The Comeback of Calligraphy in 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.
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.”
Xu 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.”
“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.”
“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.”
– By Manya Koetse
featured image by Laura Vermeeren.
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