Untitled street art by TSANG TSOU-CHOI in Hong Kong. Courtesy National Arts Council, Singapore.

GU WENDA, Hes x Shes, 1986, mixed-media installation, 300 × 600 × 80 cm. Collection of Zhejiang Academey of Arts, Hangzhou. Courtesy the artist.

XU BING, Song of Myself from Leaves of Grass, 1994–96, from a series of ink on paper, 348 × 177.8 cm each. Courtesy Xu Bing Studio, New York.

Square Words, Round Paradigms: Contemporary Calligraphy in China

Features from May/Jun 2008

The phenomenon of the 1979 Democracy Wall in Beijing now seems surreal, considering the vast social and economic changes that have taken place in China since then. But there, for a brief period, citizens gathered to read and comment upon layers of large posters painted in bold ink on all kinds of scrap and newspaper, each poster calling for civic and political reform. Within a short time Deng Xiaoping, consolidating his power as the eventual successor to Mao Zedong, suppressed the movement and the wall was moved to a distant suburb.

The short-lived Democracy Wall was the last prominent use of calligraphy as a vehicle for personal expression in the public forum, concluding a long tradition of intellectuals expressing their concerns to the seat of power in their own hand. Calligraphy—the manner of writing itself—was an essential aspect of literacy. It served as a means of displaying sincerity and erudition, with its practitioners drawing from a widely-circulated canon of masterpieces dating back as far as 1,500 years.

The events of 1979 were also the last acts in the unwinding of the Cultural Revolution, during which Mao Zedong made extraordinary use of calligraphy as an expression of power. Mao took the use of a ruler’s calligraphy as a personal mark of authority to its logical extreme, making his brushwork a pervasive part of Chinese life. Its traces still remain visible on newspaper mastheads, the names inscribed on important buildings and product packaging. This occurred even as the Red Guards denounced calligraphy for its association with feudal culture and suppressed access to historical models.

However, the last quarter century has seen a cautious re-emergence of calligraphy and the use of writing in art. Two major directions predominate: one is a concern for formal exploration that is identified with the basic tenets of modernism, adapted for Chinese circumstances, and the other is the use of writing in transgressive works by avant-garde artists. It seems highly likely that calligraphy will continue to play a role in future art, especially as artists and critics delve into the conceptual aspects of the historic canon and relate it to contemporary concerns.

Many date the reinvention of calligraphy as an art form to 1985, when country-wide reforms led to an explosion in artistic and intellectual creativity. In that year, Huang Miaozi, Gu Gan, Li Luogong and their peers formed the China Society of Modern Calligraphy and Painting in conjunction with a large-scale exhibition, “First Modern Calligraphy Exhibition,” held in the state-run China National Art Museum in Beijing. In contrast to traditional calligraphers, these artists minimized the textual content, embracing elements of abstraction, figuration and even the use of color in their pursuit of stylistic innovation. Public reaction to the Beijing show was mixed, with unease over what were seen as subjective formal inventions and a lack of attention to the meaning of texts, but there was also excitement over the unprecedented break from convention.

The years since have seen modernists dominate the teaching of calligraphy in the main Chinese art schools. Stylistic exploration remains a prominent feature, increasingly enriched by deeper study of traditional models. Critical discussion among modernists addresses such issues as how calligraphy can have a contemporary appearance while retaining core historical practices and references. A typical expression of this is seen in the publications of the Lanting discussion group of university-trained calligraphers organized by Qiu Zhenzhong, in Shaoxing. In his concluding remarks to one of the group’s recent publications, Qiu describes the difficulty and necessity of going beyond the performance of adept technical facility—“the dance” of calligraphy—to express individual ideas and concepts. 

Despite their academic pre-eminence, modernist calligraphers complain that they are neglected in the current contemporary Chinese art boom, both in critical consideration and market opportunities. Indeed, prices for calligraphy scrolls are well below those of leading painters and some modernist calligraphers advertise their services by the square meter in magazines devoted to contemporary calligraphy.

Even as the China Society of Modern Calligraphy and Painting was planning its groundbreaking statement about the possibilities for calligraphy in the contemporary era, Chinese visual artists began developing new practices inspired by developments in the US and Europe, made accessible following the government’s embrace of the Open Door Policy. Emerging alongside the ‘85 New Wave, artists such as Gu Wenda and Xu Bing approached calligraphy from a conceptual position, using it to challenge the burden of cultural authority and critique political and social systems from within the idiom of international contemporary art.

Betweeen 1984 and 1986, Gu Wenda, who trained as a calligrapher and ink painter, produced large works on paper and canvas in which portions of calligraphic text were replaced with commercial logos and irreverent “pictograms” marked over with bright red X’s and O’s. The fierce urgency of these compositions, combined with their scale—occasionally room-sized—evoked the grittiness of the Democracy Wall and its predecessors, the big character posters of the Cultural Revolution.

Beginning his career as a printmaker, Xu Bing suggested the mechanical nature of power by printing invented, nonsense characters in his iconic Book from the Sky, which debuted in exhibition at the Chinese National Art Museum in 1988. Made with hand-carved calligraphic typefaces and composed of hundreds of meticulously printed pages, Book was displayed as a massive installation featuring long scrolls of printed paper suspended from the gallery ceiling and walls, accompanied by neat rows of traditionally bound books arranged on the gallery floor. The overwhelming visual effect, combined with the complete illegibility of Xu’s characters, left visitors alternately amused, inspired or disconcerted, as message was stripped from medium. Parallel to Gu, Xu’s works of this time seemed to provide a meditation on the power of writing in Chinese life and on the existential quality of the Chinese language, wherein presence precedes and sometimes exceeds linguistic meaning.

Working outside of China since the late 1980s, the pair have gone on to gain fame as mainstream contemporary artists. Xu has continued to examine the slippery interface between written forms and meaning, notably with his works that distort English words into square, quasi-Chinese formats, as well as with his current project, The Book from the Ground (2003- ), which attempts to create a universal script culled from icons commonly found in instruction manuals and similar sources the world over. Gu has taken the physical dimension of writing forward with his signature series of installations, “United Nations,” in which he uses human hair to create massive woven structures that hang from gallery walls or ceilings and are studded with Chinese characters and other scripts.

In the 1990s and the past decade, contemporary artists have continued to be drawn to calligraphy, in part because it offers such an efficient means for considering China’s cultural heritage and structures of power. A prominent example is Zheng Guogu and his colleagues in the Yangjiang Group, based in the artists’ hometown of Yangjiang in Guangdong province, who employ calligraphy as part of a conceptual project addressing the spectacle and rhetoric of Chinese traditions. They observe how these traditions are increasingly refigured as entertainment or commercialized in a purely superficial style. The Yangjiang Group seeks to parody this circumstance with works like Zheng’s Bloodwritten letter on imprisonment with the opposite sex… (2002), in which calligraphy is used to retell a shocking news story about a 16-year-old girl who, in 1996, was imprisoned for a week with two dozen male suspects who sexually abused her. Zheng writes the text over an elliptically related photograph of what appear to be binge-drinking revellers. The text in this and other works by Zheng and his cohorts, including I once had a one-night stand. Self-account in talk show about losing virginity at 20 (2002) by Sha Yeya and American inspectors enter Middle East? No Way! (2002) by Chen Zaiyan, is largely unreadable, distorted by sloppy washes or deliberately messy strokes, obliging viewers to learn of the contents from nearby labels.

The critic Chen Tong, writing for ShanghART gallery in Shanghai, where the works were exhibited in 2002, describes the Yangjiang Group’s project as provocative but carefully evasive of responsibility, taking an elusive form that is intentionally “ridiculous and lacks the possibility for revolution.”

Formally, the works of the Yangjiang Group are often grotesque and present a challenging and discomforting vision to viewers, but they have struck a chord with international curators. In 2007, the group was included in documenta12 in Kassel, Germany, reprising works that used calligraphy in their construction, such as Waterfall (2003), for which participants wrote calligraphic texts that were then dipped in wax and molded to create an enigmatic sculpture resembling an oversize block of dripping ice.

By contrast, Wang Tiande, a professor at the China Art Academy in Hangzhou, exemplifies an avant-garde sensibility that is both elegant and ironic. Working with fire and photography, Wang has recently developed two bodies of work. In one, paintings and calligraphy are made by burning lines through sheets of rice paper, which are then stacked in multiple layers to create complex open patterns, intricately layered scripts or even landscapes, in which different layers evoke a sense of depth. In another body of work, Wang has photographed ash-heaps of burned printed copies of well-known calligraphic texts in arrangements resembling traditional compositions of mountain scenery. The calligraphy is unseen but it is described in detail in the accompanying labels the artist provides.


WANG TIANDE, Gu Shan I, 2007, color photograph, 32 × 163 cm. Courtesy Chambers Fine Art, New York. 

XU BING, Magic Carpet, 2006, preproduction digital rendering. Courtesy National Arts Council, Singapore.

Among artists working with new media, Feng Mengbo shows where calligraphy can be positioned as part of a strategy of appropriation. In his “GPS Calligraphy Project” (2005-06), Feng takes the name of a major calligraphic form, “running script” (xing shu), and makes of it a literal game, overlaying a single character on city maps and even oceanographic charts. The artist then takes the journey shown by the strokes on the map, documenting it through photography and film.

Despite the apparent disparity of modernist and avant-garde uses of calligraphy, there is a shared assumption about the autonomy of the artworks created and the dominance of visual over textual elements. This contrasts with the pre-modern ambition of calligraphy as a medium that melds language and form. Hong Kong gallerist and critic Johnson Chang Tsong-zung laid out this problem as part of his 1999 calligraphic show “Power of the Word,” which brought together a diverse selection of work including those by figureheads Gu Wenda and Xu Bing as well as “outsiders” such as the illiterate Taiwanese farmer and painter Hung Tong and reproductions of works by Mao Zedong. In the show’s catalog, Chang commented:

In recent decades there have emerged many attempts to reinvent calligraphy as a ‘modern’ art, but most of these have failed because of the tendency to either stylize the written form or to exaggerate the calligraphic hand in order to create a new pictorial language. These are innovations based essentially upon graphic considerations, often inspired by Western experiments in abstract painting, and have made negligible impact on calligraphy as a whole. One of the reasons for this failure has to do with how calligraphy is customarily read and enjoyed. Calligraphy is intended to be ‘read’ as a text, and is not primarily aimed to give just instant visual impact.

Indeed, few artists—whether working in the modernist or contemporary camps—have yet to fully exploit this essential element of calligraphy as it existed in tradition, or the possibilities for text as the original time-based, interactive medium through which collaboration and successive interpretations become a part of the work of art. In historic practice, single works were often made by several artists acting in response to one another, or even in response to a painted image, through poems, commentaries, colophons, critiques and seals added over hundreds of years as ownership passed from one connoisseur to the next. Fusing artistic critique and engaged collecting, this particular use of calligraphy provided a channel for interpretation and transformation, for reasserting values and devising new approaches to assert continued relevance.

Contemporary public application of calligraphy continues in state-sponsored inscriptions that designate new places or recall important events. For example, then-Chinese president Jiang Zemin contributed a commemorative inscription to a pillar near the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, where Hong Kong’s handover was formally transacted in 1997.

Yet fittingly, since the demise of the Democracy Wall, the most notable instance of a citizen using calligraphy as a vehicle for voicing individual, civic concerns occurred well outside the realm of the artistic or political establishments. For nearly half a century, Tsang Tsou-Choi (1922-2007), often known as the “King of Kowloon,” covered public places and objects including bridges, walls, post boxes and concrete pylons with a litany of his personal claims to his family’s ancestral ownership of Hong Kong. Working odd jobs throughout his life, the largely-uneducated Tsang began writing graffiti around the age of 35, demanding the return of ownership of Hong Kong or compensation for leasing the territory to the British government. Tsang’s texts essentially consisted of lists of his ancestors’ names in the manner of a clan temple’s list of benefactors, but these were interspersed with details of his cousins’ jobs, his own address, fanciful descriptions of sex acts between his ancestors and Chinese royalty 3,000 years ago and assertions of the artist being an amazing swimmer. Although curators, art dealers and even auction houses tried to bring Tsang’s art into the mainstream, such attempts were largely unsuccessful. Despite their formal originality, his writings were treated as a nuisance by local officials, who arrested him on numerous occasions on charges of defacing public property.

The potential of calligraphy remains vast and is likely to be a source of new paradigms for Chinese art practices. The way forward may well be through decomposition, selecting elements from historic practice and pursuing them with isolated intensity. Ultimately, the link between text and pictorial languages in calligraphy will yield paradigms for complex multi-media projects, as well as approaches for connecting contemporary art with new audiences and inclusive social practices.