Calligraphic China

Chinese calligraphy, which began with hieroglyphs and, over time, developed into the base of the Chinese writing system, is not only a way of recording and communication, but more importantly, a cultural heritage that has witnessed and accumulated in itself the wisdom and traditions of each age. As early as Zhou Dynasty, Confucianism sees calligraphy as an expression of the calligrapher’s character and a way to exercise the ultimate principle “Ren”, which refers to “benevolence, humanity, or kindness”. Taoism, on the other hand, sees Calligraphy as a practice to strive for tao, namely “the Way” or the nature’s order. Because of its close tie with Taoist and Confucian classics, calligraphy became the writing convention in the imperial examination system, which, from mid Tang Dynasty to its abolition in 1905, had been the major path to office and the scholar status. 

Contemporary Chinese calligraphy, as compared to traditional Chinese calligraphy, has become more obsolete as it recedes from a common scholarly practice to a more specialized artistic pursuit. However, with the influence of Western modern art during the Woodcut Movement in the 1940s, the search for a new calligraphic expression has been underway. At the same time, a critical questions arises as to how to develop a new Chinese calligraphy such that the new expression strikes a good balance between preserving its own cultural tie and absorbing new ideas from Western convention.

Sample pages from the booklet


The Cultural Revolution in the 60s and 70s certainly cannot provide a satisfactory answer to this question, as it did the very opposite – labelling anything traditional as “counter-revolutionary” and, at times, using calligraphy writing on big-character posters to attack the capitalist and traditional elements of the Chinese society. Such renouncement of the tradition, and, in some way, the root of the Chinese culture, only catalyzed the national strive for a new artistic expression, which culminated in the 85 New Wave. The reinvented calligraphy during the New Wave therefore took on a mission: to review both the glorious and the disgraceful in the past and to facilitate a conversation between the lost tradition and the contemporary national identity. 

In the endeavor for a uniquely Chinese calligraphic expression, this exhibition aims to explore several possible paths for future development of calligraphy as a cultural treasure, an expressive art, and an on-going conversation that invites reflection on the Chinese national identity. Through four selected calligraphic pieces, two from the 85 New Wave and two from more recent artistic explorations, this exhibition will take you back and forth in time to join this collective contemplation.


© Charlotte Lou, 2017.