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Calligraphic art faces predicament
By Zhu Linyong (China Daily)
Updated: 2005-11-10 10:02

Chinese characters are reportedly becoming increasingly unfamiliar to today's Chinese population, especially the younger generation.

With the widespread use of computer-based pinyin, graphic design software and the messaging system on mobile phones, many Chinese are finding it hard to write the proper Chinese characters they began to learn in kindergarten.

The occasions for hand writing Chinese characters are becoming fewer and fewer. This is despite the fact that Chinese handwriting has, over the centuries, developed into an independent art form that enthralled feudal emperors, lords, intellectuals and average Chinese.

Many people are saying that Chinese characters and Chinese calligraphic art is in a life-or-death crisis.

In an academic seminar held last week at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing, many Chinese experts and artists expressed their concerns about the future of the millennia-old Chinese characters and Chinese calligraphic art.

"About two decades ago, Chinese arts, including Chinese calligraphic art, enjoyed an unprecedented boom after China left behind the chaotic "cultural revolution" (1966-76) and entered a new era. But today, Chinese calligraphic art has encountered some new problems," said Shen Peng, chairman of the Chinese Calligraphers Association.

Shen urges professional Chinese calligraphers to try even harder "to find their own voices" for the continued prosperity of the art form in the new century.

He said that greater efforts, too, should be made to promote awareness and genuine love of Chinese characters and Chinese calligraphy among the general public, particularly among the younger generation.

Shen's view was echoed by many attending the two-day seminar on Chinese calligraphy.

As China gets more and more commercialized, people do not have the patience and mood needed to practise calligraphy or to delve deeper into the theoretical realm of the ancient art form.

Fading art form

Wu Zhenfeng, a researcher with the Shaanxi Provincial Art Museum, said that many Chinese calligraphers today are not as knowledgeable in the arts as previous generations of calligraphers, for instance in classical Chinese literature.

Nor are they as diligent as older Chinese calligraphers, said Wu. Many contemporary Chinese calligraphers who are more interested in quick fame and money are busy churning out works for various exhibitions and putting their works in galleries and auctions.

It is true that the practical functions of calligraphy are decreasing and calligraphy is getting far away from the daily lives of ordinary people. However, "calligraphy, as a vital part of art education, should be strengthened rather than weakened in China's primary education and at the university level," said Li Yi, a researcher with the National Research Institute of Chinese Arts.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, compulsive calligraphy courses were popular among primary and even middle school students.

About 100 magazines and newspapers about Chinese calligraphic art mushroomed as millions of Chinese calligraphy enthusiasts across the nation took up the ink brushes as their ancestors did. They experienced the mysterious and philosophical interplay between brushes, ink, rice paper and classic Chinese literature.

But today, the number of calligraphic publications has dwindled sharply as fewer people care about the art form.

Calligraphy education has been maintained in some universities such as Beijing Capital Normal University, where a doctoral programme on Chinese calligraphy was opened in 1993. However most students are unable to make a living as professional calligraphers as older generations did about 20 years ago, said Ye Peigui, a Beijing-based art researcher and one of the first doctoral degree holders from the programme.

"Chinese calligraphic art is but a narrow topic among the few professional Chinese painters and calligraphers," said Chu Mo, a researcher and calligrapher from Jiangsu Province.

Even worse, "only a limited number of Chinese primary and high schools still keep the calligraphy course in a curriculum crowded with courses that are considered more useful, such as math and English, said Yang Ming, a Beijing-based calligrapher.

The lack of proper calligraphy education has led to the phenomenal growth of copycats among calligraphy learners and the rampant spread of fake calligraphic work on the art market, pointed out Zhang Rongqing from the Chinese Calligraphers Association.

Chen Lusheng, a researcher with the National Art Museum of China, said that Chinese calligraphy is the very essence of Chinese culture and philosophy.

"The question of the sustainability of Chinese calligraphy is actually the question of the sustainability of Chinese culture," he said.

He criticized the excessive use of Chinese calligraphy art as a resource in recent years by some "vanguard" Chinese artists. This practice caused misunderstanding and distorted perceptions among average viewers about Chinese calligraphy.

Wang Yuechuan, a professor with Peking University, said that in an era of modernization and globalisation, Chinese calligraphers should pay more attention to academic researches of the art form.

Educational and promotional efforts should be made with young Chinese and also with people all over the world, he said.

"Calligraphy is a unique cultural resource that China can export and contribute to the cultural diversity of today's world.

"In Japan and South Korea, promoting the healthy development of calligraphy has been viewed not only as an artistic matter but a State policy," he said. "We, as the cradle of the art form, should not be lagging behind."

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