Inky lines that can be more than words

The Art of Calligraphy in Modern China

June 21, 2002

Gordon Barrass's book is an eye-catching record of his long commitment to collecting calligraphy in China over the past three decades; and it accompanies a recent exhibition of selected pieces that the author has donated to the British Museum.

Most of this stimulating volume comprises seven chapters devoted to various groupings of 25 Chinese calligraphers. Selections of their work are superbly illustrated, and an appendix provides a transcript of the Chinese texts to accompany the high standard of translation throughout the volume. The calligraphers' careers spanned the 20th century - the most senior calligrapher in the selection is Ye Gongchuo (1881-1968) - and most of them remain active today. All are - and have been - inhabitants of the People's Republic of China. All are men. Other than that, their identities as calligraphers vary enormously. Not only the last generation of imperial academicians but also revolutionaries, such as Mao Zedong (1893-1976) and Chen Yi (1901-72), the first communist mayor of Shanghai, whose short poems have sometimes survived, rub shoulders with men up to 60 years their juniors, who were children and teenagers in the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s.

Two chapters set the scene. The first, "The great debate", reviews the long history of calligraphy in China and claims that its visual forms have changed more profoundly than ever in the past 50 years. The second, "The changing world", sets calligraphy within the context of the People's Republic since 1949 and its engagement with the West during the same period. In his introduction, Barrass invokes what appears like a blessing for his whole project from Pablo Picasso: "Had I been born Chinese, I would have been a calligrapher, not a painter." Later, we read that Picasso said this in 1956 when meeting Zhang Ding, then head of the Central Academy of Design in Beijing, during a visit to Paris. It is not clear how much importance Picasso ever attached to this statement, but it emphasises adequately the fact that Chinese theories of the arts have given calligraphy the priority that, by contrast, European art history has reserved for painting.

Barrass's opening comments about the long and successful reception of calligraphy in Chinese society are astute. For instance, despite age-old obstacles on the path to full literacy, the practice of writing in Chinese with a brush has meant that all writers - famous calligraphers and the millions of others who wrote without any expressed artistic intent - shared the same experience in basic training and referred to the same rules for composing characters. This is a peculiarly high degree of inclusion that has long enhanced the practice and criticism of East Asian writing. Such a situation grows increasingly rare in the traditional arts of the West. For instance, according to European priorities, aspirants to a universal education once received drawing lessons, but few curricula have space for this training today, and most admirers of, say, Raphael's cartoons are unlikely to have undergone a course of draughtsmanship.

Also interesting in this section of the book are Barrass's accounts of techniques and forms that have appeared in movements that he calls variously "classicist", "modernist", "neo-classicist" and "avant-garde". These names may confuse as much as enlighten the reader, but they are useful labels for interesting comments on recent and current uses of China's calligraphy tradition and other elements of the visual arts in the creation of radically new expressions. The social history of these movements, however, tends to be somewhat reductionist, especially when the author claims that 20th-century calligraphers "have been involved in the convulsions of Chinese history to a far greater extent than most famous calligraphers of the past". Not a few past calligraphers had to endure hard blows of personal and political deception. Besides, as Barrass points out in more than one of his biographical accounts of the older generation of calligraphers, Mao Zedong- the most convulsively involved calligrapher of them all - actually performed several acts of rescue when the political heat was too high for scholarly friends whom he admired. As well as being "involved", then, some individuals were spared.

"Modern China" in this book's title means the mainland state, not the Republic of China in Taiwan and any other large Chinese communities in Asia and elsewhere. The author acknowledges that he has not considered calligraphy from these regions, since it was produced in "very different circumstances". It is impossible to judge what any degree of difference might be, since the exclusive focus on mainland China draws a veil over the first half of the past century. Although Barrass mentions certain mainland calligraphers' activities prior to 1949, he takes little account of their teachers, pupils and other social contacts whose later flight to the wrong side, as it were, long rendered them in mainland circles completely taboo.

Thus, large constituencies in the narrative of China's cultural history vanish. Even Barrass's biographical accounts of Guo Moruo (1892-1978), Shen Yinmo (1883-1971) and Ye Gongchuo (1881-1968), for example, leave the impression that the "new society" born in 1949 was the result of inexorable and logical political developments against which these men entertained no alternative visions and harboured no doubts. More to the point, their calligraphy commands attention only from 1949 onwards. The focus of these issues depends on who defines China and how, but equally it should demand more nuance from words such as "modern" and "China".

In this book, however, "modern" connotes only the communist revolution and after. Considerably undervalued, therefore, are the fascinating decades from 1900-50 when publishing houses, advertisers, political campaigners and artists created some of the period's most distinctive book covers, building facades and so on in unprecedented expressions of modernity that owed much but not all to current styles of western art and manufacture.

Until the reader is some way into this volume, the "art of calligraphy" remains elusive. Surely, calligraphy is art - but what is the art of it? Is there any notion of what is not the art of calligraphy without a simple reduction to definitions of writing or script? Brash and challenging answers to such questions appear in the later pages of this book, and they contribute much to Barrass's polemic that the past 50 years have seen the biggest changes in Chinese calligraphy.

For instance, an account of Zhang Qiang's (1962- ) "traceology" explores the methods and aims of a calligrapher who exploits calligraphy as performance in order to challenge his own visual and dexterous control as well as to relinquish the privileges of creative autonomy. Zhang brushes ink onto a surface that his assistant manipulates; at the same time, he averts his gaze from what he is doing. The assistant also decides the duration of each performance and arranges the disposition of multiple elements to create whole artworks. The results seldom comprise readable texts.

And, even if they do, it is quite apparent that Zhang's aim is to produce images/things in an abstract art that only faintly - if at all - emulates the generation of written words at the heart of most calligraphic practice. Perhaps this, then, epitomises in one direction at least the "art of calligraphy".

Zhang and fellow members of the avant-garde have travelled a road down which they may ultimately eschew all links with the visual recognition of calligraphy. Indeed, admitting to know only some Chinese and to read only some calligraphy, I confess also that, had Barrass not told me that all the samples in his volume are calligraphy, I would have strayed most likely into reading Zhang's oeuvre as abstract artworks. Crucially, however, what such misconstructions must diagnose is the highly dichotomous nature of these late 20th-century productions. If we accept the creators' fluent proposals that their works comprise a modern art form, it is partly because, in Zhang's words, the development of this art owes so much to "dispensing with the need to include meaningful text". Why still call it calligraphy, many will ask.

Picasso's remark of 1956 may be ripe now for retailing as a remarkably canny prediction that calligraphy has emerged as the leading medium of modernity in the visual arts of China: a prediction of the task that Barrass's "avant-garde" claims to have accomplished. Their atextual abstractions have successfully plotted a course into modernity and done to death the potential expression of text once central to their art. Or is Picasso's remark a reflection of something else? Did he detect - as does Barrass - that a work of Chinese calligraphy is also a chronoptic record of performance with ink line, a record that, once completed, is eternally available for the eye to retrace and the senses to re-envisage as the varying speeds and touch of nervous action and emotional input?

Picasso had recorded himself on camera in the act of painting swiftly executed line images - he is probably one of the first artists for whom such kinetic visual documentation exists. Drawing and writing had more than a little in common and, interestingly enough, their close relationship also emerged amid Chinese theories of writing first recorded two millennia ago. If this commonality is what Picasso meant to seize in his calligrapher-painter equation, then his instinct was almost surely correct. But whether it bridges the gap between tradition and modernity is much less certain. Calligraphers will be born in China yet. How many of them will choose to overthrow entirely the traditional function and identity of calligraphy remains to be seen.

Oliver Moore is lecturer in the art history of China, University of Leiden, The Netherlands.

The Art of Calligraphy in Modern China

Author - Gordon S. Barrass
ISBN - 0 7141 2400 1
Publisher - British Museum Press
Price - £50.00
Pages - 288

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