From Shufa to Shuyi
the Greeks used kalligraphia, meaning "beautiful writing",
the Chinese used shufa, "the systems of writing",
and the Japanese, shodo, "the way of calligraphy".
It is noteworthy that although the Greeks coined a word for
beautiful writing, legibility and precision remain the most
important and rigid criteria of the quality of calligraphy,
leaving not much room for free interpretation. On the contrary,
the Chinese and Japanese terms that set out to emphasise the
methods of writing, flourish into the most beautiful calligraphy.
The Japanese now use sho for creative artistic calligraphy and
the Chinese have moved on to what I suggest to call shuyi, "calligraphic
art". Whereas shufa is written to be read, shuyi is drawn
to be viewed.
By Tang Dynasty, five styles of shufa have already been developed
and reached their full maturity; they are zhuan shu [seal script],
li shu [official script], kai shu [regular script], xing shu
[walking script] and cao shu [cursive script]. Since then, Chinese
calligraphy has been used for the imperial examination system
that dictates certain uniformed style of calligraphy, as a practical
medium to write Chinese characters for communication purposes,
and later as inscriptions on Chinese painting. As a result of
this confinement to its utilitarian function and secondary role,
there was no effort made to separate and develop calligraphy
into its own independent artistic form, until 1898 when Kang
Youwei and his student Liang Qichao launched the "One-Hundred-Day
Reform". The reform included eliminating the imperial examination
system and breaking away from the restriction of calligraphy
standards widely followed since Tang.
Kang is popularly regarded as the founding father of contemporary
Chinese calligraphy. His ideas prompted many calligraphers to
start seeking fundamental transformation and drastic innovation
to bring calligraphy to an independent art status. The process
of development was, however, very gradual in the beginning.
This is the period I refer to as the First Stage: Personalised
Traditional Calligraphy, which spanned across the hefty first
eighty years of the twentieth century. By "personalised
traditional calligraphy", I adopt Zhang Yiguo's definition
to mean "works in a personal style but still related to
traditional calligraphy". I group the next ten years into
the Second Stage: Pictographic Calligraphy, which I consider
works such as painting-like calligraphy and calligraphy-dominated
painting. The last is what I call the Third Stage: New Calligraphic
Art or Shuyi, which include pseudo-Chinese-character calligraphy,
calligraphy as advocated in Shufa Zhuyi [Calligraphism], as
well as calligraphy related performance and installation works.
The First Stage:
Personalised Traditional Calligraphy
this period, the development of a new Chinese calligraphy had
depended very much on tradition. The process had been steadily
maintained, though very slow, with no influence from outside
China. As Chinese calligraphy originated from the indigenous
Chinese characters, many calligraphers of this stage were still
unable to break away from the constraints of a traditional calligraphy
complex. Some master calligraphers such as Lu Weizhao, Sha Menghai,
Xiao Xian, Qi Gong and Wang Xuezhong began to be concerned in
calligraphy before the establishment of Communist rule in 1949
but did not achieve any breakthrough until somewhat thirty years
later, after the "Cultural Revolution". Trend in Chinese
calligraphy set by these 'pioneer' calligraphers was, however,
still marked by the revitalisation of traditional scripts to
create personalised styles.
Another group of calligraphers, a younger generation, who upheld
their pursuit for the art during the "Cultural Revolution" also
emerged after the chaos. Among them were Shen Peng, Sun Boxiang,
Zhou Huijun, He Yinghui and Wang Yong. Mostly in the age group
of thirties and forties at that time, they joined and continued
the older generation's exploration of a comprehensive combination
of several or, sometimes, all of the historically important
scripts and styles in one work. The great challenge for them
was also the ability to draw upon the essence of the traditional
scripts of zhuan, li, kai, xing and cao while not hesitating
to express a new view. The emergence of woman calligraphers
such as Xiao (one of Kang Youwei's outstanding students) and
Zhou has certainly broken the male dominance in the involvement
and contributed new energy and fresh perspectives.
Brushwork, construction of Chinese characters and application
of ink are the basic elements that constitute the composition
and rhythm of calligraphy. It is the aesthetic composition and
rhythm of calligraphy, and the creative contribution of individual
calligrapher's brushwork, character construction and ink-work
that make the difference. Calligraphers of this period began
to realise that merely copying the past masters' work or writing
a certain script skilfully can never make them good calligraphers.
Whereas brushwork and construction were explored extensively,
the application of ink had not been ventured into until the
Wang Xuezhong, a student of master painter Xu Beihong (who in
turn studied under Kang), and Sun Boxiang are particularly instrumental
in the innovative exploration of brushwork, in terms of the
way the brush is being held and moved, and the effect of its
application on paper. Wang often uses the method of fubi [supplementary-brush,
literally] to write Chinese characters. As the brush is being
moved, he intentionally makes the brush tip spread in such a
way that the hairs are split out of the bunch. As a result,
several supplementary lines are created along with the main
Sun, on the other hand, introduces an increasing use of cursive
elements into his brushwork derived from the original square-shaped
Northern Wei calligraphy. Such tendency of introducing cursive
elements into traditional scripts had become one of the most
important phenomena during this stage of creating personalised
traditional calligraphy. Another phenomenon, as mentioned before,
was looking into the character construction in terms of re-composition
of characters whereby the strong points of the traditional scripts
are incorporated, and in terms of re-structuring of characters
by deliberately changing the spatial form of individual characters.
The latter had resulted in personalised styles almost entirely
different from the five traditional styles of calligraphy.
Lu Weizhao created his personalised style by combining some
of the best features of the traditional scripts of zhuan and
li. He wrote li characters in zhuan style and modified the vertical-rectangle
form of zhuan into a horizontal-rectangle form. Furthermore,
when writing phrases, he changed the columnar appearance as
in traditional calligraphy into rows, yet without changing the
traditional order of columnar reading of the phrases from top
to bottom. Died in 1980, he remains the only one who wrote in
this manner. Much younger He Yinghui, on the other hand, emphasises
that the structure of each character forms the basis of a beautiful
calligraphy. He carries on such exploration way into the 1990s.
Baimu [Supercilious Look] in Figure 1 is a good example of his
1: He Yinghui, Baimu [Supercilious Look], 1993
here is made up of two characters: bai [white] and mu [eye].
For bai on the bottom right, the original kai-script structure
is purposely modified, especially in the three horizontal strokes
that were original equally spaced. The original zhuan-script
yan on the top left is not only given a 90° twist to appear
horizontal instead of the original vertical arrangement, but
the space between the two vertical lines is also exaggeratedly
enlarged to make room for an extra dot, giving an illusion of
a pictorial eye. A sharp contrast between the square of bai
and the circle (originally rectangle) of yan, and the complementary
arrangement of the two characters, also help to contribute to
an elegantly composed calligraphy.
Baimu, which suggests "looking upon people with disdain", recalls
a much earlier but similar and equally successful work by Aoyama
San'u, a Japanese contemporary calligrapher, which however has
something to do with "regarding a person in high favour", as
in Figure 2: Yan Zhong zhi Ren [A Person in High Favour]. In
this piece, the absence of a sharp contrast between square and
circle is compensated by a harmony of straight lines and curves,
and the unconventional arrangement of the four characters in
terms of mutual spacing between each other.
|Figure 2: Aoyama San'u, Yan
Zhong zhi Ren [A Person in High Favour], 1983
The Second Stage:
of the calligraphers involved in the first stage of the twentieth-century
development of calligraphy continued into the 1980s to be the
pillars of the second stage. Further inspired by the slogan
of creating "calligraphy reflecting the spirit of the time",
Wang Xuezhong, together with Gu Gan and Wang Naizhuang, invited
some other contemporaries and held the "First Exhibition
of Chinese Modern Calligraphy" at the China National Art
Museum, Beijing, in 1985. More significantly, they established
the China Society of Modern Calligraphy and Painting.
One of the main aims of the exhibition was to promote "creative
calligraphy", going beyond the contentment of developing personalised
traditional calligraphy. Among innovative experiments attempted
were producing calligraphy that is picture-like and incorporating
the use of colours, through exploration of the expressive flexibility
of the Chinese calligraphy and painting medium. The attempts
were a shock to those in the school of traditional Chinese calligraphy,
and were accused of being naïve and rebellious. Nevertheless,
claimed by the organisers to mark the birth of modern Chinese
calligraphy, the exhibition was certainly a milestone in the
conceptual development of calligraphy in the twentieth century.
While the traditionalists insisted on exhibiting a strong continuity
of tradition, these reformist calligraphers created their calligraphy
with a pinch of modernity, through their pursuit for national
spirit with a fresh viewpoint.
Su Yuanzhang was one of the calligraphers who took part in the
exhibition. In his Zaofa Baidi Cheng [Leaving the White Emperor
Town], as is Figure 3, his calligraphy looks like a Chinese
landscape painting. Su wrote the final two lines of the famous
poem by Li Bai of the Tang Dynasty, which describe the passage
through the Yangtze Gorge, in such a manner that the fourteen
Chinese characters appear to make up the scenery as well. With
the range of mountains soaring up through clouds into the boundless
sky, and boat sailing in endless water, it is indeed a picture
in calligraphy. Whereas calligraphy of the first stage values
the personalised brushstroke as fundamental, picture-like calligraphy
such as this further emphasises the overall artistic and emotional
impact of the work. Calligraphy here is also not solely concerned
with the meaning of the words but with their visual expression
as well. Such calligraphy that presents the content in an 'organic'
union of words and picture can be appreciated easily and can
also be enjoyed by those who cannot read calligraphic Chinese
3: Su Yuanzhang, Zaofa Baidi Cheng [Leaving the White Emperor
Gan has taken such 'organic' union of calligraphy and painting
further, producing a pure calligraphic picture, without the
repetitious inscriptions on the same piece of work, but with
the Chinese characters forming part of a larger but related
picture. Yu Lu [Jade Dew] in Figure 4 is an example. The characters
for yu on the bottom right half written in personalised cao
script and lu on the top left half written in personalised kai
script, together present the very misty picture of cherry in
morning dew. Such work may not be easier to read but certainly
more accessible and satisfying in terms of viewing. This picture-like
calligraphy, or calligraphic picture, would have been even more
successful if the calligraphic signature of Gu on the top right
corner were to be done away, but leaving the name seal.
4: Gu Gan, Yu Lu [Jade Dew]
in the first stage had only made full use of the pure Chinese
ink and paid attention to the contrast between the black ink
and the white paper, but calligraphers in the second stage,
such as Gu, concentrated more on the different shades of the
ink. The former usually used a uniform black tone of ink throughout
a piece of calligraphy, but the latter often investigated the
effect of light and dark variation of ink, sometimes within
a single brushstroke, just as it has been traditionally done
in Chinese ink painting.
Huang Yao, who emigrated to Malaysia in 1956, investigated the
union of calligraphy and painting of another kind. He is most
reputed for his unique creation of what he called wenzi hua
[Chinese-character painting, literally], which is, according
to him, tuhua wenzi or pictographic calligraphy, an amalgamation
of traditional Chinese culture, ancient Chinese characters and
Chinese calligraphy. He enjoyed the delights of creating wonderful
wenzi hua since 1970s by studying Chinese characters in great
detail, especially jiagu wen [shell-and-bone inscriptions] and
zongding wen [bell-and-gong characters], verifying their structures
seriously, modifying and recomposing their forms, and making
connection or reference to pictographic characters. Figure 5,
one of his versions of Huineng Chan Shi [Huineng's Zen Poem],
represents a good example of the result of his delightful pursuit.
5: Huang Yao, Huineng Chan Shi [Huineng's Zen Poem]
use of the most beautiful structure of the ancient Chinese characters,
incorporating primitive art design and symbols, to write poems
or phrases, and paint in an innovative style." That's his
definition of wenzi hua and Figure 6, another version of Huineng
Chan Shi, best illustrates the gist of it. The aim is to produce
a fresh expression out of old composition, in pursuit of "a
fusion of figuration and abstraction". Huang firmly believed
that "the new must come from the old", but he rarely
advocated pure abstraction or a stage where a character is detached
completely from its original root or meaning. He reassured this,
though unnecessary actually, by always presenting his wenzi
hua along with a clearly legible inscription representing the
original version of the pictographic calligraphy.
6: Huang Yao, Huineng Chan Shi [Huineng's Zen Poem], another
also produced many wenzi hua that look like a cross between
Western watercolour and Chinese ink painting. This is no surprise,
for he said, "There is no difference between watercolour
painting and Chinese ink painting, . . . but Chinese calligraphy
is needed to bridge the two, . . . combining the East and the
West into one". Indeed, in his Deng Heque Lou [Ascending
the Stork Tower] illustrating a Tang Dynasty poem by Wang Zhihuan
(Figure 7), for instance, he successfully combined his calligraphy
skill and watercolour technique to produce a calligraphy-dominated
painting. Another unique feature of such painting, or calligraphy,
is that painting is used in a reversal role to support the calligraphy,
rather than the calligraphy being used traditionally as inscription
on Chinese painting.
7: Huang Yao, Deng Heque Lou [Ascending the Stork Tower]
had also gone further to attempt to bridge the Chinese characters
with the modern Western concept of abstraction, as in Guangming
Zhengda [Fair and Square] (Figure 8) that reminds us of Joan
MiróÅfsabstract work of the 1960s. Huang, however,
.......Some people, after seeing
[my wenzi hua], thought that it is modernist painting, but in
actual fact this is the most ancient formation; some people,
after seeing, thought that it is Western abstract painting,
but in actual fact this is Eastern ancient characters.
The significant difference between Huang's Guangming Zhengda
and MiróÅfs abstract is of course in the black lines themselves,
which in the case of Huang's work, represent readable Chinese
characters. In any case, such interesting exploration of Huang
into incorporating ideas from the West has certainly heralded
the third stage of the development of a new calligraphy.
8, Huang Yao, Guangming Zhengda [Fair and Square]
The Third Stage: New
the so-claimed birth of modern Chinese calligraphy and the involvement
of a large number of calligraphers in pictographic calligraphy,
modern calligraphy seemed to move towards an awkward situation
of being 'neither calligraphy nor painting'. Some scholars in
the field still maintain that illustrative images mislead the
viewer to an improper understanding of the original essence
of Chinese calligraphy. Many of the works created were being
criticised that the experimentation of which is barely based
on over-distortion of character structure, overemphasis of the
varied graduation of ink, and strained representation through
Nevertheless, modern calligraphy took a twist with the "Shanghai
Modern Calligraphy Exhibition" in 1991 and the "First Exhibition
of Calligraphism" held in Zhengzhou of Henan in 1993, exhibiting
the works of young calligraphers mostly in their thirties then.
Leading exponents of the Calligraphism movement include Shao
Yan, Luo Qi and Zhang Qiang. The concept of "modern calligraphy"
as "non-calligraphy", "anti-calligraphy" and even "destruction
of calligraphy"surfaced for discussion for the first time. Although
these conceptual terms sounded wild and crazy, the attitude
towards modern calligraphy, or ultimately towards what I call
new calligraphic art, is serious and based on rational understanding.
Calligraphism represents the most controversial, if not the
most innovative departure from personalised traditional or pictographic
calligraphy. While the latter still generally preserves the
innate structure of the Chinese characters and remains an artistic
form of writing despite being picture-like, Calligraphism advocates
the extensive alteration, and violation of rules, of the basic
structure of Chinese characters to the extent of creating pseudo-Chinese-character
calligraphy. Some calligraphist artists also sought after the
use of powerful abstract form to produce non-Chinese-character
calligraphy, denying in toto the meaning of characters.
The abstract calligraphic characters become indecipherable,
no text legible. One is left to only respond directly to the
spirit and expressive qualities of each brushstroke, and to
the dynamics and impact of the overall structure and composition.
One does not have to know Chinese to appreciate the beauty of
such calligraphy. When viewing this type of calligraphic work,
one needs no more to ask, "What is the Chinese character?" Luo
Qi's Heise Zhuyi [Blackism] in Figure 9, part of a series of
work, is an excellent example of such calligraphy, or "non-calligraphy".
9: Luo Qi, Heise Zhuyi [Blackism], 1990
maintains that the quintessence of calligraphy lies in its brushstrokes
themselves rather than the representational content of Chinese
characters. He has done away with the use of recognised character;
he even abandons the use of traditional calligrapher's pointed
brush. In Heise Zhuyi, adopting an unconventional and possibly
random stroke order, he created a composition of, alas, Franz
Kline's lines using a wide and flat brush. Acknowledging that
he has been inspired by ideas drawn from Western abstraction,
this work recalls Robert Motherwell's Black on White (Figure
10), though the use of Wang Xuezhong's fubi technique in Heise
Zhuyi creates a more wonderful effect within each brushstroke.
10: Robert Motherwell, Black on White, 1961
then, the term "modern calligraphy" had been, for
a while, widely identified in China, but as something resulted
from the influence of Western abstract painting. There have
always been disputes as to how much influence modern calligraphy
has received from the West. The open-door policy of China adopted
lately has certainly brought about some awakening through more
cultural exchange with the West and through more information
obtainable via the Internet. Majority of the modern Chinese
calligraphers like Luo are young and have been very open to
It is ironic that Chinese calligraphy that once influenced the
West now draws inspiration from it in its pursuit for a new
calligraphy. The popularity among the Abstract Expressionists
for black lines on white canvas has been, though arguable, attributed
to the influence of Chinese calligraphy. Besides Kline and Motherwell,
Willem de Kooning and Ad Reinhardt also painted in black and
white in the 1950s. Mark Tobey studied Chinese calligraphy in
the 1930s and subsequently explored his "white writing"
painting till his death. These artists had already come to realise
then that the abstract brushstrokes are a direct reflection
of the mind instead of a physical representation of an object,
or a Chinese character for that matter. As Kline put it, "Instead
of making a sign you can read, you make a sign you can't read."
After Calligraphism, a series of significant events have taken
place. In 1998, the China Society of Modern Calligraphic Art
was established, converted from the 1985 China Society of Modern
Calligraphy and Painting, with the aim of further focusing on
the new calligraphy movement. Earlier in the same year, an exhibition
entitled "Brushed Voices: Calligraphy in Contemporary China"
was held in New York. Featured calligraphers included Wang Xuezhong,
Shen Peng, Sun Boxiang, Zhou Huijun, He Yinghui, Wang Yong,
Shao Yan, Luo Qi and Zhang Qiang. A year later, "Bashu Parade:
99 Chengdu Retrospective of Chinese Modern Calligraphy" was
held in Chengdu. A symposium was also organised in conjunction
with the exhibition.
The next challenge for modern calligraphy was, and still is,
to enter the arena of the contemporary international art culture
in the global community, yet without loosing too much of the
indigenous Chinese calligraphy characteristics. The concern
has also been that modern calligraphy should reflect the experience
of contemporary Chinese society and culture, though certain
degree of detachment and deconstruction from calligraphy itself
is necessary. In these contexts, conceptual work seems to be
one of the most feasible prospects in the future development
of this new calligraphic art. The performance works by conceptual
artists such as Zhang Qiang finally appeared.
Zhang, whose work is actually "anti-calligraphy" rather than
calligraphy, emphasises the creative process of calligraphy
rather than the calligraphy. In his A-B Model series, he considers
the brush as a masculine agent A and the paper as a feminine
agent B. He then has a different female companion each time
to move the paper at her own wish, while he works on it with
a loaded brush. As a result, different set of interrupted lines
and broken strokes is composed in each session, as a synthesis
of the male A and each female B. Based on this creative method
of producing calligraphy that he called "traceology", Zhang
has collaborated with women of various ages and occupations.
Other important conceptual artists who have become a radical
backbone in this new calligraphic art movement include Gu Wenda
and Xu Bing, whose installation works have ultimately made a
blending début into the contemporary international scene. Unfortunately,
or rather fortunately, both of them emigrated from Mainland
China to New York in 1990. Under the international context,
they have adopted a strategy of balancing between the emphasis
of nationalistic cultural characteristics of Chinese characters
and the de-emphasis of their Chinese identity. They have used
Chinese calligraphy as part of a platform on which different
cross-border interpretations can occur.
Gu was the first artist to incorporate Western Surrealism into
Chinese ink painting in the early 1980s, when he was only in
his mid-twenties. He soon became the first artist to experiment
with the use of brush and ink in installation art, inspired
by Asian mysticism. Begun in 1993, Gu's United Nations Series,
commissioned by the Asia Society (New York), is a series of
installation of monuments of twenty-five countries, projected
to be completed by early this century. Figure 11 shows the twelfth
in the series, Temple of Heaven (China Monument), exhibited
in "Inside Out: New Chinese Art" in New York, 1998-99.
11: Gu Wenda, United Nations Series: Temple of Heaven (China
is an installation with screens of human hair, wooden chairs
and tables, as well as video. Collected from hundreds of barbershops
around the world, the human hair was woven into strands and
configured into calligraphic scripts of mainly pseudo-Chinese
characters, along with some other pseudo-scripts including Arabic,
Hindi and the Roman alphabet. According to Gu, who is also famous
for his imaginative manipulation of brushstrokes to form pseudo-Chinese
characters, the unreadable pseudo-scripts symbolise "misunderstandings"3?4the
"misunderstandings" of being interpreted by the Chinese
as mythos of lost history; the "misunderstandings"
of being interpreted by the non-Chinese as exotic beauty. In
any case, the notion of "reaching for infinity and eternity"
is implied. Gu certainly challenges the audience by using elements
associated with Chinese calligraphy in a revolutionary way.
is the artistry of abstruseness and wonderfulness." This
was a definition given by Wang Xizhi of the Jin Dynasty. It
remains the most abstruse and wonderful definition this century.
It is because of its very abstruseness and wonderfulness that
in calligraphy, there are no fixed ways of practice that must
be adopted, no particular modes of thinking that have to be
followed, and certainly no limits that cannot be transcended.
The future for calligraphy is definitely infinite and eternal.
For the past one hundred years, awareness through calligraphy
exhibitions; reports in newspapers, magazines and journals;
information from the Internet; activities organised by calligraphy
organisations; lessons through formal education; and promotions
through international market, have not only provided the context
for development, but also activated the present flourish of
the new calligraphic art among the Chinese community in China,
Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Southeast Asia, as well as among the
non-Chinese community in Japan, Korea, the West, and the rest
of the world.
In Singapore, the Federation of Art Societies has been actively
promoting for years what is called "creative calligraphy". In
the preface to the catalogue published in conjunction with "Creative
Calligraphy Exhibition 2001", Ho Ho Ying defines creative Chinese
calligraphy as something that "represent self-created original
poems or interesting quotations, written in a manner based on
innovative re-composition and rearrangement [of forms and spaces],
of Chinese characters and words derived from the essence of
various forms of traditional Chinese calligraphy". To write
"self-created original poems or interesting quotations" is indeed
a distant aim to be chased after. As for "innovative re-composition
and rearrangement [of forms and spaces], of Chinese characters
and words derived from the essence of various forms of traditional
Chinese calligraphy", the wenzi hua of Huang Yao presented in
the current exhibition "Huang Yao Retrospective" should be a
Dr Chew Kim Liong
Assistant Professor of Visual Arts
Nanyang Technological University
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