Political Influence of Chinese Calligraphy – Communism and Modernism: Challenges to the Elite Aesthetic in Calligraphy and the Chinese Arts

How Revolution Redefined Chinese Writing and Calligraphy

With the fall of the Qing dynasty, and the emergence of Communism in China, the writing system of China fell under intense scrutiny. Lu Xun (魯迅/Lu Hsün), an influential author, intellectual and revolutionary advocate, placed writing, and calligraphy specifically, at the center of his criticism of an ailing and increasingly exploitative Chinese social structure. Lu was not remiss in his charge that writing was a tool that limited access to social discourse. The phenomenal difficulty of learning to write characters had long allowed the literate class to subjugate the illiterate masses in ways that the victims were totally unable to understand or challenge. In addition, the artistic tradition of calligraphy only aggravated this situation: Cursive script is often illegible even to the highly educated.

Seen in this light, it is unsurprising that much of early Communist rhetoric argued for radical changes in the writing system of China so that the voices of the common people, whom the revolution was intended to benefit, could asserted.

In the first half of the 20th century, most serious revolutionaries championed the eventual Romanization of Chinese script. These efforts would result in the introduction of Pinyin, which was intended to “eventually” replace characters. Developed by Zhou Youguang (周有光/ Chou You Kuang, 1906-2002), the system was published first in 1958. After a series of revisions, the International Organization of Standardization accepted it as the standard for all disciplines. While Pinyin has become the international standard for the romanization of the Chinese language, it remains inadequate as a total substitute for Chinese Characters:

First, the linguistic simplicity of Chinese would lead to even more confusion. Chinese possesses only a few hundred possible phonemes; English possesses tens of thousands. If Chinese were Romanized, literally hundreds of words with completely different meanings would be rendered in precisely the same manner.

Aside from these practical concerns, calligraphy’s history as part and parcel of the Communist Revolution, especially as championed by Mao Ze Dong, would make such a move politically undesirable. Indeed, Chinese calligraphy has come to defineChina as a cultured nation through propaganda, inscriptions by celebrated officials and intellectuals and through continuous efforts to raise the population from relative illiteracy.

Today, calligraphy’s position is complicated by the combination of its popularity as an artistic pursuit of the masses and its links to the very tradition of elite culture that the Communists sought to dismantle.

The Ambivalent Relationship of the Communist Party to the Chinese Calligraphic Tradition

In many ways, the Communist Party has cultivated an air of detached ambivalence to the pursuit of calligraphy. At an official level, classic works are consigned to museums where possible. In other cases, priceless works are frequently smuggled out of China to be sold at great prices to private collections. Sites such as the Orchid Pavilion, where Wang Xi Zhi lived and wrote his famous work, are not easily accessible even if they are exceedingly well-maintained. The Chinese government, it seems, does not wish to attach itself too closely to an imperial history, even though it does a great deal to ensure that the important works remain in China, and remain accessible to the enthusiast. Moreover, China has recently begun to leverage its increasing international status to reclaim works long since lost to an overseas market.

This ambivalence to historical works stand in contrast to increasingly complicated attitudes toward inscriptions by great Communist leaders. Once the handwriting of a celebrated leader is inscribed on a building or applied to the letterhead of a publication, removing it is a troublesome affair. In many cases, such inscriptions are removed only on the destruction of the building or the cessation of a periodical’s publication. Even then, no official wishes to take credit for the removal of an inscription by Mao: redevelopment in many cases provides a convenient excuse for removing an inscription whose time has passed.

Despite these complicating factors, Chinese calligraphy enjoys more widespread popularity today that at any other time in history. Tourists to China from Japan, Taiwan and Korea take great pleasure in visiting the sites and purchasing calligraphic works and materials. The best brushes still come from China, and a great number of professional calligraphers make their works available to a broader and broader audience. This trend is only likely to continue as the culture of China becomes accessible to the entire world.