History of Chinese Calligraphy – Modern Era: Chinese Calligraphy in 20th Century China

The Fall of the Qing Dynasty: Reformulating a Global China

With the fall of the Qing in 1912, it was clear that the dynastic period of Chinese history, that had spanned two thousand years, had come to an end. The next half-century would see China experience a brief Republican period before the horrors of the second World War would once again plunge China in incredible turmoil. With the end of the Second World War, China was again divided between right and left-wing factions. The left, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), successfully challenged the Republic of China, whose leadership fled to Taiwan.

In response to what was seen as a destructive influence by the West, the Communist government of China, in a similar fashion to the Communist Russian government, effectively severed diplomatic and economic ties with the West. For many years, the Cold War ensured that contact with the West was very uncommon. This period saw the Cultural Revolution fundamentally change the way the Chinese people thought of themselves, their nation, and their position in the world. Often decried as a period of great censorship and repression, the Chinese consciousness still bears the scars of these years of violence and deprivation.

The past few decades have seen the opening up of China. While the PRC retains a tight control over almost every facet of Chinese society, outside investment and trade has begun with renewed vigour. China as it stands today is poised to re-enter the global stage in a truly unprecedented way.

The Impact of Reformed Chinese Writing on Chinese Calligraphy

Literary movements calling for the popularization of the Chinese written language have been embroiled in the political movements of the 20th century. In part, these movements attempted to adopt a more Western, vernacular treatment of the Chinese language in literature and other artistic forms. More than this, however, the incredible complexity of the Chinese written language had long been a barrier to literacy. From a purely pragmatic standpoint, writing traditional characters is incredibly laborious. Beginning in the 1950s, the PRC issued official simplifications in an attempt to liberalize literacy. This simplification was not followed by Taiwan, where Traditional characters are still commonly used, especially in printed contexts. While some of the official simplifications are based on common cursive styles, others are simple phonetic substitutions. Indeed, there are more than ten strategies that have been used in the simplification process. While many people are pleased that writing Chinese has been simplified, the traditional characters still speak to the enormous depth of the Chinese literary history.

Chinese Modern Art: Dealing with Tradition

With such a long and rich artistic history, it is very difficult for contemporary Chinese artists to work entirely outside the historical tradition. Many professional artists still adhere to the brush and ink style that was the norm hundreds of years ago. Nevertheless, many interesting responses to the historical art tradition have emerged in the past few decades. For instance, Qiu Zhijie’s (邱志杰) Writing the “Orchid Pavilion Preface” One Thousand Times is a rendering of the classic of Wang Xizhi a thousand times on a single, incredibly long piece of paper. The work took eleven years to produce, and shows a gradual transition from a finely articulated emulation of the classic to illegibility and finally a fade to complete blackness. Even performance art has been the site of inventive uses of classical writing modes. Song Dong’s work Printing on Water of 1996 documents the artist stamping the character for water on to the surface of a river, calling attention to the inevitable inability of man-made signs to truly capture the essence of the natural world. Xu Bing’s (徐冰) A Book From the Sky is a monumental installation piece in which painstakingly crafted wood-block prints of almost-legible characters tantalize the viewer with their refusal to cohere to the textual tradition. Much of contemporary Chinese art, then, is deeply embroiled in the troubled perspective of the present looking toward the past and finding only incomplete answers.