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  • On Ink, Tradition, and the Handwritten Word: Learning Chinese Calligraphy

    Master artist Yang Guangxin demonstrates calligraphy at the 2014 Folklife Festival’s China program. Photo by Walter Larrimore, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Archives, Smithsonian Institution
    Master artist Yang Guangxin demonstrates calligraphy at the 2014 Folklife Festival’s China program. Photo by Walter Larrimore, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    I started taking calligraphy classes in 1997 at a local museum in Nanjing dedicated to a renowned modern calligrapher Lin Sanzhi (1898–1989). For a child in the first grade, it was hard to control the brush, and I often returned home with ink all over my hands, elbows, and T-shirt. In spite of these annoyances, my skills improved, and I began to appreciate the beauty in the structure of Chinese characters. I would practice for hours by myself. Back then, because white paper was expensive for me, I practiced on old newspapers and sometimes on the concrete surface of the yard with water rather than ink.

    Learning calligraphy was highly valued in my family, especially by my grandparents. While calligraphy does not hold the same practical value that it had in the past, parents and educators generally believe in the many benefits the traditional training offers. It is widely accepted that practicing calligraphy helps children stay focused and be disciplined, similar to qualities often associated with practicing a musical instrument from an early age. In the initial stages of learning, students copy strictly from classic calligraphic styles until the turns, moves, and writing rules become instinctual. It takes several years to master these basics, before any innovation is possible and acceptable. This rigidity and repetition is also exactly what many children revolt against, when games and cartoons seem much more tempting.

    Dating back to 200 BCE, Chinese calligraphy is embedded in the country’s history, culture, and intellectual and social life. For example, Zitie is a collection of calligraphic works by the masters; its writings include classic poems, essays, historical narratives, and Confucius teachings from imperial China. Calligraphy students practice by copying the works in Zitie. In this way, they become familiar with classic literature, traditional philosophy, and the values rooted in them. After years of training, they even memorize many of the works. For these reasons, practicing calligraphy is considered an effective means for cultivating good temperament and character.

    A volunteer teaches a young visitor how to write Chinese characters at the 2014 Folklife Festival. Photo by Bea Ugolini, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, Smithsonian Institution
    A volunteer teaches a young visitor how to write Chinese characters at the 2014 Folklife Festival. Photo by Bea Ugolini, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    While not every student is willing to practice handwriting with a brush, most parents and teachers require them to at least practice yingbi shufa (pen calligraphy) when they are in elementary and middle school. Calligraphy with a modern writing instrument like a pen follows the artistic tradition of brush calligraphy, though it is much easier technically and carries less prestige than traditional brush calligraphy. College students aiming to teach Chinese in elementary and middle schools are required to take courses in calligraphy. For teachers, mastering basic skills is a matter of pride and a professional necessity as students’ parents believe calligraphy reflects the quality, talent, and discipline of the teacher.

    Calligraphy also has a performative nature. Besides teachers who demonstrate daily on classroom blackboards, it is almost a standard ritual for political and literary celebrities to write calligraphy during official visits, surrounded by the keen gazes of their peers, subordinates, and the public. Sometimes in their absence, their calligraphy would serve as a gift to a certain institution. In both cases, their words, which generally convey such messages as government policies and political views, are then exhibited to the public.

    For example, former People’s Republic of China statesman Deng Xiaoping wrote a piece of calligraphy for the renowned Beijing Jingshan School in 1983 that “Education must face modernization, face the world and face the future.” This message later became the guiding principle of education reform in China, which continues today. Copies of this work can be seen displayed on the walls in schools across the country, often together with schools’ mission statements. Under these circumstances, failing to write good calligraphy is almost equivalent to being culturally incompetent.

    During the 2014 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, a Chinese embassy official told master calligrapher Yang Guangxin that his own calligraphy skills have been helpful in his career in the public sector. As cultural anthropologist Yuehping Yen wrote, for most Chinese, having neat and beautiful handwriting often attracts overt admiration, whereas bad handwriting is silently disparaged. In fact, students often get scolded for poor penmanship.

    Author Qiaoyun Zhao practicing calligraphy at home in China when she was a child. Photo courtesy of Qiaoyun Zhao
    Author Qiaoyun Zhao practicing calligraphy at home in China as a child.
    Photo courtesy of Qiaoyun Zhao

    These values and associations formed the backdrop of my own process of learning calligraphy. After practicing for about four years and representing my school in calligraphy contests and exhibitions at county, municipal, and provincial levels, I stopped once I reached the sixth grade. This trajectory is typical of most calligraphy learners; our practice lapses when we start to focus more on schoolwork and the notoriously competitive exams required for those entering college.

    Still, my calligraphic ability was a source of family pride. Fifteen years later, my parents still remember the moment I wrote the sign board for our then newly opened grocery store, standing on a ladder and surrounded by passersby watching this “performance.”

    Today, computerization and word processing techniques have reduced the use of handwriting substantially. Calligraphy and the traditions that inform it have also been challenged. Children are using keyboards from a much younger age. In order to protect the national cultural heritage, the Beijing municipal government now provides funding for the city’s public schools to support extracurricular activities in traditional culture, including calligraphy. Last year, Guangxin, the calligrapher who participated in the 2014 Festival, edited the standard calligraphy textbooks for elementary school students in Beijing.

    Despite these efforts, many people consider calligraphy too time consuming with little practical benefit, and it is gradually being removed from the priority list of school and family education. For those who have learned and love Chinese calligraphy, this comes as a moment of painful realization when we see a student who cannot hold a brush straight. It seems that a distinctive part of “Chineseness” is lost—and with it the ability to appreciate traditional aesthetics and wisdom.

    I do not mean to imply that we should strictly continue all traditions and practices from the past. Rather, I am questioning how our society’s current mindset about education as “investment” also carries with it narrow calculations that obscure the value of a wider range of activities and values. Maybe the modernization, or westernization, in education, as has been occurring in other aspects of society over the past decades, does not entirely fulfill our expectations and hopes for the kind of life we want to live and the values we cherish. Chinese calligraphy, in this sense, is only a case in point.

    Qiaoyun Zhao is an intern for the China program at the 2014 Folklife Festival. Originally from Nanjing, China, she is currently a graduate student at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy.

    Yen, Y. (2005). Calligraphy and power in contemporary Chinese society. London: RoutledgeCurzon.

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