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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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Backgrounder

How Chinese Kuaishou Rebel ‘Pangzai’ Became a Twitter King

He’s been called a ‘Twitter king’, but how did the unexpected online fame of this ‘Hebei Pangzai’ start?

Jessica Colwell

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Twitter has fallen in love with a Chinese farmer after his drinking videos on Kuaishou were cross-posted abroad and went viral. He has embraced his new fans and Western social media, arguably becoming one of China’s most successful cultural ambassadors of the year.

He describes himself as the “inventor of tornado beer drinking style” and as an “ordinary peasant from China.” ‘Hebei Pangzai’ only joined Twitter in August of 2019, but he already has a Twitter following of more than 111.6K.

Although his account is temporarily restricted by Twitter at time of writing (“due to suspicious activity”), his popularity is only growing. Some Twitterers, such as the China twitterer Carl Zha (@CarlZha), are even initiating a “#FreePangzai campaign” to restore the account of the “one true King.”

But where and when did the online fame of ‘Hebei Pangzai’ start?

Let’s begin our introduction to Pangzai with one tweet from March of this year, when Twitter user ‘Hunnaban Trenchboss’ posted a video from Chinese short video app Kuaishou (快手) showing a man – ‘Pangzai’ – wearing sunglasses and smoking a cigarette while preparing an incredible mixed drink.

The man in the video smoothly pops the cap off a bottle of beer with a chopstick, pours some in a large jar, then twirls the bottle and propels the rest of the beer in a tornado of force down his throat.

He follows that up by pouring in more beer, some blue liquor, an egg, some Pepsi, and a hefty glass of baijiu – which he dumps in only after lighting it on fire, igniting his finger, and coolly lighting his cigarette. He then chugs the entire concoction in a matter of seconds.

“How do I become as cool as this guy, The Coolest Guy?”, the tweet said.

The same video was shared again in August by a few Russian accounts, was retweeted by an American account, and then went completely viral, racking up millions of views and tens of thousands of retweets.

That video has now been viewed almost 12 million times on Twitter, and has inspired tens of thousands of fans who herald him as ‘king.’

The man in the video referred to as ‘Pangzai’ (胖仔, ‘chubby dude’) is Liu Shichao (刘世超), a 33-year-old farmer and small-time Chinese internet celebrity from a city called Xingtai in Hebei Province.

According to an interview with Technode, he found out about the video on Twitter when some of his new foreign fans opened Chinese social media accounts to find him and tell him about his overnight online fame.

“One message told me that I was a celebrity now in America,” he told Technode: “So I chatted with the person [who sent the message] for a whole day, with the help of translation software.”

Within two days of his video going viral, Pangzai had figured out how to use a VPN, opened his own Twitter account and started uploading videos.

He even posted a reply on the original viral video to alert everybody to his account.

Liu’s early response to his viral video on Twitter.

Since then, Liu ‘Pangzai’ has amassed over 111,000 followers and has posted many more videos of everything from drinking, to cooking, to exploring his countryside hometown.

But it was the drinking videos specifically that earned him his following, both abroad and in China.

 

IT STARTED ON KUAISHOU

“Pangzai epitomizes the typical Kuaishou account.”

 

Liu began his internet career three years ago on Kuaishou, a Chinese short video app massively popular among China’s lower-tier cities and countryside.

In contrast to the polished, celeb-heavy platform Douyin, which is most popular among urban youths, Kuaishou is a platform for the masses. Its users are known for their crazy antics and general disregard for personal safety.

Liu Shichao’s Kuaishou account has 354,000 followers, but the majority of his videos have been removed.

Pangzai epitomizes the typical Kuaishou account. Posting under the handle “Chubby Dude from Hebei” (@河北胖仔), he uploads videos of himself eating and drinking in eye-popping combinations, or sometimes smashing things – from bricks to unopened water bottles – with his bare hands.

Liu’s video of breaking bricks with his hands was also popular on Twitter.

Liu also gained notoriety, and a couple hundred thousand followers, from his mastery of the so-called ‘beer tornado technique’ (小旋风 xiǎo xuànfēng).

According to an interview with the BBC, he peaked at 470,000 followers on Kuaishou and was monetizing his online fame with some 10,000 RMB ($1420) per month.

Liu’s signature beer tornado technique features in the first video he posted to Twitter.

Unfortunately for Liu, China’s Cyberspace Administration announced a crackdown on vulgar and illegal content across multiple social media platforms in spring of 2018, with a focus on Douyin, Kuaishou, and its sister news company Jinri Toutiao. Kuaishou was pulled from app stores until it cleaned up its act.

It is unclear just how many videos and accounts have been removed as a result of the cleanup. We can get a rough idea from an announcement by Kuaishou earlier this year that in March of 2019 alone, it removed an average of over 11,000 videos and blocked almost 1,000 accounts every day.

The result for Liu was that his account was suspended for four months and the majority of his most popular videos, including the one that went viral abroad, were removed for promoting ‘unhealthy drinking habits.’

When you look at his Kuaishou account today, you won’t see many videos focused solely on baijiu and beer chugging.

The videos that remain on his account do include drinking (and his signature tornado move) but it is always accompanied by eating food or some other activity (such as sitting deep in a field of corn, munching on roast duck and dribbling baijiu down a corn leaf into a glass.)

In a video posted to Kuaishou, Liu pours baijiu into a glass from a corn leaf, before then lighting it on fire and chugging it.

Liu still has 354,000 followers on Kuaishou. His Chinese fans, like his foreign ones, marvel at his cool and collected manner as he eats and drinks all sorts of disgusting things.

Canned herring features heavily in his most popular recent videos, where he can be seen sipping the juice directly from the can.

In one of his videos on Kuaishou, Liu eating herring directly from the can, to the disgust of his fans.

“This has to be the most unaffected anyone has ever been by eating canned herring,” says one fan. “The flavor is disgusting! 99.9% of people who try this would vomit,” another online commenter replies.

 

AN UNEXPECTED TWITTER KING

“Liu is like many young men from the countryside of Northern China: open, friendly, humble, and genuinely excited to share his life.”

 

This year, Liu seems to have embraced his newfound international stardom with grace and savvy.

He uses Twitter’s in-app translation to help him communicate with fans and has been highly interactive on the platform.

Liu ‘Pangzai’ was also quick to open up a Paypal account and share it with followers, and has recently made YouTube and Instagram accounts to prevent scams pretending to be him. He has also collaborated with a Twitter fan to sell T-shirts online in America.

Many online fans have dubbed him ‘king’, perhaps the highest praise one can receive on the internet today.

But in contrast to the sunglasses and chill demeanor of his videos, Liu does not appear to be an internet celebrity overly obsessed with being cool.

Instead, he is like many young men from the countryside of Northern China: open, friendly, humble, and genuinely excited to share his life (and drinking habits) with the rest of the world.

Liu began using translation software to communicate with fans soon after joining Twitter.

After reposting all of his old drinking videos from Kuaishou, Liu started asking Twitter fans what they would like to see from him. Many responded that they wanted more about his life in rural China.

He has since followed up with videos showing him fixing a pipe with his friends, exploring his local market, cooking sweet potatoes, and, of course, a tutorial on how to master the ‘tornado beer’ technique.

Liu explaining on Twitter how to perform the tornado beer technique that helped make him famous.

Many have expressed concern for his health in light of his drinking habits, but he has assured everybody that everything he does is “within his ability” and that he doesn’t drink like that very often.

Liu is grateful for all the support and praise he has received from abroad. “It’s crazy to have all of these foreign friends all of a sudden,” he recently said in an interview with Deadspin: “I really have to thank them a lot. If I have a chance I will find them and we can drink together.”

Seemingly to that end, Liu has recently organized a party to be held near his hometown in China, exciting fans all over the world and spurring many to apply for passports and visas.

Once Liu began inviting people to his party, he changed the date and location in order to accommodate more attendees.

The date is set for December 14, 2019 in Zhuamadian City, Hebei Province; too soon for many to make it, but he promises another party in the spring. There is talk also of organizing a visit for Liu ‘Pangzai’ to go to America.

 

WINDOW INTO CHINESE SOCIAL MEDIA

“Liu’s growing notoriety abroad seems to have flown completely under the radar of the Chinese internet.”

 

Although there are many vloggers like Pangzai in China, he stands out on Twitter as some sort of window into Chinese social media, especially because this online world is usually so separate from the Western realms of social media.

The recent explosive growth of Chinese social media apps such as TikTok has not done much to facilitate this kind of cultural interaction between China and the West.

Although Tiktok is, in fact, a Chinese app (called Douyin 抖音 in China), there are actually two different versions of the same app in mainland China and abroad, meaning that the other ‘Pangzais’ of the Chinese internet still remain within the social media spheres of the PRC, rarely gaining fame outside of the Great Firewall.

In China, aside from his fans on Kuaishou, Liu’s growing notoriety abroad seems to have flown completely under the radar of the Chinese internet. He is mentioned only one or two times across Weibo, and searches for his name and handle on WeChat, Baidu, and various Chinese tech news sites bring up nothing.

Liu is a rare example of genuine soft power coming out of China. A pure, grassroots man of the people with strong cultural appeal who sincerely enjoys sharing his life and his culture with the rest of the world. His tweets are full of affection and appreciation for his fans, as well as frequent prompts for followers to share their own lives and customs of their home countries.

To watch his introduction to Twitter and rise to fame is to see the best of the internet: cultural interaction, genuinely shared delight, and mutual admiration inspired by hilarious antics caught on camera.

His Twitter fans express their hope that Twitter Support will soon lift the temporary ban on their ‘Twitter king.’ To them, it’s perfectly clear: this online king is nowhere near dead, long live Pangzai!

Follow the #FreePangzai hashtag on Twitter.

Update: Panghaizi is out of Twitter jail!

 
Want to read more about unexpected online celebrities from China? Also see:
The Story of Two Farmers Who Became Internet Celebrities;
The “Vagrant Shanghai Professor”;
From Farmgirl to Fashionista: Weibo Celebrity Fairy Wang.

 

By Jessica Colwell
Follow @whatsonweibo

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©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 Celebs

“Living a Nightmare” – Chinese Beauty Guru Yuya Mika Shares Shocking Story of Domestic Abuse

Famous makeup artist Yuya Mika shared her story in a video that has since gone viral on Weibo.

Manya Koetse

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on

First published

Chinese famous makeup vlogger Yuya Mika has come out and shared her experience of being physically abused by her former boyfriend. Yuya’s story – told in a documentary-style video that is now going viral – does not just raise online awareness about the problem of domestic violence, it also shows the raw realness behind the glamorous facade of China’s KOLs’ social media life.

Fashion and makeup blogger He Yuyong, better knowns as Yuya (宇芽) or Yuya Mika (@宇芽YUYAMIKA), has gone viral on China’s social media platform Weibo for sharing her personal story of suffering domestic abuse at the hands of her ex-partner.

On Monday afternoon, November 25 – which is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women – Yuya, a KOL (Key Opinion Leaders/online influencer) who has over 800,000 followers on her Weibo account, wrote: “I’m a victim of domestic violence. The past six months, I feel like I’ve been living a nightmare. I need to speak up about domestic violence here!”

With her post, Yuya shared a 12-minute documentary-style video in which she tells how she has been abused by her partner of one year, with whom she has now separated.

The short doc does not just tell Yuya’s story, it also features the experiences of her former partner’s ex-wives, who allegedly also suffered domestic violence at his hands.

Besides the shocking accounts of the women, the video contains also footage of Yuya’s ex-boyfriend trying to violently drag her out of an elevator – a moment that was caught on security cameras in August of this year.

Yuya identifies her former boyfriend and abuser as the 44-year-old artist and Weibo blogger ‘Toto River’ (@沱沱的风魔教), who was married three times before starting a relationship with the famous beauty blogger.

The two met each other through social media, and Yuya initially fell for his talent and kindness. But, as she says, his perfect social media image soon turned out to be nothing but a fake facade, and the nightmare began.

The beauty blogger explains that the domestic violence went hand in hand with mental abuse, with Yuya being brainwashed into believing she was lucky to be with a man such as her boyfriend.

As the abuse became a regular occurrence, Yuya tearfully explains how she sometimes could not work for a week because her face was too bruised for shooting videos.

Yuya also writes on Weibo that she shares her story so that the experiences she and her ex-boyfriend’s former wives suffered will not happen to other women, and to warn others from ending up in a similar situation.

Meanwhile, the Weibo account of Yuya’s former boyfriend has been closed for comments.

Yuya Mika is not just popular on Weibo and video ap Tiktok. The beauty guru – famous for doing imitation makeup of celebrities and famous icons such as Mona Lisa – also has over 750k fans on her Instagram account and thousands of subscribers on her YouTube Channel, where she posts makeup tutorials.

Yuya Mika as Mona Lisa.

Yuya is part of the company of Papi Jiang (aka Papi Chan), a Chinese vlogger and comedian who became an internet celebrity in 2016. On Tuesday, the Papi Jiang company also responded to Yuya’s video, saying they fully support the makeup artist in coming forward with her story.

At time of writing, Yuya’s story has been shared over 425,000 times, with a staggering thread of more than 280,000 comments on Weibo.

Many commenters respond in shock that the tearful woman in the video is actually Yuya, as the makeup artist is usually always smiling and shining in front of the camera. Other Weibo users express their hopes that Yuya’s ex-boyfriend will be punished for what he did.

With over 160 million views, the hashtag “Yuya Suffers Domestic Abuse” (#宇芽被家暴#) is now in the top five of most-discussed topics on Weibo.

Over the past few years, the issue of domestic violence has received more attention on Chinese social media, especially since China’s first national law against domestic violence came into effect on March 1, 2016. More women have come forward on Chinese social media to share their personal experiences with domestic abuse.

According to Chinese media reports of Tuesday afternoon, local authorities are currently investigating Yuya’s story.

By Manya Koetse, with contributions from Miranda Barnes
Follow @whatsonweibo

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