Thursday, December 16, 2010
Chinese Calligraphy: An Ancient Art, A Contemporary Art
Meredith Rankin Contemporary Chinese Art 15 December 2010
Many Chinese contemporary artists represent traditional Chinese culture in their work.
This has led to their characterization as distinctly Chinese, rather than merely contemporary artists, implying that Western collectors only so desire their work for Chinese aspects, not for its ability to stand alone. Many people criticize a dual reliance on Western art history as well as traditional Chinese art. Artists in China today have little to build off of or develop, with the exception of their “chineseness,” that is, ubiquitous symbols of Chinese culture and the Chinese identity. Examination of traditional Chinese culture will help give background that is necessary to understand the Chinese artists of today as well as better appreciate their work. While Chinese culture is rich and diverse, calligraphy is a fine art form that has had presence throughout Chinese history. Although unexpected, these art forms of traditional China are still employed and referenced by contemporary Chinese artists, notably in the creations of Xu Bing.
The development of a written language is one of the most telling aspects of an ancient civilization‟s culture, beliefs, and life. The first record of written language in China has been traced to the Bronze Age in which primitive characters were carved into oracle bones (The Bulletin of the Cleveland Art Museum). Oracle bones were made from the shoulder bones of cattle and turtle plastrons and were inscribed with questions to be asked of deities. These were primarily ancestors of late Shang Dynasty kings in the practice of ancestor worship. In China, calligraphy‟s is rooted in prayer, an indication of the importance of both the practiced religion and writing. The earliest samples of calligraphy from China carried reverent meaning, used for
divination. No brush-written samples of these calligraphic style remains due to decay. Based on the records offered by the bone carvings, the oracle bone script, known as jiaguwen, was pictographic in nature but is clearly related to modern Chinese characters.
The development of calligraphy continued into the Zhou Dynasty. Rather than being carved into bones, characters were most often inscribed into ritual bronze vessels belonging to the aristocracy. These too centered on solemn matters, expressing religious code and political legitimacy (The Journal of the Cleveland Art Museum). At this time the jiaguwen script became gradually simpler. Bronze Age script came to be known as da zhuan shu (large seal script), a beautiful, highly architectonic script (The Journal of the Cleveland Art Museum). Each warlord led kingdom of ancient also had its own set of unique characters. The first Chinese emperor, Qin Shi Huang of the Qin Dynasty, united the entire Chinese basin for the first time, as well as Chinese script. The standard Chinese characters came to be xiao zhuan shu (small seal script). Writing at the time was usually done using a brush and paper but these works no longer survive, the other remnents of xiao zhuan shu are found on steles.
By the time of the Han Dynasty, writing had become much less cumbersome due to the relatively simplified script and standard use of brush and paper. This was made even more simple for the use of clerks who needed to write and write often, calligraphy by this time had expanded beyond a simply divine nature. This clerical script, jishu, was more fluid in form and easily written with a brush for documents on wood, silk, and paper. This is the first script that, due to its fluidity, you can recognize the physical movements of the calligrapher, each stroke of ink manifests movement, shifting speed, and brush direction. Ironically, it was during this time, when writing was used for everyday practical purposes, and made simple to use, that calligraphy was elevated to a noble role. Further, the unified script promoted growth and a cohesive social
structure among the Chinese literati. Towards the end of the Han Dynasty three new forms of Chinese calligraphy appeared which were very influential in the development of calligraphy as an art form, kaishu (traditional regular script), a standard script, and two abbreviated scripts, xingshu (semi-cursive, or running script), a semi-cursive, and caoshu (cursive, or grass script) a cursive script. Caoshu was pursued by many calligraphers then, and is still widely used today. The essential goal of cursive script is to “write each character as quickly and simply as possible while still conveying the essence of the form” (Barnhart). Calligraphy‟s attachment to art became so excessive that it was attacked, particularly the new cursive scripts. Court official Zhao Yi criticized the elevation of cursive script to fine art, in, ironically, the first published work that discussed calligraphy. In “A Pox on The Draft Script,” Zhao voiced his opinion that writers should concentrate their energies on studying the classics and the ancient seal script ( ). His beliefs did not prevail, however; in the 4th century CE cursive was widely used and accepted as a respected art form.
By the end of the Tang Dynasty, the five principal forms of calligraphy became the mark of a highly cultivated individual. These five principal forms were seal, clerical, standard, running, and cursive. The process was considered just as important as the end result. Writing calligraphy was even turned into a performance art by some calligraphers such as the eccentric Buddhist monk Huaisu. This illustrates the individuality within the art that was permitted during the Tang Dynasty. As the central political sphere declined, localized unorthodox creative activity grew greatly (“Chinese Calligraphy”). The seemingly standardized art was now used for self- expression. The sheer importance and respect of the art is confirmed by Song Dynasty Emperor Zhao Yun‟s, also referred to as Lizong, mastery of the art. Lizong was considered to be an ineffectual ruler, for it was under his reign that the Mongols rode into the then capital of Lin‟an
and Khublei Khan established the Yuan Dynasty and foreign rule over the Chinese people. However, during Lizong‟s time the nation did enjoy great economic growth and a flourishing of the arts. Lizong‟s calligraphic works are still admired today and illustrate the objectives of ideal calligraphy as well as the artist‟s own discrete style. Most of his works are accompanied by southern Song court artist paintings, although it should be noted that the primary object of value and appreciation was the calligraphy.
Chinese calligraphy follows strict format, stroke order, and standards, and yet emphasizes the importance of the individual. Styles that followed the Bronze Age all “favored spontaneity, and the brush was thought to act like a seismograph in recording the movements of arm, wrist, and hand” (“Chinese Calligraphy”), and although this often resulted in great self-expression, there was a return to a favor of standardization following the Tang Dynasty. Evaluative writings on calligraphy often equate the structure and line quality of the written word with the physical self, comparing written characters to bone structure, or being „fleshy‟ (“Chinese Calligraphy). There are traditional standards of beauty of form in Chinese calligraphy, even if artists choose to deviate from these standards. Traditionally, calligraphy was judged as “good” if it was straight and even, well-balanced, uneven and not uniform in terms of length of strokes, coherent and dynamic (“Cultural China”). A script that achieves all of these guidelines will depict movement in brushstrokes, characters whose strokes match each other to create the greatest impact of style, and in order.
Following the Yuan Dynasty was the Ming and Qing Dynasties, both of which continued the tradition of calligraphy as a central art of the literati, associated with social and cultural life of the elite. The love of calligraphy was made apparent throughout China, beyond the realm of
educated elite through the inscription of stones at famous sites, temple name plaques, and even shop signs (“Chinese Calligraphy”). After the fall of the Qing Dynasty, and the entire dynastic system, in 1911, calligraphy continued to be important to China‟s visual landscape. During this time of political upheaval, calligraphy was employed to promote political ideologies. Under Mao Zedong‟s reign words were frequently displayed on banners with revolutionary slogan, the script was bold and block-like with no resemblance to calligraphy produced with a brush (“Chinese Calligraphy”). Mao personally pursued traditional calligraphy however, and the Communist Party often continued to use traditional brushes even when ball-point pens came in favor.
Calligraphy has continued to have a presence and importance in Chinese society to in current times. Xu Bing was born in 1955 in Chongqing, China and grew up in the capital city of Beijing. Like the other artists discussed, Xu has been made famous for his calligraphy, although his personal style is not as discrete as the traditional artists recognized for mastering the art. Xu was first exposed to calligraphy at a young age at Peking University, where he saw the cursive script of the Han Dynasty. In his primary school education, Xu excelled in the fine arts and calligraphy. Although class was dismissed during the Cultural Revolution, Xu taught himself the traditional Chinese fine art disciplines of ink painting, calligraphy, seal-cutting, wood-carving, and paper-cutting. He brought this strength and interest in the arts to the fervor of the time by creating an art research group organized under the name “Red Locomotive Brigade.” The Brigade specifically devoted themselves to learning how to write Chinese Communist Party slogans with ink brushes. At the culmination of the Cultural Revolution, Xu‟s enthusiasm in the Communist Party resulted in his relocation to the countryside to receive a new kind of education from rural peasants. Even so, Xu continued to practice calligraphy as well as make sketches of villagers and landscapes. In 1977, Xu enrolled at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing
where he concentrated on printmaking. In 1990, Xu Bing again left his home for relocation, although this time purely voluntarily, to the United States where the artist still resides.
As suspected from the years Xu Bing devoted to developing fundamental art skills, Xu places great importance on the foundations of each individual work, both in process and purpose. He promotes basic training courses for aspiring artists for their ability to lay a solid technical foundation as well as their ability to “temper their character, turning them into sharp-eyed artists with meticulousness and precision.” Before beginning on a project Xu spends a lot of time reading, researching, thinking, and draft drawing, as Xu believes the strength of a work can be measured by its depth.
Xu‟s method for artistic creation results in often profound works. Xu Bing has received numerous accolades for the high quality of his work, specifically for its ability to “change the way we look at cultural differences.” Much of Xu‟s “capacity to contribute importantly to society, particularly in printmaking and calligraphy” is found in works where he employs the traditional Chinese art of calligraphy in creating a work of his own interpretation and meaning. These characteristics are especially found in “Books from the Sky” and “Book from the Earth.” “Book from the Sky” analyzes language and texts as instruments of both truth and delusion. The piece is comprised of swooping banners, slung across the gallery ceiling. Tacked on the walls of the gallery were Chinese newspaper like-texts, and on the floor was a pair of traditional hand-bound Chinese books printed with over 4,000 Chinese characters. At first visitors stand in awe of the craftsmanship of the work, the grandeur banners, the beauty of the bound books, all in contrast and balance with the newspapers hastily hung on the walls, and all covered in traditional-style Chinese calligraphy. It is not until the viewer examines the work with a closer eye that he realizes the characters are not actually Chinese, but are in-fact non-sense,
something the artist himself invented. There lies a grandiose display, two entire books, great banners, and newspaper clippings all covered in symbols that are meaningless.
“Book from the Sky” was first exhibited in 1998 at the National Museum of Art in Beijing, and immediately put Xu at the forefront of the avant-garde New Wave movement, as well as on the communist government‟s “bourgeois liberal” list. This critically acclaimed piece was considered by critics to be a “complex meditation on written language, textual information, and printed media.” The work was indeed complex. Xu spent years hand carving the typesetting blocks used to make the prints in accordance to the principals of block printing, another traditional Chinese art.
While “Book from the Sky” is impossible for anyone, including the artist, to read or interpret, “Books from the earth” also centers around the foundations of Chinese calligraphy and can be read, although not how one would first assume. The text Xu used for this project, Square Word Calligraphy, is also of his own invention. At first glance, square word calligraphy appears to be Chinese characters, but with close examination it is discovered that the characters are comprised of English letters and each character spells an English word.
Xu‟s inspiration for this new form of a very old art was based in the awe and curiosity that non-Asians have for characters. Through “Book from the Earth” Xu hoped to demystify calligraphy and create a bridge between two very different language systems. Square word calligraphy, described by Xu as an “art for the people,” has been compiled and published into two books that aim to teach this new writing form. The characters are often used in dining and retail spaces outside of China‟s borders which is in line with Xu‟s goal to create artwork that is not limited to small groups of societies but can be appreciated and understood by all people.
Chinese calligraphy has evolved greatly since its divine beginnings as pictorial symbols used to voice prayers. Overtime, the script became heralded as one of the highest art forms in all of China. Over 1,000 years since its founding, and artists such as Xu Bing are elevating the traditional craft to something hip in art communities the world over and brought to the world stage. Xu clearly and consciously stepped away from the confines that dictate the standards by which calligraphy is held and into a perspective that emphasized meaning just as much as aesthetic beauty. It is not as important of the stylistic approach of Xu Bing to calligraphy, for the characters that he presents are not even hand-written but are created through block-printing, as much as the fact that Xu Bing is referencing and making use of such an ancient art at all. Contemporary artists in the Western world do not commonly base their works on artistic styles that were developed and highly acclaimed during late classical antiquity, which is in the same time period that in China, the art of calligraphy using a brush and a soft surface using characters that are strongly related to ones used today was developed.
The strength and endurance of Chinese traditional art forms is astounding. The continued reverence and use for calligraphy can be attributed to the continuous use of calligraphy as it is necessary to communicate, as well as the innate nature of Chinese calligraphy in Chinese people. As calligraphy is something that surrounds Chinese people from the very beginning of their lives it is not something they can easily escape, as both Xu and fellow Chinese artist Chen Zhen believe that art is inspired on and founded in life. Xu also illustrates Chen‟s belief in the “bank of genes,” of Chinese culture. These genes are inherited by Chinese people and will always be a part of them. Therefore it is natural to reference what is so innate to themselves.
It is believed that “styles in Chinese art do not fade away; once formed, they remain forever viable alternatives” (Bernhart).While this principal is clearly illustrated in calligraphy, it
is also disproven. Westerners see calligraphy as having been present in Chinese culture since the development of pictorial writing. Chinese people recognize far more of the transformation of the art, the changes in scripts, and each artist‟s unique take on the script. Therefore, it is not as though the Chinese keep art stagnant for all time, but rather they develop arts that are unique and entrenched in their culture, this development is just difficult to appreciate from a Westerner‟s eye.
This continuation of traditional art by Xu Bing and other contemporary artists does indeed make his work distantly “Chinese.” Although this is often criticized as an easy reliance on old subjects, and lack of ability and will to move forward with new ideas, these critics are not realizing the full value of calligraphy and traditional Chinese art. Chinese art, whether it features characters, block printing, or other traditional methods will always be considered as “Chinese” art. The appearance of these traditions is natural, not a lethargic dependence. For as Xu said, “art is life,” and the creation of art is born in an artist‟s personal identity, which will forever consist of an individual‟s cultural background.
The Progression of Chinese Calligraphy Scripts
A rubbing from a bronze vessel in da zhuan shu script
Shi Weize, Memorial text (736 AD), Jishu script
Ouyang Shun, kaishu script
Fa Shishan, in xing shu script
Zhang Xu, Four Letters on Ancient Poems, cursive with distinct personal qualities
Works Cited Barnhart, Richard. "Chinese Calligraphy: The Inner World of the Brush." Metropolitan Museum
of Art Bulletin 30.5 (1972): n. pag. Web. 09 Dec 2010. "Beauty of Composition in Chinese Calligraphy."Cultural China n. pag. Web. 09 Dec 2010. "Chinese Calligraphy." Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, University of Washington n.
pag. Web. 09 Dec 2010. Little, Stephen. "Chinese Calligraphy." Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 74.9 (1987):
372-403. Web. 09 Dec 2010. Zhu, Linyong. "Life Writ Large." China Daily 13 Jan. 2010: n. pag. Web. 09 Dec 2010.