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November 8, 2011

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Strokes of genius and character

CHINA'S "Olympics" of calligraphy is underway and one of the youngest winners is a 28-year-old Shanghai businessman who says calligraphy helps him get into the minds of the ancients. Yao Minji reports.

Yang Xianmiao, a 28-year-old Shanghai businessman, has surprised experienced calligraphers and lovers of calligraphy with his youth skill and dedication - he is among the youngest of 28 honorees in a major national calligraphy (shu fa) exhibition.

"For me, practicing and studying calligraphy is a way to explore and to have an in-depth dialogue with ancient calligraphers and intellectuals," the winner tells shanghai Daily about winning honors in what is known as China's "Olympics of Calligraphy and Seal Carving."

"It's a way to get close to them and inside their precious minds by studying and imitating their script," says Yang.

His works had many people talking at the 10th National Exhibition of Calligraphy and Seal Carving at the Shanghai Exhibition Center.

Twenty-eight calligraphers were singled out for special recognition, including Yang. Another honoree from Shanghai is a 34-year-old primary school Chinese teacher: young by the high standards of calligraphy.

First, second and third prizes were not awarded; there were only honors for excellent work.

Of the more than 20,000 entries in calligraphy and seal carving, around 1,000 of the best were chosen. Most of those calligraphers and carvers are under 45 years of age, considered a good sign that there is more interest in the ancient arts.

The image of a Chinese calligrapher is that of an old scholar, perhaps from Shandong or Henan provinces, known for producing passionate scholars of Chinese culture, including calligraphers.

The calligraphy and seal carving competition and exhibition is held every four years; this is the first time is has been held in the Yangtze River Delta area, considered relatively weak in traditional arts since 1949.

Shanghai was once among the most important, if not the most important city for Chinese calligraphy and ink-wash painting between the late 19th century and 1949, says famous calligrapher Dai Xiaojing, secretary general of the Shanghai Calligrapher's Association, an organizer of the exhibition.

"It is a pity that Shanghai has lost its advantage of the years," he says.

In earlier days, calligraphers were attracted to Shanghai because the rapidly developing economy created a good market for art works and the city's cosmopolitan atmosphere and diversity made it a welcoming place for artists. After 1949, the arts were consider vestiges of a vicious feudal tradition and Shanghai itself was considered especially decadent.

Since the 1990s, the city has regained its position as a financial center, but the return of traditional culture has been much more halting and gradual.

On the other hand, northern areas such as Shandong and Henan provinces, where intellectuals famously lived, took advantage of archeological excavations. Artifacts including works of calligraphy were unearthed and helped calligraphers findings. A lot of ancient art work, including calligraphy, was discovered, inspiring local calligraphers and enriching their work.

Calligraphy practice

Dai, head of the calligraphy association, says he is deeply concerned about lack of regular calligraphy practice in current school curriculum. In August, the Education Ministry directed all schools to include one mandatory weekly course of calligraphy for students from third to sixth grades.

"First, less than an hour a week is far from enough for calligraphy practice and even that hasn't been implemented very well, simply because there are not enough qualified calligraphy teachers in China," Dai tells Shanghai Daily.

"Many schools just merge it with the Chinese course and ask the Chinese teachers to give calligraphy lessons," he says. "But most teachers don't know much about it because it's been lost for quite a long time, until recently."

In ancient China, all Confucian scholars, or highly educated persons, were not only required to learn texts, but also were expected to learn etiquette and ritual, and be accomplished in the musical arts (playing an instrument, reciting and writing poetry, and dance), archery, driving a carriage, calligraphy and calculation.

For those steeped in calligraphy, it has been called a gateway to ancient wisdom, a kind of mental exercise and meditation.

Wang Anwen, a 78-year-old retired high school Chinese teacher, has practiced calligraphy for more than 40 years and still practices at least an hour a day.

"I don't go out for walk like some other old people, as calligraphy is my exercise. It requires you to concentrate and stand straight for a long time. That's good exercise, a good exercise for someone at my age," he says.

Wang also urges his grandson, whom he considers "too fast-paced and lacking in patience," to practice calligraphy as a way to learn how to concentrate and calm down.

Most Chinese young people today have never practiced calligraphy to any significant degree - far from enough to have good handwriting, not to mention an artistic level of calligraphy.

That's why the presence of 28-year-old businessman Yang pleasantly surprised many calligraphers. The other Shanghai honoree, a 34-year-old man, also was a surprise. The middle-age of many entrants was relatively encouraging.

Many young people cannot even appreciation calligraphy, especially caoshu, or cursive script, most popular among calligraphers for its creative freedom. Calligraphy, or shufa, literally means law of writing, and has developed from practical to artistic levels over thousands of years.

Ancient Chinese can only be read by scholars today. The first unified recognizable (across regions) script is lishu style, a kind of clerical script. It was later slightly simplified into kaishu, or the traditional regularized script still used today. Many traditional Chinese characters used in China's Taiwan more closely resemble the old script.

Beginners of calligraphy usually start with kaishu style to learn basic rules and structures.

These two, lishu and kaishu, have a lot of rules, such as keeping each character about the same size, which makes writing it slow and difficult.

Caoshu style, or the cursive script, is a quick writing method that is useful for note-taking. This simplifies the lishu style and allows for connecting strokes, making it easier and faster.

Caoshu style also has a set of rules to replace complicated components with simplified symbols, which makes it difficult to recognize.

Xingshu style, running script, then developed; it's faster than regular script and easier to recognize than the cursive script.

"You have to start with the traditional regular script to get all the basics, and then you can move on to the cursive for artistic expression. Most calligraphy artists prefer the cursive script because it offers the most freedom," Dai says. When writing cursive, the brush is held higher to allow freer movement.

"The aesthetics of calligraphy is quite similar to that of ink and wash painting, you can talk about it for days and years, but in a word, it is about reaching harmony through contrast of yin and yang, and is linked to essential ideas of ancient Chinese culture," Dai adds.

The yin and yang in calligraphy refers to contrast of various elements, such the black ink and the white paper; the strokes that follow the standard rules and those strokes that are modified within in the same character; the larger and smaller characters in the same piece of work, among many other elements.

Ancient female calligrapher and author of a text on calligrapher Wei Shuo (242-349 AD) compares the aesthetics of calligraphy with that of the human body, not too fat and not too thin. The best shape of a character is balanced, with a strong spine. Since the brush is soft, beginners often find it difficult to control and make strokes that are too thick, resembling a fat person. Bone is essential in a character as the supporting structure, no matter which free style is chosen.

For example, Wei compares writing the pie, or the falling leftward stroke, with the movement of a "sword cutting ivory, flowing freely yet fully energized." The dian, or the tiny dash, should always maintain the balance like a rock on the verge of falling from a high mountain. It is balanced between falling and stability.

Calligraphy and Seals Exhibit

Date: Through November 12

Venue: Shanghai Exhibition Center, 1000 Yan'an Rd M.


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