The show’s main topic is calligraphy as one of the major aspects of Chinese cultural heritage. It is impossible to develop a genuine great culture without written language. Chinese language is known for its complicated tonal system as well as tens of thousands of hieroglyphs instead of alphabetic systems common for European languages. Although many efforts were made and much time was spent for mastering all the complexities of Chinese language, long hours of one’s writing skills improvement resulted into a beautiful art of calligraphy.


The first exhibition piece is a traditional masterful scroll of poetry “Orchid Pavilion Preface” (Lantingji Xu) by Wang Xizhi. Wang Xizhi, who lived during the Jin Dynasty (265–420), is considered by many investigators as well as ordinary people to be one of the most honored Chinese calligraphers of all time. Moreover, he is traditionally referred to as the Sage of Calligraphy. Wang Xizhi’s artwork represents tradition and eternal wisdom.
With the increased pace of modern life, it becomes more difficult for people to find enough time to master such a complicated and time-consuming skill as calligraphy. Additionally, new technologies seem to pronounce the end of Chinese writing, which is notoriously incompatible with computers. The confusion and frustration experienced by Chinese people concerning the attempts of the government to simplify traditional Chinese characters during the Cultural Revolution were expressed by Xu Bing in his famous installation “A Book from the Sky” (天书). Creating a whole book with thousands of characters similar to Chinese hieroglyphs, Xu Bing managed to make it devoid of their new semantic meaning. Thus, Xu Bing questions tradition and attempts to redefine the way Chinese regard their language.

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The exhibition is concluded with a far-fetched shoulder-length statue of Confucius crafted by Zhang Huan. Sitting in a pool of water, Confucius is enigmatically smiling, looking like he can answer all questions.

Art of Chinese Calligraphy

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Since the beginning of the twentieth century, China has been struggling to find its new identity. Clashing with the Western expansion, Chinese society began revising their major values and notions. Language was among those spheres of Chinese life that still awaits transformation.
Since time immemorial, language has been an inherent feature in human life, being crucial for communication as well as expression of thoughts and discussion of events. Through a language, some notions can be shaped and re-shaped, while a lack of specific terminology makes it difficult to express an idea, which may result in concealing something important. China is known for its complex language system that includes special tones in oral speech and sophisticated hieroglyphs in writing. In China, calligraphy was always considered an important occupation for any person who strove for peace and wisdom.
This exhibition showcases the relationship between people and written language in China. Starting with Wang Xizhi, who never doubted calligraphy’s beneficial effects on human beings, and continuing with modern artists, such as Xu Bing and Zhang Huan, who question Chinese culture, the exhibition gives an opportunity to muse about a language over a long period of time.
Inasmuch as China has many dialects very different from one another and people from one province can hardly understand people from other areas, written language is a link for all Chinese citizens. Having mastered written Chinese, educated people can always find common ground. Chinese always respected their written language, which was evident through their relation to calligraphy, a special art of writing beautiful characters in ink. Paintings and drawings are often finished with some inscriptions; in picturesque areas, rocks, tree trunks and mountain cliffs can bear written messages calligraphically painted by a brush; door frames and thresholds can also contain calligraphic inscriptions.
At the exhibition, this long-standing tradition is represented through the famous calligraphic work called “Orchid Pavilion Preface” (Lantingji Xu, 兰亭序)by Wang Xizhi (王羲之). It is believed to be the pinnacle of Chinese calligraphy; thus, the manuscript is often copied and studied afterwards (fig. 1). Living during the Jin Dynasty (265–420), Wang Xizhi (303–361) was granted a moniker Sage of Calligraphy (書聖) as one of the best Chinese calligraphers. Wang Xizhi mastered all forms of Chinese calligraphy and elevated to higher standards the cursive and running scripts. The height of Wang Xizhi’s glory was during the Tang Dynasty, with The Emperor Taizong highly admiring his works. The ancient calligraphist has been respected ever since. In addition to Xizhi’s glorification in China, he has been influential in Japanese calligraphy.
The Chinese placed much importance on calligraphic handwriting. It demanded long-time practice and hard work. The result was judged by its aesthetic effects. A good calligraphy work was supposed to be energetic and bony (gu). If the work showed more flesh (rou) than muscles (jin), its value was reduced. Excellent calligraphic strokes are expected to combine all four necessary elements of a good calligraphy – bone, sinew, flesh and blood. Lady Wei, who was Wang Xizhi’s calligraphy teacher, said: “Powerful and sinewy writing is sage (sheng); otherwise it is like an invalid (bing).” Wang Xizhi’s elegant writing raised the bar for all the subsequent Chinese calligraphers, being considered “the aesthetic mainstream of Chinese calligraphy.”
Practicing calligraphic handwriting of Chinese characters is very time-consuming and laborious occupation. Chinese scholars have long been asking themselves a question about its expediency. The general concern is that modern technologies and Chinese writing are hardly compatible. With time, calligraphy has lost its practical application and now is used more for its aesthetic qualities. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Chinese considered the idea to discard hieroglyphic writing in favor of an alphabet-based system. Although the initiative was not fully accomplished, the Chinese society began asking themselves a serious question of the role of the Chinese traditional writing in contemporary life.
In terms of their unique language, the change of cultural vector was quite tragic for China. Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution (1965-1976) demanded to discard all ancient, traditional values. It was called “smashing the Four Olds: old habits, old customs, old culture and old ideas.” As for the Chinese language, it underwent a process of simplification. This way, the government wanted to increase literacy among less educated citizens. In this endeavor, Mao Zedong and the government intended to reject traditions and Confucian values and build something new out of thin air. Their attempt failed. After many years of repression and underground work, artists began to emerge and reveal their thoughts on culture and language.
The contemplation of the practicality of calligraphy and Chinese character-based writing results in text-based art. One of the prominent artists, who raised questions about the Chinese language, is Xu Bing (徐冰, born 1955). He is a Chinese-born artist who lived in the United States for eighteen years. In his signature artwork “A Book from the Sky” (Tianshu, 天书), Xu Bing conveys his confusion and frustration about the governmental policy concerning the reformation of Chinese characters he experienced when he was a child. At the moment of Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, Xu Bing was learning to read and write. Thus, an attempt to simplify complex Chinese hieroglyphs affected the young Xu Bing’s perception of language and he developed distrust to it. At that time, after children had mastered some hieroglyphs, they had to change them to new simplified characters, which later were changed back to the old ones. As language is a basis of culture, an ambivalence about such a complex subject complicated Xu Bing’s relationship with the Chinese. Xu Bing expressed his critical point of view on the Chinese language in his hand-made installation (fig. 2). The artist conveyed his angst by means of four thousand illegible Chinese characters hand-written and hand-printed on long sheets of sutra paper. All hieroglyphs were invented by Xu Bing. They had aesthetic appeal of traditional Chinese characters with familiar form and structure, but were absolutely meaningless and unintelligible. Xu Bing’s idea was to create a book “empty of all content,” while looking as a genuine book made with “an authentic process proper to book making” and “precisely and rigorously executed.” The visual resemblance of traditional Chinese writing makes the viewer attempt to guess the meaning of it, which results in the same frustration Xu Bing had experienced when he was a child.
Xu Bing’s “A Book from the Sky” occupies a whole room. It consists of a large scroll hanging from the ceiling in the middle of the room, rolls of scrolls laid out on the floor in a wave-like fashion, and wallpaper-like sheets of writing covering the walls. Thus, the viewer steps into the exhibition room expecting some kind of literate meaning in those inscriptions one sees around, but finds oneself surrounded by the illegible mass of language. It makes the visitors feel the power of language but, not revealing any sense of the written characters, they feel powerless, not being able to cope with meaningless meanings. As a true art form, Xu Bing’s “A Book from the Sky” produces different emotions and reactions, but usually the viewer finds oneself overwhelmed and may react with either a rejection or a fascination. According to the reports from the 1988 Beijing exhibition where Xu Bing presented the work first, some visitors experienced a range of negative emotions from distress to grief similar to the ones experienced in confinement or at funeral; others “marvel[ed] at the length and wonder of Chinese civilization.” Thus, Xu Bing questions the role of calligraphy in the life of Chinese society and points to the dichotomy between semantic meaning and aesthetic effect of the Chinese traditional writing characters.
When Zedong’s Cultural Revolution proclaimed the necessity to cast away the old order of living, first of all it was directed to Confucian traditional values. Upon several decades, when it was evident that this course of action was wrong, bewildered people might have thought that they need to find support and answers in tradition. However, Xu Bing does not seek answers in the past. By inventing four thousand illegible characters he offers to look for identity not in the past or in the West, but inside oneself. Chie Lee says that by rejecting the traditional rules of language “Xu was smashing the traditional definition of “Chineseness” and opening the door to a new imagination of Chinese identity.”
Colliding with modernity in terms of rapid economic development, technological progress, strong influence of the West on Asian cultures, and a growing pace of life, artists often try to find answers for a better living in the past. They question it and redefine it, as was done by Zhang Huan in his exhibition piece “Q Confucius No. 2” (问孔子). Zhang Huan (張洹; born 1965) is a Chinese artist based in Shanghai and New York. He began his career as a painter and then transitioned to performance art before coming back to painting. Zhang Huan is famous for using his body as an art medium. The artist had several performances when he stripped naked and tried to communicate his idea using his body as a language. Later, Zhang Huan moved his focus onto the bodies of others to be used as media for the artist’s ideas.
On October 15, 2011, for The Rockbund Art Museum (RAM) in Shanghai, Zhang Huan presented his Q Conficius exhibition featuring several large artworks of the ancient Chinese sage. One of the exhibited pieces is named “Q Conficius No. 2”, which is an extremely realistic-looking bust of the Chinese sage partially submerged into a pool of water. Made 32 feet tall, the sculpture is robotic and can make an impression of breathing. Confucius was a unique philosopher whose influence has been long sustaining the strength of China in different aspects, from aesthetic to moral and political ones. Maurice Meisner in his book Mao’s China and After: A History of the People’s Republic says, “China could not have been a great unified nation but for the imperial powers and Confucius”.
The invisible presence of Confucius in the life of people of PRC is paralleled to the ubiquitous availability of hieroglyphs in the surroundings. Growing up, people got used to seeing Chinese characters inscribed on all valuable and visually remarkable objects and picturesque spots, as much as they were enveloped by the wisdom of Confucius. Making the larger-than-life realistic sculpture of the ancient sage, Zhang Huan might have implied that this philosopher’s meaning is enormous for China. Inasmuch as the lower part of Confucius’s body stays submerged in the water, people may not realize that this sculpture embodies wisdom and traditional values. Similar to an iceberg that reveals only a snowy tip, Confucius serves as a symbol of the ancient China and may be perceived superficially. Zhang Huan portrays the ancient sage as an ordinary man, with bare chest, wrinkled skin, and age spots. With an enigmatic smile, he stares in front of himself, as if asking himself something. Thus, the name of this artwork can imply either “Questioning Confucius” (the Confucius who Questions himself) or “Question Confucius” (as an imperative) or both.
Thus, the exhibition “Calligraphy: Aesthetics over Meaning” showcases the way the attitude toward the language and calligraphy has changed over a long period of time. Beginning with serene and elegant Wang Xizhi’s “Orchid Pavilion Preface”, the visitor’s view moves to Xu Bing’s questioning the past in “A Book from the Sky” to Zhang Huan’s reclaiming the past in “Q Confucius.”

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