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Introduction: From Shufa to Shuyi
While the Greeks used kalligraphia, meaning "beautiful writing", the Chinese used shufa, "the systems of writing", and the Japanese, shodo, "the way of calligraphy". It is noteworthy that although the Greeks coined a word for beautiful writing, legibility and precision remain the most important and rigid criteria of the quality of calligraphy, leaving not much room for free interpretation. On the contrary, the Chinese and Japanese terms that set out to emphasise the methods of writing, flourish into the most beautiful calligraphy. The Japanese now use sho for creative artistic calligraphy and the Chinese have moved on to what I suggest to call shuyi, "calligraphic art". Whereas shufa is written to be read, shuyi is drawn to be viewed.

By Tang Dynasty, five styles of shufa have already been developed and reached their full maturity; they are zhuan shu [seal script], li shu [official script], kai shu [regular script], xing shu [walking script] and cao shu [cursive script]. Since then, Chinese calligraphy has been used for the imperial examination system that dictates certain uniformed style of calligraphy, as a practical medium to write Chinese characters for communication purposes, and later as inscriptions on Chinese painting. As a result of this confinement to its utilitarian function and secondary role, there was no effort made to separate and develop calligraphy into its own independent artistic form, until 1898 when Kang Youwei and his student Liang Qichao launched the "One-Hundred-Day Reform". The reform included eliminating the imperial examination system and breaking away from the restriction of calligraphy standards widely followed since Tang.

Kang is popularly regarded as the founding father of contemporary Chinese calligraphy. His ideas prompted many calligraphers to start seeking fundamental transformation and drastic innovation to bring calligraphy to an independent art status. The process of development was, however, very gradual in the beginning. This is the period I refer to as the First Stage: Personalised Traditional Calligraphy, which spanned across the hefty first eighty years of the twentieth century. By "personalised traditional calligraphy", I adopt Zhang Yiguo's definition to mean "works in a personal style but still related to traditional calligraphy". I group the next ten years into the Second Stage: Pictographic Calligraphy, which I consider works such as painting-like calligraphy and calligraphy-dominated painting. The last is what I call the Third Stage: New Calligraphic Art or Shuyi, which include pseudo-Chinese-character calligraphy, calligraphy as advocated in Shufa Zhuyi [Calligraphism], as well as calligraphy related performance and installation works.

The First Stage: Personalised Traditional Calligraphy
During this period, the development of a new Chinese calligraphy had depended very much on tradition. The process had been steadily maintained, though very slow, with no influence from outside China. As Chinese calligraphy originated from the indigenous Chinese characters, many calligraphers of this stage were still unable to break away from the constraints of a traditional calligraphy complex. Some master calligraphers such as Lu Weizhao, Sha Menghai, Xiao Xian, Qi Gong and Wang Xuezhong began to be concerned in calligraphy before the establishment of Communist rule in 1949 but did not achieve any breakthrough until somewhat thirty years later, after the "Cultural Revolution". Trend in Chinese calligraphy set by these 'pioneer' calligraphers was, however, still marked by the revitalisation of traditional scripts to create personalised styles.

Another group of calligraphers, a younger generation, who upheld their pursuit for the art during the "Cultural Revolution" also emerged after the chaos. Among them were Shen Peng, Sun Boxiang, Zhou Huijun, He Yinghui and Wang Yong. Mostly in the age group of thirties and forties at that time, they joined and continued the older generation's exploration of a comprehensive combination of several or, sometimes, all of the historically important scripts and styles in one work. The great challenge for them was also the ability to draw upon the essence of the traditional scripts of zhuan, li, kai, xing and cao while not hesitating to express a new view. The emergence of woman calligraphers such as Xiao (one of Kang Youwei's outstanding students) and Zhou has certainly broken the male dominance in the involvement and contributed new energy and fresh perspectives.

Brushwork, construction of Chinese characters and application of ink are the basic elements that constitute the composition and rhythm of calligraphy. It is the aesthetic composition and rhythm of calligraphy, and the creative contribution of individual calligrapher's brushwork, character construction and ink-work that make the difference. Calligraphers of this period began to realise that merely copying the past masters' work or writing a certain script skilfully can never make them good calligraphers. Whereas brushwork and construction were explored extensively, the application of ink had not been ventured into until the 1980s.

Wang Xuezhong, a student of master painter Xu Beihong (who in turn studied under Kang), and Sun Boxiang are particularly instrumental in the innovative exploration of brushwork, in terms of the way the brush is being held and moved, and the effect of its application on paper. Wang often uses the method of fubi [supplementary-brush, literally] to write Chinese characters. As the brush is being moved, he intentionally makes the brush tip spread in such a way that the hairs are split out of the bunch. As a result, several supplementary lines are created along with the main brushstroke.

Sun, on the other hand, introduces an increasing use of cursive elements into his brushwork derived from the original square-shaped Northern Wei calligraphy. Such tendency of introducing cursive elements into traditional scripts had become one of the most important phenomena during this stage of creating personalised traditional calligraphy. Another phenomenon, as mentioned before, was looking into the character construction in terms of re-composition of characters whereby the strong points of the traditional scripts are incorporated, and in terms of re-structuring of characters by deliberately changing the spatial form of individual characters. The latter had resulted in personalised styles almost entirely different from the five traditional styles of calligraphy.

Lu Weizhao created his personalised style by combining some of the best features of the traditional scripts of zhuan and li. He wrote li characters in zhuan style and modified the vertical-rectangle form of zhuan into a horizontal-rectangle form. Furthermore, when writing phrases, he changed the columnar appearance as in traditional calligraphy into rows, yet without changing the traditional order of columnar reading of the phrases from top to bottom. Died in 1980, he remains the only one who wrote in this manner. Much younger He Yinghui, on the other hand, emphasises that the structure of each character forms the basis of a beautiful calligraphy. He carries on such exploration way into the 1990s. Baimu [Supercilious Look] in Figure 1 is a good example of his work.
Figure 1: He Yinghui, Baimu [Supercilious Look], 1993
Baimu here is made up of two characters: bai [white] and mu [eye]. For bai on the bottom right, the original kai-script structure is purposely modified, especially in the three horizontal strokes that were original equally spaced. The original zhuan-script yan on the top left is not only given a 90° twist to appear horizontal instead of the original vertical arrangement, but the space between the two vertical lines is also exaggeratedly enlarged to make room for an extra dot, giving an illusion of a pictorial eye. A sharp contrast between the square of bai and the circle (originally rectangle) of yan, and the complementary arrangement of the two characters, also help to contribute to an elegantly composed calligraphy.

Baimu, which suggests "looking upon people with disdain", recalls a much earlier but similar and equally successful work by Aoyama San'u, a Japanese contemporary calligrapher, which however has something to do with "regarding a person in high favour", as in Figure 2: Yan Zhong zhi Ren [A Person in High Favour]. In this piece, the absence of a sharp contrast between square and circle is compensated by a harmony of straight lines and curves, and the unconventional arrangement of the four characters in terms of mutual spacing between each other.
Figure 2: Aoyama San'u, Yan Zhong zhi Ren [A Person in High Favour], 1983

The Second Stage: Pictographic Calligraphy
Many of the calligraphers involved in the first stage of the twentieth-century development of calligraphy continued into the 1980s to be the pillars of the second stage. Further inspired by the slogan of creating "calligraphy reflecting the spirit of the time", Wang Xuezhong, together with Gu Gan and Wang Naizhuang, invited some other contemporaries and held the "First Exhibition of Chinese Modern Calligraphy" at the China National Art Museum, Beijing, in 1985. More significantly, they established the China Society of Modern Calligraphy and Painting.

One of the main aims of the exhibition was to promote "creative calligraphy", going beyond the contentment of developing personalised traditional calligraphy. Among innovative experiments attempted were producing calligraphy that is picture-like and incorporating the use of colours, through exploration of the expressive flexibility of the Chinese calligraphy and painting medium. The attempts were a shock to those in the school of traditional Chinese calligraphy, and were accused of being naïve and rebellious. Nevertheless, claimed by the organisers to mark the birth of modern Chinese calligraphy, the exhibition was certainly a milestone in the conceptual development of calligraphy in the twentieth century. While the traditionalists insisted on exhibiting a strong continuity of tradition, these reformist calligraphers created their calligraphy with a pinch of modernity, through their pursuit for national spirit with a fresh viewpoint.

Su Yuanzhang was one of the calligraphers who took part in the exhibition. In his Zaofa Baidi Cheng [Leaving the White Emperor Town], as is Figure 3, his calligraphy looks like a Chinese landscape painting. Su wrote the final two lines of the famous poem by Li Bai of the Tang Dynasty, which describe the passage through the Yangtze Gorge, in such a manner that the fourteen Chinese characters appear to make up the scenery as well. With the range of mountains soaring up through clouds into the boundless sky, and boat sailing in endless water, it is indeed a picture in calligraphy. Whereas calligraphy of the first stage values the personalised brushstroke as fundamental, picture-like calligraphy such as this further emphasises the overall artistic and emotional impact of the work. Calligraphy here is also not solely concerned with the meaning of the words but with their visual expression as well. Such calligraphy that presents the content in an 'organic' union of words and picture can be appreciated easily and can also be enjoyed by those who cannot read calligraphic Chinese characters.
Figure 3: Su Yuanzhang, Zaofa Baidi Cheng [Leaving the White Emperor Town], 1985
Gu Gan has taken such 'organic' union of calligraphy and painting further, producing a pure calligraphic picture, without the repetitious inscriptions on the same piece of work, but with the Chinese characters forming part of a larger but related picture. Yu Lu [Jade Dew] in Figure 4 is an example. The characters for yu on the bottom right half written in personalised cao script and lu on the top left half written in personalised kai script, together present the very misty picture of cherry in morning dew. Such work may not be easier to read but certainly more accessible and satisfying in terms of viewing. This picture-like calligraphy, or calligraphic picture, would have been even more successful if the calligraphic signature of Gu on the top right corner were to be done away, but leaving the name seal.
Figure 4: Gu Gan, Yu Lu [Jade Dew]
Calligraphers in the first stage had only made full use of the pure Chinese ink and paid attention to the contrast between the black ink and the white paper, but calligraphers in the second stage, such as Gu, concentrated more on the different shades of the ink. The former usually used a uniform black tone of ink throughout a piece of calligraphy, but the latter often investigated the effect of light and dark variation of ink, sometimes within a single brushstroke, just as it has been traditionally done in Chinese ink painting.

Huang Yao, who emigrated to Malaysia in 1956, investigated the union of calligraphy and painting of another kind. He is most reputed for his unique creation of what he called wenzi hua [Chinese-character painting, literally], which is, according to him, tuhua wenzi or pictographic calligraphy, an amalgamation of traditional Chinese culture, ancient Chinese characters and Chinese calligraphy. He enjoyed the delights of creating wonderful wenzi hua since 1970s by studying Chinese characters in great detail, especially jiagu wen [shell-and-bone inscriptions] and zongding wen [bell-and-gong characters], verifying their structures seriously, modifying and recomposing their forms, and making connection or reference to pictographic characters. Figure 5, one of his versions of Huineng Chan Shi [Huineng's Zen Poem], represents a good example of the result of his delightful pursuit.
Figure 5: Huang Yao, Huineng Chan Shi [Huineng's Zen Poem]
Making use of the most beautiful structure of the ancient Chinese characters, incorporating primitive art design and symbols, to write poems or phrases, and paint in an innovative style." That's his definition of wenzi hua and Figure 6, another version of Huineng Chan Shi, best illustrates the gist of it. The aim is to produce a fresh expression out of old composition, in pursuit of "a fusion of figuration and abstraction". Huang firmly believed that "the new must come from the old", but he rarely advocated pure abstraction or a stage where a character is detached completely from its original root or meaning. He reassured this, though unnecessary actually, by always presenting his wenzi hua along with a clearly legible inscription representing the original version of the pictographic calligraphy.
Figure 6: Huang Yao, Huineng Chan Shi [Huineng's Zen Poem], another version
Huang also produced many wenzi hua that look like a cross between Western watercolour and Chinese ink painting. This is no surprise, for he said, "There is no difference between watercolour painting and Chinese ink painting, . . . but Chinese calligraphy is needed to bridge the two, . . . combining the East and the West into one". Indeed, in his Deng Heque Lou [Ascending the Stork Tower] illustrating a Tang Dynasty poem by Wang Zhihuan (Figure 7), for instance, he successfully combined his calligraphy skill and watercolour technique to produce a calligraphy-dominated painting. Another unique feature of such painting, or calligraphy, is that painting is used in a reversal role to support the calligraphy, rather than the calligraphy being used traditionally as inscription on Chinese painting.
Figure 7: Huang Yao, Deng Heque Lou [Ascending the Stork Tower]
Huang had also gone further to attempt to bridge the Chinese characters with the modern Western concept of abstraction, as in Guangming Zhengda [Fair and Square] (Figure 8) that reminds us of Joan MiróÅfsabstract work of the 1960s. Huang, however, remarked:
.......Some people, after seeing [my wenzi hua], thought that it is modernist painting, but in actual fact this is the most ancient formation; some people, after seeing, thought that it is Western abstract painting, but in actual fact this is Eastern ancient characters.
The significant difference between Huang's Guangming Zhengda and MiróÅfs abstract is of course in the black lines themselves, which in the case of Huang's work, represent readable Chinese characters. In any case, such interesting exploration of Huang into incorporating ideas from the West has certainly heralded the third stage of the development of a new calligraphy.
Figure 8, Huang Yao, Guangming Zhengda [Fair and Square]

The Third Stage: New Calligraphic Art
Since the so-claimed birth of modern Chinese calligraphy and the involvement of a large number of calligraphers in pictographic calligraphy, modern calligraphy seemed to move towards an awkward situation of being 'neither calligraphy nor painting'. Some scholars in the field still maintain that illustrative images mislead the viewer to an improper understanding of the original essence of Chinese calligraphy. Many of the works created were being criticised that the experimentation of which is barely based on over-distortion of character structure, overemphasis of the varied graduation of ink, and strained representation through picture.

Nevertheless, modern calligraphy took a twist with the "Shanghai Modern Calligraphy Exhibition" in 1991 and the "First Exhibition of Calligraphism" held in Zhengzhou of Henan in 1993, exhibiting the works of young calligraphers mostly in their thirties then. Leading exponents of the Calligraphism movement include Shao Yan, Luo Qi and Zhang Qiang. The concept of "modern calligraphy" as "non-calligraphy", "anti-calligraphy" and even "destruction of calligraphy"surfaced for discussion for the first time. Although these conceptual terms sounded wild and crazy, the attitude towards modern calligraphy, or ultimately towards what I call new calligraphic art, is serious and based on rational understanding.

Calligraphism represents the most controversial, if not the most innovative departure from personalised traditional or pictographic calligraphy. While the latter still generally preserves the innate structure of the Chinese characters and remains an artistic form of writing despite being picture-like, Calligraphism advocates the extensive alteration, and violation of rules, of the basic structure of Chinese characters to the extent of creating pseudo-Chinese-character calligraphy. Some calligraphist artists also sought after the use of powerful abstract form to produce non-Chinese-character calligraphy, denying in toto the meaning of characters.

The abstract calligraphic characters become indecipherable, no text legible. One is left to only respond directly to the spirit and expressive qualities of each brushstroke, and to the dynamics and impact of the overall structure and composition. One does not have to know Chinese to appreciate the beauty of such calligraphy. When viewing this type of calligraphic work, one needs no more to ask, "What is the Chinese character?" Luo Qi's Heise Zhuyi [Blackism] in Figure 9, part of a series of work, is an excellent example of such calligraphy, or "non-calligraphy".
Figure 9: Luo Qi, Heise Zhuyi [Blackism], 1990
Luo maintains that the quintessence of calligraphy lies in its brushstrokes themselves rather than the representational content of Chinese characters. He has done away with the use of recognised character; he even abandons the use of traditional calligrapher's pointed brush. In Heise Zhuyi, adopting an unconventional and possibly random stroke order, he created a composition of, alas, Franz Kline's lines using a wide and flat brush. Acknowledging that he has been inspired by ideas drawn from Western abstraction, this work recalls Robert Motherwell's Black on White (Figure 10), though the use of Wang Xuezhong's fubi technique in Heise Zhuyi creates a more wonderful effect within each brushstroke.
Figure 10: Robert Motherwell, Black on White, 1961
Since then, the term "modern calligraphy" had been, for a while, widely identified in China, but as something resulted from the influence of Western abstract painting. There have always been disputes as to how much influence modern calligraphy has received from the West. The open-door policy of China adopted lately has certainly brought about some awakening through more cultural exchange with the West and through more information obtainable via the Internet. Majority of the modern Chinese calligraphers like Luo are young and have been very open to these influences.
It is ironic that Chinese calligraphy that once influenced the West now draws inspiration from it in its pursuit for a new calligraphy. The popularity among the Abstract Expressionists for black lines on white canvas has been, though arguable, attributed to the influence of Chinese calligraphy. Besides Kline and Motherwell, Willem de Kooning and Ad Reinhardt also painted in black and white in the 1950s. Mark Tobey studied Chinese calligraphy in the 1930s and subsequently explored his "white writing" painting till his death. These artists had already come to realise then that the abstract brushstrokes are a direct reflection of the mind instead of a physical representation of an object, or a Chinese character for that matter. As Kline put it, "Instead of making a sign you can read, you make a sign you can't read."

After Calligraphism, a series of significant events have taken place. In 1998, the China Society of Modern Calligraphic Art was established, converted from the 1985 China Society of Modern Calligraphy and Painting, with the aim of further focusing on the new calligraphy movement. Earlier in the same year, an exhibition entitled "Brushed Voices: Calligraphy in Contemporary China" was held in New York. Featured calligraphers included Wang Xuezhong, Shen Peng, Sun Boxiang, Zhou Huijun, He Yinghui, Wang Yong, Shao Yan, Luo Qi and Zhang Qiang. A year later, "Bashu Parade: 99 Chengdu Retrospective of Chinese Modern Calligraphy" was held in Chengdu. A symposium was also organised in conjunction with the exhibition.

The next challenge for modern calligraphy was, and still is, to enter the arena of the contemporary international art culture in the global community, yet without loosing too much of the indigenous Chinese calligraphy characteristics. The concern has also been that modern calligraphy should reflect the experience of contemporary Chinese society and culture, though certain degree of detachment and deconstruction from calligraphy itself is necessary. In these contexts, conceptual work seems to be one of the most feasible prospects in the future development of this new calligraphic art. The performance works by conceptual artists such as Zhang Qiang finally appeared.

Zhang, whose work is actually "anti-calligraphy" rather than calligraphy, emphasises the creative process of calligraphy rather than the calligraphy. In his A-B Model series, he considers the brush as a masculine agent A and the paper as a feminine agent B. He then has a different female companion each time to move the paper at her own wish, while he works on it with a loaded brush. As a result, different set of interrupted lines and broken strokes is composed in each session, as a synthesis of the male A and each female B. Based on this creative method of producing calligraphy that he called "traceology", Zhang has collaborated with women of various ages and occupations.

Other important conceptual artists who have become a radical backbone in this new calligraphic art movement include Gu Wenda and Xu Bing, whose installation works have ultimately made a blending début into the contemporary international scene. Unfortunately, or rather fortunately, both of them emigrated from Mainland China to New York in 1990. Under the international context, they have adopted a strategy of balancing between the emphasis of nationalistic cultural characteristics of Chinese characters and the de-emphasis of their Chinese identity. They have used Chinese calligraphy as part of a platform on which different cross-border interpretations can occur.

Gu was the first artist to incorporate Western Surrealism into Chinese ink painting in the early 1980s, when he was only in his mid-twenties. He soon became the first artist to experiment with the use of brush and ink in installation art, inspired by Asian mysticism. Begun in 1993, Gu's United Nations Series, commissioned by the Asia Society (New York), is a series of installation of monuments of twenty-five countries, projected to be completed by early this century. Figure 11 shows the twelfth in the series, Temple of Heaven (China Monument), exhibited in "Inside Out: New Chinese Art" in New York, 1998-99.
Figure 11: Gu Wenda, United Nations Series: Temple of Heaven (China Monument), 1998
This is an installation with screens of human hair, wooden chairs and tables, as well as video. Collected from hundreds of barbershops around the world, the human hair was woven into strands and configured into calligraphic scripts of mainly pseudo-Chinese characters, along with some other pseudo-scripts including Arabic, Hindi and the Roman alphabet. According to Gu, who is also famous for his imaginative manipulation of brushstrokes to form pseudo-Chinese characters, the unreadable pseudo-scripts symbolise "misunderstandings"3?4the "misunderstandings" of being interpreted by the Chinese as mythos of lost history; the "misunderstandings" of being interpreted by the non-Chinese as exotic beauty. In any case, the notion of "reaching for infinity and eternity" is implied. Gu certainly challenges the audience by using elements associated with Chinese calligraphy in a revolutionary way.

"Calligraphy is the artistry of abstruseness and wonderfulness." This was a definition given by Wang Xizhi of the Jin Dynasty. It remains the most abstruse and wonderful definition this century. It is because of its very abstruseness and wonderfulness that in calligraphy, there are no fixed ways of practice that must be adopted, no particular modes of thinking that have to be followed, and certainly no limits that cannot be transcended. The future for calligraphy is definitely infinite and eternal.

For the past one hundred years, awareness through calligraphy exhibitions; reports in newspapers, magazines and journals; information from the Internet; activities organised by calligraphy organisations; lessons through formal education; and promotions through international market, have not only provided the context for development, but also activated the present flourish of the new calligraphic art among the Chinese community in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Southeast Asia, as well as among the non-Chinese community in Japan, Korea, the West, and the rest of the world.

In Singapore, the Federation of Art Societies has been actively promoting for years what is called "creative calligraphy". In the preface to the catalogue published in conjunction with "Creative Calligraphy Exhibition 2001", Ho Ho Ying defines creative Chinese calligraphy as something that "represent self-created original poems or interesting quotations, written in a manner based on innovative re-composition and rearrangement [of forms and spaces], of Chinese characters and words derived from the essence of various forms of traditional Chinese calligraphy". To write "self-created original poems or interesting quotations" is indeed a distant aim to be chased after. As for "innovative re-composition and rearrangement [of forms and spaces], of Chinese characters and words derived from the essence of various forms of traditional Chinese calligraphy", the wenzi hua of Huang Yao presented in the current exhibition "Huang Yao Retrospective" should be a good inspiration.

Dr Chew Kim Liong
Assistant Professor of Visual Arts
Nanyang Technological University
June, 2001

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