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Traditional Calligraphy's Brush with Change
It's just an ordinary day in a Beijing office building.

A secretary in her 20s finishes a business report on the computer.

She prints it out, and hands it to her boss next door.

"Good job!" With pen in hand, her boss takes a glance at the report and scrawls a barely readable signature.

It's a typical scene in China where calligraphy, the art of Chinese handwriting, is largely ignored by the new generation of Chinese.

A traditional art and important vehicle of communication, calligraphy was once extensively required and exceptionally prized at work.

But with Microsoft and the Internet, few Chinese office workers recognize the glory that Chinese calligraphy skills once held, scholars say.

"The times are gone when everybody wrote with a brush and any educated Chinese could be called calligraphers," said Han Ming, a Beijing art scholar.

Due to calligraphy's decreasing popularity among ordinary Chinese people, the term "calligrapher" has become an honorable title for only a very few special artists, he explained.

Calligraphy's future

While the practical functions of Chinese calligraphy are diminishing, some are also questioning whether its artistic nature will continue to prosper in a modern society, and if it can survive, how will it?

Questions like these have prompted many artists and scholars to take up the brush and ink, in what some have called the "modern calligraphy" artistic movement since the late 20th century.

In a symposium entitled "2002 New Reflections on Chinese 'Modern Calligraphy,'" held last week at the Beijing Laide Art Center, such questions incited heated debates among the more than 70 artists, scholars, critics, curators and arts journalists who attended.

Sponsored by the Oxbridge International Education and Culture Exchange Center and some art organizations and media in Beijing, the conference was held in conjunction with an exhibition of recent works by 16 artists of the "modern calligraphy" movement. The artists include Gu Gan, Qiu Zhenzhong, Zhang Dawo, Wei Ligang, Pu Lieping, Zeng Laide, Zhang Qiang and Shao Yan.

The conference and exhibition are all part of the "Art Media Forum," a program aimed at helping arts journalists better understand the arts and artists.

According to artist Wei Ligang, one of the organizers of the event, Chinese artists and scholars in the "modern calligraphy" trend have worked strenuously to develop modern expressions of Chinese calligraphy.

"It is necessary to use a broader vision to cultivate Chinese abstract art that is derived from traditional calligraphy," Wei said.

Wei was referring to the fact that many modern calligraphers tend to see the beauty of Chinese calligraphy primarily in its form instead of its content.

In examining the abstract linear appeal of Chinese calligraphy, some modern calligraphers have written unreadable words or even experimented with pseudo-characters created by imitating the regular strokes and structures of actual characters.

Wei did not expect that his remarks would be immediately opposed by experts such as Fan Di'an, Liu Xiaochun and Zeng Laide.

"While I commend the artists' endeavors to make Chinese calligraphy more modern, we need to keep in mind that Chinese calligraphy is different from other kinds of art. It has no equivalent in the West," said Fan, an influential art critic and vice president of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. "The abstract inclination of some modern calligraphy works should not be simply regarded as an echo of Western abstract art in the East."

Liu, a noted art critic and researcher from the China Academy of Arts, also worried about the abstract trend in Chinese calligraphy.

"It would be very disappointing if the future of Chinese calligraphy is just another kind of abstract art," he said. "If such works are still called 'calligraphy,' they must have readable words. If not, we can just call them 'calligraphy images.' Otherwise, there will be no difference between modern calligraphy and abstract painting."

Zeng, an active modern calligrapher who is on the board of directors for the Chinese Calligraphers' Association, said, "I insist on the writing of Chinese characters that have concrete meanings and poetic flavor. The meanings of words are important inspirations for the creation of modern calligraphy."

Art or poetry?

But other scholars and artists argue that questioning whether modern calligraphy should be readable is not that important, because the line between different types of visual art is getting more and more blurred.

"There are basically three different interpretations of modern calligraphy -- as calligraphy by people today, as modernized calligraphy, and as modern art. If modern calligraphy is seen as modern art that uses calligraphy as a method, we don't even have to question whether it is calligraphy or not," said Zhu Qingsheng (LaoZhu), a professor and artist from the art department at Peking University.

Zhu's opinion was echoed by art scholar Han Ming who suggested looking at calligraphy from a different angle.

"A more important question we need to ask seems to be: What can be done to involve Chinese calligraphy in contemporary art and make it an inspiration and resource for other forms of visual art?" he said.

Many artists in China and abroad are using calligraphy elements in paintings, sculptures and photographs. Modern Chinese calligraphers are also using the composition, colors and techniques of other art forms to make their works more visually striking.

The best examples are paintings by late American abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell and emerging Chinese ink-wash painter Wei Qingji as well as recent works by modern calligraphers Gu Gan, Shao Yan and Pu Lieping.

"It seems too early for us to give a rigid definition to modern calligraphy and separate it from modern abstract painting," Pu said.

Zhang Qiang, a professor and artist at the Jinan-based Shandong Arts Institute, noted that the decline of Japanese modern calligraphy in the 1950s has proved that efforts to change the form of calligraphy will eventually come to a dead end.

"Modern calligraphy, however, can jump out of the conventional definition of calligraphy and enter a new road of 'conceptual calligraphy' that deals with contemporary culture," he stressed.

Zhang and Shanghai artist Wang Nanming were among the first modern calligraphers who introduced new art forms such as performance art and installation art to their works in the early 1990s.

Their works criticize the conventional mode of traditional calligraphy and also tap into the psychological and cultural depths of calligraphy in contemporary society.

What's modern?

"Of course, calligraphy should not stay what it was. But applying new methods, such as installation art and even using the Internet, in artistic works does not necessarily make it modern," said Qiu Zhijie, a video artist that pioneered blending new media with traditional calligraphy.

"What's more important is how much can modern calligraphy contributes to contemporary culture," Qiu said.

"Besides trying to cultivate highly individual artistic forms and expressions, Chinese calligraphy, no doubt, should be more open in its concept and content to become more informative and influential on contemporary society," art critic Fan Di'an emphasized.

It is hard to predict whether Chinese calligraphy will see a rebirth or lose itself amid its flirtation with new trends in world art.

The new century, however, is likely to see more new thinking and explorations to modernize Chinese calligraphy and involve it as a resource in contemporary art.

(China Daily July 5, 2002)

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