Calligraphy and Power in Contemporary Chinese Society

Calligraphy and Power in Contemporary Chinese Society

Calligraphy and Power in Contemporary Chinese Society

Calligraphy and Power in Contemporary Chinese Society


This unusual and interesting book is a fascinating account of the world of Chinese writing. It examines Chinese space and the political and social use of writing as propaganda, a publicity booster and as a ladder for social climbing.


The abode of calligraphic inscriptions

First encounter with social calligraphy

China is literally covered in calligraphic brushstrokes. Chinese landscape is never complete without some calligraphic inscriptions. Carved calligraphic traces are often seen on rocks at scenic spots, on mountain cliffs, or on a stone along a river bank, for example. These inscriptions are often characters written by prominent (or once prominent) figures, as a result either of invitation or of voluntary expression of emotions.

Not only natural landscape is scattered with calligraphic inscriptions: so is artificial landscape. In temples and most traditional buildings, one expects to find a horizontal inscribed board on the lintel over the gate, couplets on columns and poems on walls, all written in brush calligraphy by people of different times. In a sense, approaching the heart of a traditional Chinese building (tang) from the main gate sometimes feels almost like walking through a tunnel of calligraphic writing. Almost every threshold one passes on the way is marked by calligraphic words. Similarly in parks, inscriptions are also scattered in pavilions, on the ends of arched bridges and at a variety of viewpoints. These are often names of architectural locations or poetic verses inspired by the surrounding atmosphere and natural beauty. In fact, the inscriptions have become scenery in their own right. They top the list of must-see tourist sights. This is why you often see Chinese tourists posing in front of inscriptions for a photograph to take home.

From sites of natural beauty to façades of public buildings, the calligraphy of influential people is used extensively for adornment, inspiration or display of power. Calligraphic inscriptions are so common in China that they have long submerged into the silent background of people's lives. In imperial times, literati were free to wield their brushes and leave poems of appreciation on walls whenever inspiration arose. Even natural beauty spots have calligraphic inscriptions carved on rocks and cliffs. Sometimes, the calligraphy merely points out the location where a historical incident happened. When I visited Zhaoqing, one of the leading tourist sites in Guangdong, I was struck by the number of inscriptions (around ten) carved on the rocks in the vicinity of a small pool formed at the bottom of a waterfall, called Feilai Tan. Apparently Sun Yatsen once swam there, so his wife Song Qingling wrote an inscription for the pool - Sun Yatsen

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