Photo by Joe Magliaro
Springtime in Beijing can be rough. Between the sandstorms and stay-indoors-or-don’t-say-we-didn’t-warn-you smog alarms issued by the State, there are few days to truly enjoy spending time in the open air.
On those days when the clouds part and the winds subside, park-going citizens are determined to make the most of it. Beihai Park, just north of the Forbidden City, is the destination of choice for many—red-capped tourists, solitary tai chi practitioners, waltzing retirees, wandering monks, and, fleetingly, a cadre of blithe calligraphers, preparing to put on a performance of indeterminate intentionality.
In the shadow of the 36-meter White Dagoba, a temple originally built in 1651 to honor a visit by the Dalai Lama, two calligraphers take turns practicing their craft. They share only the most basic kit—a sponge-tipped brush, a plastic container of water, and the stone-laid sidewalk at their feet—yet each man exhibits his own distinctive style of writing.
The first to go is a man with freshly-trimmed white hair and a plaid jacket. He looks down at the sidewalk through his metal-framed glasses and begins to “paint” the stones with broad, swift strokes of the water-dipped brush. Working from memory, he moves quickly, completing his statement before the first characters have evaporated into the midday air. He takes little note of the onlookers who have gathered to puzzle out the ephemeral poetry on display, and simply hands off the brush with a smile.
His sparring partner demonstrates a much more deliberate, refined technique. He moves slowly, pausing to consult his book of poems, then modulates each stroke with a precise turn of the wrist, forming compact, artful characters. Within minutes, the words begin to fade, and soon become illegible.
Equally difficult to read are the calligraphers themselves; when asked why they do what they do, at first one of them answers—“It’s a cheap way to practice in the warmth of the sun, surrounded by friends”—but refuses to elaborate. (Thankfully, Theme was able to contact a calligraphy expert who provided some insight; see sidebar.) Soon they have disappeared as completely as the letters they created, leaving no trace whatsoever of their performance. But the movements of tourists and tai chi continue unabated; it is as if the calligraphers were never there.
Mr. Yang Yingshi is a Chinese art critic, independent curator, and scholar of calligraphy currently based in New York. Yang holds Master’s degrees in art from both Harvard and Peking University. A longtime art critic and editor of the China Daily in Beijing, Mr. Yang has been an active observer and participant of the contemporary Chinese art scene and has curated and advised exhibitions on Chinese calligraphy. Theme caught up with Yang at Columbia University, where he is pursuing a doctorate in Education.
Is calligraphy a common activity with Chinese, or part of Chinese education?
It depends on how you understand “calligraphy.” Scholars like Hsiung Ping-Ming regarded calligraphy as the core of Chinese culture and as of utmost significance in the life of Chinese. But today, calligraphy as a skill of communication has gradually lost its importance in the daily life of Chinese, as more and more people are now turning to computer keyboards. Good handwriting is no longer seen as a basic requirement of well-educated citizens today.
Do you know how and when water calligraphy performed in public spaces came about?
I first saw [the phenomenon] in the spring of 2003, when I was living in Beijing’s Asian Games Village. It was around the time when Beijing was suffering from SARS. At that time, people in the city had not many places to go. They could stay home, or they could do physical exercises in parks with sunshine and better airflow. I chatted with some of the calligraphers and few of them could clearly explain their intentionality.
How does waterborne calligraphy differ from traditional calligraphy?
From the point of the calligrapher as practitioner, they have not much difference. Calligraphy is not just a skill, or even an art. It is also a philosophical thing, a ritual and a lifestyle. The intentionality of a calligrapher is often not just to make an object, or a work of art such as an oil painting or a sculpture. More exactly, the calligrapher is having a silent dialogue with himself and experiencing the subtle pleasure of discovering himself through the movement of the brush and his own body. The process of making calligraphy is more important than the product of calligraphy.
Do you think these calligraphers are using an impermanent material like water to convey a deeper meaning about the temporal nature of life and words?
That reminds me more of “Water Journal,” a performance work by Beijing contemporary artist Song Dong. For years, the artist kept a journal with brush and water on a piece of stone. In my view, the waterborne calligraphy in the parks is more directly related to the meaning of calligraphy--as a skill, as an art, and as a Tao. The materials used and the final products are actually not very important for a calligrapher. An ancient examplewas Monk Zhi Yong of the Southern Dynasty (420-589) who planted 10,000 banana trees for him to practice calligraphy on the leaves. A recent example from my childhood memory is my calligrapher father, who often practiced with a chopstick and leftover soup on the table after he finished dinner with us.