Political Influence of Chinese Calligraphy – How Chinese Calligraphic Tradition Defines China as a Written Culture


What is China?: Foreign Rule and the Sinicization Paradigm

At various times throughout history, China has been conquered and subsequently rules by groups not usually considered ‘Chinese’. In the Yuan and Qing dynasties, for instance, China was governed by the Mongols and Manchu people respectively. Even at the time of Song dynasty, a time of great progress and advancement in Chinese history, the north of present-day China was ruled by the Jurchen who proclaimed their Liao Dynasty to be a direct descendant of the Tang dynasty. Nevertheless, each of these ‘foreign’ regimes in some way took up the mantle of dynastic rule, conforming to and propagating a very specific set of politico-social standards. That is, each of them eventually considered themselves, or at least claimed, to be governing according to standards of rule deeply rooted in the Chinese culture since at least the Warring States period. What, then, is China if it is not simply a region or an ethnicity? When we speak of Chinese culture, what is the status of these periods that, despite being ruled by non-ethnic Chinese, nevertheless took part in continuing the Chinese cultural outlook.

It is often claimed that these regimes were ‘sinicized’, or ‘made Chinese’. Arguments of this type point to the strength of the Chinese philosophical and political system and posit that the insertion of a ruling class of non-Chinese did little to challenge the over-arching political systems already in place. In the Yuan dynasty, this is particularly evident. The Mongols were quite happy, it seems, to allow the Chinese people to retain access to high levels of government. Moreover, the Yuan rulers adopted many cultural values from the Chinese as they made the transition from nomadism to a more sedentary, imperial system. When the Qing dynasty was still in the process of conquering China, the decision to maintain the capital in Beijing was unprecedented: no dynasty had ever kept the same capital as the preceding dynasty. Nevertheless, this decision aided immensely in efforts to stabilize the country. Once the dynasty was established, Han Chinese were once again trusted in the highest levels of government.

China as Empire based on the Tradition of the Written Word in Calligraphy

One of the difficulties in asserting a sinicization paradigm is that, in its logical extension, it implies a unified, ahistorical concept of China that persisted unchanged throughout the centuries. Even a cursory survey of Chinese culture will show that China has indeed changed radically over the centuries as political, philosophical and artistic movements changed according to present concerns. What is clear, however, is that the privileged position of the written word has for millennia served as one of the defining characteristics of what we might call China. While dynasties rose and fell, often frequently, the literary tradition of China is perhaps one of the most coherent and continuous in the world. As a tool of government, philosophy, social change and artistic expression, writing has asserted itself into every sphere of social relations. To return to the idea of sinicization: it might be more appropriate to claim that those epochs of foreign rule were only successful because they took part in the historical-literary tradition that united China for so long, and did not seek to destroy it utterly.

This is not to say that there was no challenge to the textual authority of foreign regimes. In the works of Fu Shan (傅山, 1607-1684/5 CE), we can see that artistic practice was as much a battleground for the heart and soul of China as was the territory of China at the end of the Ming as they battled the ascendant Qing. While Fu Shan’s calligraphy was not conventional, it was deeply historical. Not limiting himself to the styles of previous masters, he preferred to emulate the ancient inscriptions on stone and bronze that predated the establishment of the artistic tradition. In so doing, Fu set in motion an artistic movement that would come to fruition only after his death in the creation of the Stele School (碑學/Bei Xue/Pei Hsüue) which devoted itself to reviving the most ancient writing styles. The fact that Fu spoke of his own calligraphy as being “awkward” and “broken” speaks to the insecurities of the time. With China as it had been known slipping into the hands of foreign powers, Fu Shan appears to have been attempting to reassert the historical glory of Chinese writing by emulating its most ancient precedents. In this way, the Stele School provided a tacit challenge to the Qing authorities: the calligraphers of this school showed that China was much more than a territory, but was in fact a written culture that was beyond the scope of political control.