Calligraphy and Power in Contemporary Chinese Society

By Kipnis, Andrew | The China Journal, July 2006 | Go to article overview

Calligraphy and Power in Contemporary Chinese Society


Kipnis, Andrew, The China Journal


Calligraphy and Power in Contemporary Chinese Society, by Yuehping Yen. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2005. xii + 221 pp. £60.00/US$ 104.95 (hardcover).

Calligraphy has long been considered a cornerstone of Chinese culture. It is used to inscribe architectural wonders and famous sites of natural beauty, to communicate with gods and spirits, to celebrate holidays, to tell fortunes and to improve one's health. Politically powerful people are frequently called upon to produce calligraphic works, and these are displayed in public buildings, engraved in stone at public parks, reproduced in newspaper mastheads and on magazine covers and coveted as private gifts. Others have written of these facts before, but Yuehping Yen goes a step further by contextualizing the spectacular and aweinducing aspects of calligraphic display in the more mundane aspects of everyday life. Writing as an anthropologist, she focuses on the popular beliefs, myths and debates about calligraphy, the mundane practice of children and non-élite adults, the everyday relationships between calligraphy and power, the language people use to talk about calligraphy and the games people play with characters. Against those who believe that Chinese characters and calligraphy will or should become antiquated in the face of science, modernity and computers, Yen argues that characters and calligraphy continue to exert a powerful hold on the daily practices of Chinese people.

Though dealing with a topic that is nationwide, Yen carries out her interviews and participates in calligraphy classes in the southwestern city of Kunming. Kunming's distance from the cultural centres of the nation make it an ideal space to study calligraphy, Yen argues, as Kunming residents and calligraphers are more likely to express plebeian and, thus, representative rather than avant-garde attitudes towards calligraphy.

Yen begins her book with the relationship between political power and calligraphy. As William Jenner puts it, "in China power does not speak-it writes" (cited in Yen, p. 15). At least until very recently, most Chinese politicians spoke standard Mandarin relatively poorly and were often disparaged by Westerners for their poor public speaking. It was primarily through the instrument of writing that they communicated their ideas and policies to a national audience. All the top leaders have issued books of their philosophy and even a regionally powerful politician publicly inking a slogan receives considerable press coverage.

Yen analyzes the interrelationship between the social power of the calligraphier and the evaluations of the calligraphy itself, what happens to the calligraphic inscriptions of those who fall out of power, and how inscriptions are displayed to claim the personal backing of a particular political figure. She points out how Western debates over whether a given cultural production is "art" or not, or is "good art" or "bad art", take on a different flavor in the contexts where calligraphy and social power are so tightly tied.

The next two chapters examine the links between calligraphy and personhood. Yen begins from the positive value placed on education in China. Kunming urbanites frequently disparage rural migrants because of their lack of education, framing this supposed lack as both a moral and an intellectual shortcoming. …

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