Chinese community site Douban, versus 470,000 viewers for its predecessor, Idol Producer. Additionally, the number of votes cast for the first episode of Youth With You 1 was much lower compared to its Idol Producer equivalent. 

The number of votes for the top 19 trainees on Idol Producer (left) versus Youth With You 1 (right) in the first episode (Source).

As for Produce 101 China, 510,000 viewers have completed the show on Douban, but only 340,000 viewers have finished watching its sequel. 

Groups formed from these shows have met with varying amounts of success and have run into problems regarding scheduling conflicts. 

Nine Percent, the boy group formed from Idol Producer in 2018, was known as a group that rarely met. Their second album was a compilation of tracks from solo members. Members had existing contracts with their own companies while simultaneously promoting with Nine Percent; hence, due to scheduling conflicts, members would often forgo Nine Percent activities for those of their own company. 

Rocket Girls from Produce 101 China. (Source)

Rocket Girls, formed from Produce 101 China, also faced problems after debuting. Due to conflicts between Tencent and their management company, Yuehua Entertainment, Meng Meiqi and Wu Xuanyi, who placed first and second respectively, left the group two months after debut.

Despite the problems faced by groups formed from such shows, some idols were able to ride on the momentum they gained from participating.

For instance, Cai Xukun, first-place winner of Idol Producer, swiftly rose to become one of the most popular trainees on the show, consistently ranking first place in every round of elimination. He was also the host of the recently concluded Youth With You 2.

Liu Yuxin obtained first place in the last episode of Youth With You 2. (Source)

Other trainees have also seen individual success. Liu Yuxin, the first-place winner of Youth With You 2, gained attention for her androgynous look: short hair, a cool personality, and wearing shorts instead of a skirt. Her hashtag “Liu Yuxin” (#刘雨昕#) has been viewed more than 550 million times on Weibo. In the final episode, she received more than 17 million votes.

Despite the lowering audience ratings for other recent idol shows, the success of Youth With You 2 might mark the start of a new ‘idol era’. Even Chinese netizens wondered why the show is so popular compared to Youth With You 1.

Just one day after the finale premiered, the hashtag “Youth With You 2 Finale” had already been viewed more than 2.2 billion times on Weibo. On Douban, 580,000 viewers have finished the show—more than any of the previous idol survival shows by iQIYI and Tencent.

 

The Future of Idol Survival Shows 

 

Chinese idol survival shows were received with much fanfare when they first entered mainstream popular culture in 2018. But the ensuing conflicts that the resulting groups ran into resulted in netizens doubting the success and effectiveness of these shows. 

Trainees from Produce Camp 2020 practicing for the theme song. Source

This year, however, the popularity of both Youth With You 2 and Produce Camp 2020 might signal a comeback for the idol era in China.

And this time around, Chinese idol survival shows are also gaining more traction outside of the PRC, becoming more and more popular among global audiences. Both Youth With You 2 and Produce Camp 2020 have been well-received by viewers from many different countries.

On social media, online commenters praise the two shows – and Chinese idol survival shows in general – for having a more “laid-back atmosphere” between the trainees and mentors. Web users also comment that they enjoy how the shows highlight the friendship between the trainees, rather than the feuds.

It seems that what sets Chinese idol survival shows apart from the South Korean ones is precisely why some viewers prefer them. The longer running times, for example, makes it possible to give more screen time to the different trainees and to give a deeper understanding of the relations between them.

Youtube comment on Episode 1 of Produce Camp 2020. Source

Youtube comment on Episode 1 of Produce Camp 2020. Source

Reddit comment on Episode 9 of Idol Producer. Source

With the popularity of idols like Liu Yuxin and Wang Ju who challenge conventional beauty standards, shows can also look into moving away from the cookie-cutter aesthetic that idols usually adhere to. 

Furthermore, management companies and broadcasting companies have to come to an agreement regarding what scheduling arrangement would benefit all parties and be conducive towards the idols’ physical and mental health. 

Selected trainees from Produce Camp 2020 took part in a photoshoot with Elle. Source

It remains to be seen whether THE9, the newly formed group from Youth With You 2, will be able to flourish in the time to come and avoid the troubles that other groups ran into. 

As for Produce Camp 2020, it seems set to enjoy just as much success as Youth With You 2 did – if not more. Only five episodes have been released, but the show’s hashtag already has 16.1 billion views.

A reviewer on Douban writes: “The trainees are all confident, taking opportunities to express themselves and actively showcase their talents. So much youthful and positive energy!” 

The latest newcomers to the idol reality show genre further consolidate the success of the format. Recently, Mango TV released Sisters Who Make Waves (乘风波浪的姐姐们, 2020), where female celebrities above 30 years old compete to make it into the final five-member girl group. The first episode was viewed more than 370 million times within the first three days of release and immediately became top trending on Weibo.

The number of survival shows in China right now and their growing popularity shows that audiences seemingly can’t get enough of the genre. It is an indication that, despite setbacks in the past, China’s idol survival reality show genre is still going strong and might be here to stay.

You can watch the currently airing Produce Camp 2020 and Sisters Who Make Waves here and 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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