Yao's two articles entitled Tuhua wenzi and Wenzi hua expounded his
main idea in artistic creation, that is, the development of his early
interest in Pictorial Calligraphy to his active practice of Calligraphic
Painting. As Huang Yao explained the basis of his interest in this
aspect of art :
|The written character is the linguistic
sign. As a human first learns how to speak, there is no difference
between the utterance of the baby and the ape : each only knows
how to open its mouth to utter the sounds that express its desires.
Be they sad sobs, happy gurgles, anxious cries, the sounds uttered
are none other than 'wah-ah', 'ha-ah' and 'yay-ah'. As humans
progressed, there was a need to record the forms, sounds, and
semantics of the basic human expressions, and the feelings that
livened their hearts. Thus, humans developed various signs to
signify all these expressions, which took the form of pictographs,
becoming the earliest writing system... There are many ancient
civilisations with rich cultural expressions, especially in
terms of the writing system, like Mesopotamia, Egypt, Maya and
even Africa... Even for those who remained in the Palaeolithic
age, they had a kind of language, and a form of pictorial sign
system which I preliminary call tuhua wenzi "Pictorial
The earliest documented writing system in China is jiagu wen
(Oracle-Bone Script), and if we want to trace the signage system
that preceded Oracle-Bone Script, we will have to study the
social life of these archaic communities according to their
pictographs, and these are the beautiful tuhua wenzi mentioned
in Shuo Wen (an ancient Chinese dictionary). Other cultures
outside of China also had their pictographic signs like the
Lolo of the Burmese borders. The more pictorial their signage
system, the more beautiful their pictographic signs.
....There can be three elements to the Chinese character : its
form, its semantics, and its phonetics. According to common
understanding, a single-syllabic (i.e. radical) character is
called wen, and a double-syllabic character is called zi, so
strictly speaking, all tuhua wenzi are first composed from a
single radical and should be known as wen. Archaic tuhua wenzi.
especially the wen, are in fact aesthetically equal with the
ancient painted images, which are also [on par with] the modern
paintings; which is why Picasso urged us to study art in Africa,
Sometimes I can spend my whole day lying or sitting down, reading
or writing tuhua wenzi and not tire, just because of the incomparable
beauty of its form.2 ...I love the study
of etymology, although I can't say I have done much research
in this field, nor do I want to do any revolutionary work. As
an artist [what I really want to do is] read the Oracle-Bone
Scripts, history of the everyday life in archaic society, and
speculate about their lifestyle according to the existing inscriptions.
For example, [looking at] the inscriptions (carriage)
and visiting the museum to view actual Shang Dynasty oxen carriage,
[1 see that] the inscriptions are both tuhua wenzi, and when
they come together, they become what Cang Ji termed zi "character".
This 'coming-together' can form a beautiful picture, [a beauty
that is] comparable to the pictographs of the Shang and Zhou
Dynasty Bell-and-Gong Script. There was a time when many [tuhua
wenzl] were formed, and they combined with single radical wen
to form whole, complete pictographs.3
The use of tuhua wenzi in calligraphic practice has been a new development
in art in China since the mid-1 980s. To differentiate it from conventional
calligraphy, the practitioners termed it 'Modern Calligraphy', which
was the result of a search for new expressions in Chinese calligraphy.
The modern calligraphic practice had been a stylistic trend in Japan
since;the mid-20th century, where it is known as xiang shu. In the
context of the development in 20th century calligraphy, critical attention
should be given to the work of Huang Yao. From today's art theoretical
standpoint, this calligraphic style involves an examination of how
an individual's aesthetic experimentation draws from available resources
to re-create a visual language, coupled with a critical understanding
of its history and historicism, This is one of the key art theoretical
issues confronting art practices today. Thus the discussion on Huang
Yao has a special significance.
Since the start of Chinese calligraphic criticism, there have discussions
over the xiang "likeness" of the character; this likeness
was not only one of the roots of the written characters themselves,
it was also one of the basis of calligraphy as an art form. Just as
Huang Yao commented, "In learning Chinese art, we also need to
learn philology. [For example] the individual radicals bu and shou
together form a Chinese character, yet every radical is [in itself]
an archaic pictograph."4 He elaborates further
by saying, "For those who like Asian art, they would know [the
concept of] shuhua tongyuan, that is, the basis of Chinese calligraphy
and painting actually stem from the same root. [Though] people; take
notice of calligraphy as a whole art form, because the characters
are themselves paintings, those who appreciate Chinese calligraphy
should best know philology, so that even in writing wen (a character),
it is like completing a picture." 5
The shuhua tongyuan theory in traditional Chinese art theory has received
new interpretation in Huang Yao's practice and artistic development,
From the basis of tuhua wenzi "Pictorial Calligraphy", it
has developed to wenzi hua 'Calligraphic Painting'. He cites an example
where he illustrates the source of his engagement in wenzi hua and
its pictographic foundation :
|There was this exhibition of wenzi
hua at the Jizhen villa recently, and He Weicheng ... encouraged
me to render wenzi hua. ...I had a sudden inspiration on the
character xu "
" (facial hair), and I thought of the structure of the
character xu ""
.You can look at one side of the character xu " "
, there is the Chinese character for eye, mu "
" and it was originally written horizontally [as a pictograph
of eye], and the ba " "
underneath is the Oracle-Bone Script for ren " ".
The " "
on top is like the eyebrows, and doesn't [all] that represent
a human body? As for the three strokes of " "
on the left represents the person's facial hair, and this character
"sounds like hair, and according to Shou Wen (an ancient
Chinese dictionary), "
" is just like hair, and common language calls it 'hanging
Huang Yao gives another example:
|Take . . .the two characters "
"(television). On top of the radical "
"(electricity) is the radical "
" (rain). At the top of "
" which refers to " the sky above". The dots
"represents raining. The word electricity ("
") comes from the character "
" and "
" in Oracle-Bone Script is "
" which represents the actual lightning in the sky As for
the word "
" (vision) there is a "
" on the left, and "
" on the right; the "
" on top is just like a person opening his eyes, and the
" below is a "
" character, which means a human being is standing with
the eyes open.7
In his search for a new direction in Chinese calligraphy, Huang Yao
sought inspiration from the earliest writing systems of China.
|The [first] written character developed
from pictographs to Oracle-Bone Script. In fact, the Oracle-Bone
Scripts were the ancient simplified Chinese characters, and
as they developed into the Bell-and-Gong Inscriptions in the
subsequent age, they attained [a new beauty in the history]
Of the Chinese written character. Those who would like to practice
wenzi hua should base: their foundation on the Bell-and-Gong
If you understand the structure of the [Chinese] character,
you can use this method of inquiry to reach an understanding
and 'oneness' with the ancient aesthetic concepts. If I make
a [new] picture based on archaic drawings such as tuhua wenzi,
the modern man [may] be amazed, thinking that it is some kind
of modern abstract art. Yet it is actually an 'ancient' drawing
[and it is] the most beautiful concrete picture. I have been
researching in this area, and I regret not being able to find
someone else who can share these concerns.9
in China has [by and large] not developed in the direction of wenzi
hua. Huang Yao, who moved to and settled in Southeast Asia, has examined
his use of wenzi hua under the scope of calligraphy as an art form
in various cultures - from Western to Japanese culture - in order
to analyse the direction of calligraphy within a broader context.
While Huang Yao acknowledged that there is much to learn from the
Western-style hieroglyphics, they differed from Chinese wenzi hua
as the latter are essentially a form of calligraphic painting.
Much of his critical inquiry arose from his personal interest in Japanese
calligraphy as well, with the realisation that while the roots of
Japanese calligraphy stemmed from its Chinese counterpart, it also
developed and experimented further than Chinese calligraphy, Huang
Yao felt that the Japanese have managed to effectively challenge traditional
Chinese calligraphy in contemporary times, while providing the Chinese
new methods of artistic innovation, from the writing of stone rubbings,
minimalist characters, to avant-garde calligraphy. Huang Yao felt
that Chinese calligraphic works had fallen behind Japanese calligraphy
ever since the I980s. On the strengths of Japanese calligraphy and
their advocating that the barriers between painting and calligraphy
should be abolished Hua Yao commented :
|Japan has elevated calligraphy into
the greatest form of abstract art. Many a majestic building
[boasts of] incredible murals that are composed of running-cursive
characters, [so much so] that the West is stunned, deeming it
miraculous. This is however, unheard of in China and other Chinese-inhabited
areas, which is inexplicable. Frankly speaking, despite the
[beauty of] the structure of the Oracle-Bone Script, the glamour
of Bell-and-Gong Inscriptions, the robustness of the Big Seal
characters, or the boldness of Clerical Script [...]they all
have been artistically diluted tremendously. The crux is not
the exterior form, but rather, the essence within. To write
a new chapter in Chinese art, we will need the collective research
of all who have a passion for it, regardless of whether it is
painting or calligraphy, and combine our efforts together.10
In addition to Japanese culture,
Huang Yao felt that Chinese calligraphy can gain much from the calligraphic
practices of other cultures, especially ancient ones.
|The Sumerian period at BC 3000 also
had a form of hieroglyph, as did ancient Egypt, even Myanmar,
Nepal and a tribe of Northern Thailand... these signs are pictures
and drawings in their own right. A person with 'heart' would
find it easy to find [joy in] ancient treasures.
[There are artists] in the West who spend great effort in learning
[what these ancient art forms have to offer], but we Asians
[often] ignore them instead, Isn't that a waste?11
[In fact, these creations] have a correlation with the ancient,
yet have a touch of the modern. Some people see it and think
that it is a modern painting, but in actual fact this is the
oldest [art] form. Others think that it is Western abstract
painting, but it is actually ancient Eastern characters. Thus
I believe that art does not differentiate between the ancient
and the modern, the East and the West, the old and the new.
It is all one and continuous, and this is the greatness and
sacredness of Art. 12
As a result, he laments at the current state of the writing system
in modern Chinese culture.
|There are' a few famous artists
of the West going this direction, but it is regretful that they
have no study of the Chinese calligraphy, and they do not understand
the Chinese word. In fact, the Chinese character and calligraphy
is a special treasure of Asia, and our younger generation, being
influenced by the West, have become ignorant, and some even
despise themselves, resulting in a continuous cultural depreciation.
Ethnic Chinese, in certain parts of the world, do not even have
pride in learning their own language [and] they commit [fundamental]
mistakes in understanding the difference between wen which marks
the origin [of a character], and zi which bears the grace, and
without repentance. When I think about [the current state of
our writing system, the] 'utmost cultural treasure of the world',
occasionally, I cannot help but feel disappointed,13
In another article, Huang Yao elaborated
on the significance of Chinese brush strokes artistry in wenzi hua.
Because wenzi hua is a manifestation of Chinese art, a discussion
on the element of ink and wash strokes needs is thus necessary.
|Ink is subdivided into five hues.
...Dry and moist ink strokes have to be performed with flexibility,
resulting in an array of light and heavy, as well as thin and
robust strokes. It would be ideal not to change the brush, or
as seldom as possible. Experience this through the emulation
of the three characters: fu "bliss", Iu "wealth"
and shou "longevity" in zhuan wen "Seal Script"
with diligence, preferably in the morning, and unmediated grace.
Do not hesitate in applying dexterity and strength like the
bamboo, to bequeath dimensionally to the scroll, only as such
can the subtlety be felt, which equates the harvest of self
pro-creation, a definite glee - now, this is 'fortune'.14
Tuhua wenzi "Pictorial Calligraphy"
and wenzi hua "Calligraphic Painting" belong to two different
dimensions : the former is composed of pictorial signs, while the
latter utilises tuhua wenzi as source material for creating new script
forms. Therefore tuhua wenzi. Whilst founded on traditional Chinese
calligraphy, has evolved to a new realm in artistic creation, which
is what Huang Yao referred to as wenzi hua. Nonetheless, for Huang
Yao, it was finally, one's artistic ability that was the distinguishing
|With regards to Chinese calligraphy,
it is no different compared to 'normal' everyday writing, Under
a macroscopic viewpoint, it is none other than painting a picture
with lines and dots, and those characters that bear resemblance
to tangible objects in real life are 'concrete', while those
representing intangible things are abstract. As the saying goes
"abstract withholds concrete" - they embrace each
other, hence the futility in differentiating between new and
old, East and West. In Art, it is only the degree of artistic
skill and talent that [finally] matters.15
On the process of creating wenzi hua, he wrote :
|Manipulating characters into pictures
is pretty interesting, and can be done by anyone, one merely
requires a good grasp of Oracle-Bone Script and Bell-and-Gong
Inscription. These, together with frequent reference to tuhua
wenzi, will result in stunning and pleasing pictures. . . .Wenzi
hua are [in actual fact like] tuhua wenzi, but really are easier
to create than ordinary paintings. [We] just have to understand
the structure of the character, select the form to ensure vitality,
liven it with beauty, and novelty will follow.
If you already understand the structure of Oracle-Bone Inscriptions,
then the image will follow. If we gathered the copies [and variations]
of each character, and revised them every now and then, the
[basic and original] structure will [still] be evident. Therefore,
those who appreciate [and study] Chinese painting, will also
gain the additional benefits of calligraphy expertise and cultural
Wenzi hua finds transformation in Oracle-Bone Script and Bell-and-Gong
Inscription. However the changes are most evident in cursive
and later, running scripts - the evolution of strokes is intriguing.
The Japanese have done great research in cursive and running
On the topic of One-Stroke Painting he also discussed the difference
between it and Calligraphic Painting :
|The difference between One-Stroke
Painting and wenzi hua is that, as long as you have a knowledge
of Shou Wen and the foundations of calligraphy, you can be rather
good at wenzi hua. However, One-Stroke Painting requires a theme.18
It is not difficult to compose wenzi hua when you start with
the natural phenomena, Iike the sun, the moon, the stars, the
constellations, the rain, the thunder, the thunder and lightning,
the mountains, the rivers, the shrubs, the woods - every item
is a lively picture for one to gain inspiration from and to
depict, And if one does not understand [the gist of things],
one can refer to Shou Wen to [find out how to] draw the lively
birds and animals, and once we add colour to the drawings, it
becomes infinitely delightful ....19
And the entering into the pondering
of the substance of Calligraphic Painting is the next step in Huang
Yao's discussion in wenzi hua. The theory of shuhua tongyuan "calligraphy
and painting stem from the same root" has not only narrowed the
distinction between Chinese calligraphy and painting, it has informed
the characteristics of calligraphy itself. Huang Yao expounded on
the importance of painting in calligraphy :
|In fact, there is much truth in
this phrase shuhua tongyuan. It is a matter of deep regret if
a painter does not know calligraphy, and it is a matter of imperfection
if a painter does not know how to dexterously and soundly pen
one's strokes with the most delicate technique of calligraphy.20
The dots and lines of Chinese ink painting originate from calligraphy.
Picasso and Matisse of the West regretted a lack of understanding
of [Chinese] calligraphy. While the lines of both artists have
their sound foundation in sketches, and their lines are as strong
as that of calligraphy, they lack the subtlety of nuances and
variations in calligraphic brushstrokes. We can compare the
works of both artists works with calligraphic models, and in
the [latter's] strokes and lines, [we can see] the inseparable
relationship between calligraphy and painting.21
Therefore Huang Yao uses the term chuyun shu "brushstrokes from
the clouds" to describe his interpretation and direction of his
calligraphic practice :
|l should be 'naive' and 'unpolished'
to learn the brushstrokes like a child. When I read Tao Qian's
line "The cloud has no mind I out from the caves"
, my friend Crlao Qian) bestowed the name chuyun shu. I would
face my seat, flip my book, and sometimes close it to practice
Seal characters with a cursive hand; sometimes I would follow
my desire, and write in one continuous stroke, regardless if
they were short passages, poems, proverbs pr propitious words.22
The above opinions are Huang
Yao's expositions on tuhua wenzi and wenzi hua, and when he expressed
these beliefs visually in calligraphy, it resulted in his unique calligraphic
paintings. When we refer to Huang Yao's actual calligraphic works,
we would have a clearer understanding of his unique thinking in this
realm. His article on the creation of sanyang kaitai "three suns
heralding prosperity" elaborates on the actual method of transforming
tuhua wenzi to wenzhi hua ,
|Let us take for example the idiom
sanyang kaitai "
". Tai is a divination symbol, and according to the Tuan
article in the Yijing "
": "The heaven symbol (qian) is above, and the earth
symbol (kun) is below. [When] the heaven and earth exchange,
all things communicate." When we see tai, it is always
of great prosperity and fortune. If we see tai when we look
for fortune, it means the way to prosperity is straight. If
we see tai when we look for marriage, it means the way to love
is open. (But in effect does fortune come? Does love last? I
do not know.)
How about sanyang "three suns"? [It is] stated in
the xu divinity symbol, "when three people come, it is
the end-fortune of respect" and [it is said that] "the
one moon is the lord over three suns," Thus according to
the Chinese character, it should be sanyang,"
", But it is more monotonous [to depict it] as three suns,
so I use the Chinese homonym method and depicted sanyang ("
: three suns) as sanyang ("
" : three lambs). The primitive characters were developed
mostly from pictographs, and each pictograph is lively and vivid,
so I decided to depict [the pictographs] of three lambs. The
word "lamb" possesses many forms in Oracle-Bone Script,
of which each character is beautiful. I selected quite a number
of them, including those with rounded eyes, and furry moustaches..
. . . But because sanyang "three suns" only required
sanyang "three lambs", I had to forsake some of them
and settle with three, which are all cursive and dotted, [where
the dots are the 'eyes' in the pictures]. The horn of the 'lamb'
was even conjugated to give certain spiral effects. Further
critique showed that the composition of 'three lambs' alone
[still] Iooked rather monotonous, so l added a few characters
that represent the [original meaning of the] sun, enhancing
the word with the meaning of sunrise, followed by a few [additional]
strokes that represented the 'sunward face'. All these [are
executed] in red ink, to add to the variety.
Finally, to increase a sense of connection [between the individual
characters], a ren ("
" : man) is added (ren is written as bu "
" in Oracle-Bone Script, and can be added either on the
left or right). In the first place, "lamb" in Oracle-Bone
Script contains the character xi "
", and this in turn symbolism a shepherd, The characters
as a whole thus symbolise a shepherd walking three lambs under
the sun, enjoying the sunny brilliance, which translates into
the meaning of "transcend". I feared that the common
reader may not understand the meaning behind such primitive
characters, hence I footnoted it with the words sanyang kaitai
below which there was another footnote that read, "The
work was completed mid-autumn in the year xinyou. 23
The above is a vivid example that
elaborates on the theory and practical uses of the wenzi hua. It can
be interpreted as a method that aids both the development of one's
creativity, and also an individual's study and research into the origins
of ancient Chinese writing system and art, of which the latter was
a keen interest that Huang Yao had. His works have provided many possibilities
for artistic experimentation in Chinese calligraphy, specifically,
the further evolution of tuhua wenzi "Pictorial Calligraphy"
to wenzi hua "Calligraphic Painting" and it is artists like
Huang Yao, whose efforts have breathed new life to today's calligraphic
creations. It is the analysis of his works that will offer more insights
into the nature of wenzi hua, which will in turn shed light on the
origin of modernism in Chinese art.
Shanghai, May 2001
Huang Yao, "Tuhua wenzi," Moyuan suibi (the Works of Huang
Yao : Journals ), ed.
Pan Qingsong. 1st ed. (Malaysia : Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall,
2 Huang 52.
3 Huang 53.
4 Huang, "Wenzi xue," 244
5 Huang, "Shufa rike," I22.
6 Huang, "Wenzi hua " 54.
7 Huang 244.
8 Huang, "Xu Wei's Ink Paintings," 99.
9 Huang 244. Huang I22.
11 Huang, "Wenzi hua " 55.
12 Huang 53.
13 Huang, "Sanyang kaitai," 12g.
14 Huang, "Fu, Lu, Shou," I75.
15 Huang I22.
16 Huang I22.
17 Huang, "Shufa rike " 123.
18 Huang, "Yibi hua " 60.
19 Huang 60.
20 Huang, "Huihua, dongfang yishu jianshou " 236.
21 Huang 237.
22 Huang 287.
23 Huang, "Sanyang kaitai," I28.