Writing a way home

Annie Zhang contemplates calligraphy as a means of retracing the past

A brush is lowered into a bottle. Dark ink cloaks a head of coarse hair. Lifted from the well, the brush is lowered to the paper.

“Push down drag across gradually lift up push back down and round off”

The instructor explains the anatomy of a horizontal line.

Calligraphy as high art

In imperial China, calligraphy was revered as high art. Calligraphy was viewed as one of the pinnacles of Chinese culture for millennia, associated with literacy, education, government and nobility. With beginnings that trace back to oracle bone inscriptions in the Shang dynasty, calligraphy evolved into its contemporary form centuries later during the Han dynasty. The new technologies of ink, brush and paper were adopted and soon became widespread. Contemporaneously, the Chinese writing system was also shifting from zhuan 篆 script to kai 楷 script, the characters we see today.

Self-expression is at the heart of Chinese calligraphy. In classical times, calligraphy was an expression of the artist’s spirit through use of their physical faculties, intended to aesthetically present on paper a harmony among the self.

In the modern world, however, intersecting forces have led to a decline in calligraphy’s practice and popularity, such as the introduction of simplified characters, and the impact of new technologies on writing systems. Some now see it as an ancient art form fading into obscurity, doomed to die within the next few generations.

A living, evolving art form

However, many others are of the belief that calligraphy is not dying, but simply evolving.

Having shed its connotations of status and social capital, calligraphy is no longer confined to the upper echelons of society and the educated male elite. It is now accessible to people of all classes and backgrounds. A new generation of artists hailing from the Chinese diaspora, are also reinventing calligraphy’s traditional purpose. In their hands, calligraphy is no longer simply a means of self expression—calligraphy has also become a method of reframing, re-examining and reconnecting with the past. Through calligraphy, some artists explore the lives of groups at the margins of history; others challenge traditions; and still more dive in to explore their heritages and ancestral homes.

Reframing histories

Monika Lin’s Tenthousand (2012) uses calligraphy as a medium to challenge perceptions about the history of Chinese societies. Lin is a Chinese Latina American artist who was raised in the United States after her adoption by a Swiss mother and a Chinese father. Tenthousand is a performance piece which features the artist writing the character 米 (rice) in calligraphy 10,000 times over a 12-day performance. By the end of the performance, 833 sheets of calligraphy were generated, each of which were then set down on a wooden platform. “Western audiences have described her performance of calligraphy as ‘beautiful and tranquil’,” writes art researcher Luise Guest. “[But] Lin… saw this as an orientalist interpretation of her work, a misreading of her intentions.”

In fact, Lin’s calligraphy is intended to evoke the backbreaking physical labour endured by peasants who planted rice, but could not afford to eat it. Instead, it was the scholarly elite who lived off their work, and were able to enjoy comfortable lifestyles as a consequence, where they were able to appreciate fine arts such as calligraphy and painting. Lin’s work challenges the way we see the past, and the people in it—reminding us of the groups at the margins of history whose lives, loves and labour go unacknowledged and unremembered.

Re-examining traditions

Another performance artist, Echo Morgan, also challenges the way we see Chinese tradition, history and society. Born in Chengdu, Morgan has lived and worked in London since the age of nineteen. Her three and a half hour performance piece, I Am A Brush, involves the artist using her own hair to practice calligraphy on a scroll of parchment eleven metres in length. The work expresses sorrow, heartbreak and strength—in conversation with art researcher Luise Guest, Morgan reveals that “all the ink marks and dots were words, they were the stories of the women in my family.”

Calligraphy as an art form has traditionally been reserved for the educated elite—as women in imperial China had limited access to education, calligraphy was also often out of their reach. “Hair, ink, and tears: in I Am A Brush the traditionally masculine scholarly language of calligraphy becomes a female language of the body,” writes Luise Guest. Morgan’s subversion preserves the medium’s traditional purpose of self-expression, whilst simultaneously challenging its long and patriarchal past.

Reconnecting with heritages

For other diasporic individuals, practising calligraphy is writing a way home. In the International Students Lounge, the art form is witnessing a revival. At 3pm on Monday and Thursday afternoons, members of the Sydney University Calligraphy Society gather for two-hour workshops. After meticulously covering the tables with newspapers and tablecloths, students bend low over parchment paper and bottles of ink.

Many workshop attendees are members of the Chinese diaspora—international students or Australian-born Chinese. For many, calligraphy offers the prospect of reconnection with the language and culture of their ancestral homes.

“It definitely allows me to connect to my heritage,” says Nicole Zhong, a general executive of the society. “I feel that I am able to read and write Chinese characters much better.”

Victor Ye, the society’s secretary, was initially drawn to Chinese calligraphy for its aesthetic beauty, but ended up realising a passion for the language, literature and history of China. “The development of calligraphy and the development of written Chinese are intertwined,” he says. “So learning calligraphy has taught me a great deal about the language. What resonates most with me is the fact that the written language we use today has remained largely unchanged for two millennia. My ancestors would have copied out the exact same templates that I use now. I practise calligraphy to continue, preserve, and pass on this legacy.”

Dr Tianli Zu, a Chinese-Australian multimedia artist, firmly agrees that practising calligraphy is an effective means for Chinese diasporic youth to discover more about their cultural roots. “You will learn the whole [of] Chinese culture, custom, poetry, aesthetics and philosophy through writing,” she says. Her artistic practice, which she describes as large-scale papercut by hand, utilises and fuses many elements of traditional Chinese art including papercutting, painting and calligraphy. “To me, using a knife to cut through paper is a way of writing calligraphy. It means, instead of writing with a brush, I paint with a knife, similar to dancing with a sword. It is a spontaneous act.”

Dr Zu is running an eight-week course, beginning 22 May, that will develop fundamental skills and knowledge about three major Chinese art forms. ‘Introduction to Chinese Art Course (Chinese Painting, Calligraphy and Papercutting’ is open for enrolment through the University of Sydney’s Confucius Institute, online.

Though Chinese calligraphy no longer enjoys the elevated status it was once conferred, it has become an accessible form of expression. Diasporic individuals are free to pick up their brushes and trace out their personal and collective histories in dense rivers of ink. And through countries and continents, migrations and generations, places and people, they can follow these ink trails home.

This article appeared in the autonomous ACAR edition, ACAR Honi 2018.