Glory of Calligraphy Restored

The thought of Chinese calligraphy used to scare Ho Kuo-ching, who remembers what a chore it was to learn it as a schoolboy in Taiwan.

Today, Ho, 54, is promoting it.

As a child, Ho was required to write weekly journals in Chinese calligraphy.

"I was bored by such arduous work, so I was afraid of calligraphy in my childhood," he said. "When I graduated from middle school, I was so relieved that I didn't have to write with a brush again," he said.

Little did he know that years later he would establish the first and only private foundation across the Taiwan Straits to focus exclusively on promoting the art of Chinese calligraphy.

A Life's Turn

Born in Leping of East China's Jiangxi Province, Ho left the mainland with his parents for the island of Taiwan at age two.

After graduating from college, he started a career in business, and became a successful real estate developer in Taiwan.

But it was the death of his father, a veteran officer and intellectual, nine years ago that altered his thinking and brought him to the domain of arts and culture.

"When I was sorting out things left in my father's study one night, I was astonished to find a large stack of calligraphic pieces he wrote during his lonely last few years after my mother had passed away," Ho said.

The poems were written in calligraphy and expressed his father's love for his late wife Fu Chen-shen, who was a teacher, and nostalgia for his hometown and friends on the mainland. On the pieces of paper were mostly poems by Song Dynasty (960-1279) poets Su Shi, Xin Qiji, Yue Fei, and Lu You, whose literary styles were filled with deep affection for loved ones and a strong expression of the fate of the nation and its people.

"The only hobby of my father in the last years of his life was calligraphy. The art of Chinese calligraphy became the best company for an old man like him," Ho continued.

Holding the pieces in his hands, Ho felt that he had begun to really understand his father, an introverted gentleman who chose to express his feelings in "such an unusual way," in the son's words.

However, it was actually very common among Chinese intellectuals of the older generations.

Using poetic meanings for words and the art of calligraphy is an ideal outlet for human energy and an accurate mirror for spiritual insight.

The art has given generations of calligraphy lovers the opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings, to release their stress and grief, and above all, to maintain spiritual and physical peace and harmony.

For the first time in his life, Ho, in his mid-40s at the time, realized how important Chinese calligraphy was to him.

"Unlike any other visual art, calligraphy is deeply incorporated with Chinese culture and the life of ordinary Chinese people. As a means of artistic creation, it embodies even richer charm and possibilities, as I later understood," Ho said.

New Idea

Ho wondered what today's Chinese people could do to develop and preserve the ancient art of Chinese calligraphy. "It is a precious tradition that is on the brink of being lost in an electronic era when pens and keyboards are taking the place of writing brushes," Ho said.

Realizing how important it is to preserve this cultural aspect, Ho was struck by the idea of establishing a calligraphy foundation.

"I hope the foundation will help the glory of calligraphy eventually return to the daily life of ordinary Chinese people," Ho said. "It also encourages efforts to develop modern expressions for Chinese calligraphy, too."

On March 4, 1995, the foundation was formally founded in Taipei and named after his late father.

A two-story gallery of Chinese calligraphy was opened in a building Ho owns in downtown Taipei.

During the past seven years, the Ho Chuang-shih Calligraphy Foundation and its gallery have hosted more than 40 exhibitions of Chinese calligraphy.

Among the most influential were a show of calligraphy by monk artists in Ming and Qing dynasties (1995), a show of works by 17th century Chinese literati calligraphers (1997), a retrospective of 300 years of calligraphy in Taiwan (1997), and the most recent "Tradition and Experimentation" biennial show of contemporary Taiwan calligraphy (2001).

The foundation also organized solo retrospectives for late master Chinese calligraphers and scholars such as Dong Qichang, Shen Yinmo, Yu Youren, Wang Zhuangwei and Tai Jingnong.

While sponsoring exhibits, the foundation has gradually built up a remarkable collection of Chinese calligraphy with the help of calligraphy experts.

"The foundation's collection focuses primarily on two critical transitional periods in Chinese history: the late Ming to early Qing period (around 17th century); and the late Qing to the early Republic of China period (around early 20th century)," said Qianshen Bai, a calligraphy historian and professor of Chinese art at Boston University in the United States. Bai has received sponsorship from the foundation in his academic research on Chinese calligraphy of these periods.

"When collecting, Mr Ho not only pays attention to the artistic quality, but also the historical significance of these works. He collects many things other collectors may overlook, such as writings of scholars of both periods," Bai said.

According to Ho, the first part of the collection consists of about 400 pieces, among them works by master calligraphers such as Fu Shan, Wang Duo, and Huang Daozhou. The second part includes about 200 pieces by household names in modern Chinese history such as Cai Yuanpei, Yan Fu, Hu Shi and Chen Duxiu.

Today, Ho's collection has become a most valuable resource for artists and scholars from both sides of the Taiwan Straits as well as from abroad to study Chinese calligraphy and its history.

"Through the exhibitions and collection, we are trying to stimulate interest in Chinese calligraphy and to encourage a trend for people to collect calligraphy. It has turned out to be very effective," Ho said.

Ties With Mainland

In recent years, the foundation has shown increasing enthusiasm in promoting exchanges between calligraphers and scholars across the Taiwan Straits.

In 1999, the foundation sponsored an international symposium on "Lantingxu" (a mysterious masterpiece in the history of Chinese calligraphy) in Suzhou of East China's Jiangsu Province and the publishing of a collection of essays the following year, according to Hua Rende, a Suzhou scholar and calligrapher who was one of the organizers of the conference.

In 2001, the foundation's gallery in Taipei hosted a group exhibition of works by members of the Suzhou-based Canglang Calligraphy Society, an influential group of accomplished calligraphers and scholars, among them Hua Rende, Cao Baoling, Huang Dun and Yan Gongda.

"Also, the foundation sponsors mainland scholars like Professor Cong Wenjun at Jilin University to do calligraphy research," said Hua, who was invited by the foundation to give lectures on calligraphy in Taiwan with other mainland scholars a few years ago.

"It's really a pity that so far there hasn't been an entrepreneur on the mainland who would like to support calligraphy studies," Hua said.

Ho, who has visited the mainland frequently, said his foundation is planning to exhibit its collection of 17th and 20th centuries Chinese calligraphy in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.

After years in the field of calligraphy, Ho has developed a sharp connoisseur's eye, becoming highly knowledgeable about the history of this Chinese art form.

"He is a scholar-businessman. He loves history and literature, and is very familiar with the history of the periods he is collecting," remarked Professor Bai.

In his spare time, Ho has picked up the brush once again and now enjoys practicing the art. "You can't always be a spectator," Ho said.

And that's exactly the idea his foundation is trying to advocate.

(China Daily January 22, 2002)

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