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Chinese Calligraphy Captivates the West
Regarded by the Chinese as the highest expression of all art forms, calligraphy has been flourishing and evolving in China for over 3,000 years.

The extraordinary variety of calligraphic techniques, styles and compositions that have been created by Chinese artists is without parallel in the world.

Celebrating the remarkable achievements of the many artists who have put brush to paper over the centuries, a grand exhibition entitled "The Most Expressive Art: Cursive Script in the Ming-Qing Period (1368-1911)" specifically examines one time period and the progression of one calligraphic technique.

Organized by the world famous Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston, the exhibition, which runs from December 13 through June 22, 2003, showcases some masterpieces in the history of Chinese calligraphy - many of which have never before been displayed in a museum setting. The compelling works on view - both hand and hanging scrolls - are elegantly displayed in the MFA's Chinese Paintings Galleries.

The exhibition was curated by Yiguo Zhang, research fellow in the museum's Department of Art of Asia, Oceania and Africa. Zhang, 42, a native of Tianjin in North China and a former graduate from the Tianjin-based Nankai University, received his doctorate in art history from Columbia University in New York and is a highly active scholar of Chinese calligraphy in the United States.

In an exclusive interview with China Daily, Zhang discussed the ideas behind the exhibition and issues such as how Western audiences can better understand Chinese calligraphy, which is seen as the core of Chinese culture by some scholars. The text of the interview follows:

Q: Mr. Zhang, why did you organize such a show? What do you think makes this exhibition unique?

A: The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is one of the world's pre-eminent museums. It has a rich collection of early Chinese art.

Calligraphy, which has flourished in China for over 3,000 years, is regarded by the Chinese as a high art form.

Among the five scripts of art of writing, cursive script (caoshu) is the most expressive art and reached a peak in its development during the Ming-Qing period.

Unfortunately, no museum in the United States has ever mounted a scholarly exhibition devoted entirely to Ming-Qing cursive script.

So we at the Museum of Fine Arts decided to organize an exhibition celebrating the remarkable achievements of many great artists over the centuries.

Q: Where are the exhibits from and how many are there? Would you please give a brief introduction to the works, say, how representative are they?

A: The 24 masterpieces on view in the exhibit have been drawn from the MFA's renowned collection of Asian art, as well as loaned from private collections including the H. Christopher Luce Collection.

The calligraphers are representative artists in cursive script of the Ming-Qing period, including Zhang Bi, Zhu Yunming, Wen Zhengming, Wang Chong, Dong Qichang, Zhang Ruitu, Huang Daozhou, Wang Duo and Fu Shan.

Cursive script is characterized by great freedom in brushwork, character construction, application of ink and composition. It is distinguished from other scripts by its vivid rhythms, flowing movement and powerful sense of momentum.

This type of writing was introduced during the Qin (221-206 BC) and Han (206 BC-AD 220) dynasties. In the Eastern Jin Dynasty (AD 317-420), Wang Xizhi, China's greatest master, perfected the elegant classical cursive style.

During the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), Zhang Xu and Huaisu broke with Wang's classical approach and developed a "wild" cursive style defined by emotion, spontaneity, and, at times, chaos. For instance, stories describe Zhang Xu writing calligraphy with his own hair, roaring drunk and shouting hysterically.

It was the singular genius of later artists during the Ming-Qing period (1368-1911) to integrate the order and balance of Wang Xizhi's classical approach with the unrestrained feeling of the "wild way."

This formed a radically new style of calligraphy. For instance, Zhang Bi revived Zhang Xu's "wild" cursive calligraphy, but in his "Four Poems by Du Fu," you can see some very deliberate techniques in his seemingly chaotic style, such as the use of full, thick strokes with round turns, and special brushwork that creates a vibrating effect. The result is a vivid rhythm that pulses with vitality. This work is one the best of his few surviving works.

Zhu Yunming was also accomplished at cursive. He was influenced by Wang Xizhi in his earlier period, and by Zhang Xu in his later period. In "Ode to the Wise Emperor in Gaining Virtuous Officials," executed in his middle period, Zhu tried to integrate two conflicting approaches to character construction: Wang Xizhi's technique, which emphasizes the structure of individual characters, and Zhang Xu's technique, which stresses the structure of the entire composition.

Combining rapid brushwork with careful attention to the variation in the space between characters, Zhu Yunming created harmonious overall compositions that were executed with remarkable delicacy.

In the 17th century, cursive script reached a peak with leading artists such as Zhang Ruitu, Dong Qichang, Huang Daozhou, Ni Yuanlu, Wang Duo and Fu Shan.

Among them, Wang Duo is highly representative of this new culture. He emulated historic sources and blended two previously opposing trends to create a new style.

Q: How well was the exhibition accepted and welcomed by the local audiences? What attracts them most?

A: The response to this exhibition has been overwhelming.

Boston is a well-known cultural city, with many excellent universities. The Ming-Qing cursive show made a profound impression on the Boston scholastic community.

The incredible vitality of the works has been eye-opening not only for young students in Boston, but especially, most interestingly, for professional scholars of fine arts. They asked me to give more gallery talks and lectures to explain the strength and vibrancy of the works.

Q: Do you think Western audiences can understand Chinese calligraphy well? What about cursive script calligraphy, in particular? Or, do you think the cursive style makes it easier to understand the art of calligraphy?

A: You raise a very good question. Actually, Professor David Rosand, a famous art historian in the Western world and one of my advisers at Columbia, asked the same question at a seminar and exhibition at Columbia University in 1994. I did not answer it well then.

I thought that the Chinese characters were the basis of calligraphy. Without understanding the Chinese language, how could someone appreciate calligraphy?

Now I am confident that even though the people do not understand the language of the characters, nevertheless they do understand the language of art, that is, the quality of line: brushwork, construction, application of ink, rhythm and composition.

There are many collectors who have great collections of Chinese calligraphy even though they do not know the Chinese language. John Crawford and Robert Ellsworth are good examples.

The famous contemporary artist, Brice Mardon, cannot read Chinese at all, but he has a good eye for calligraphic line. This has led him to collect a great work of cursive script by Wang Duo.

Of course, you always see some Chinese people reading the text of the calligraphy in American museums. They may know the Chinese language well, but that is not necessary to appreciate calligraphy's artistic meaning.

Actually, when Chinese calligraphers practice calligraphy, they do not consider the linguistic meaning. And, in fact, many Chinese cannot read cursive script themselves.

As you said, it is exactly the cursive style of writing that makes it easier for everyone, Chinese or Westerner, to understand the art of calligraphy.

Q: Tell me something about the studies of Chinese calligraphy and the interest in calligraphy among ordinary people in the United States?

A: I taught calligraphy from 1997-99 at the China Institute in New York City. Many of my students were ordinary Americans, including school teachers, artists, writers, and collectors and business people.

Calligraphy is fascinating to them and they think it is like modern abstract art. Some of them became my friends and still practice calligraphy with me.

Because they like calligraphy, gradually they start learning the Chinese language. Some of them speak Chinese well.

They love Chinese art and culture and their calligraphy gives them great pleasure. One of my students, a middle-aged real estate broker, composed a Chinese poem about her whole story - how she got to know me, and how she learned about Chinese calligraphy, language and culture.

I was very impressed by her ability to learn a language so well at such an age. I asked her the secret of language learning, and she replied, "If you like it, you can do it, and you can do well."

(China Daily January 2, 2003)

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