Posted at our favorite neighborhood Chinese restaurants, printed on signs in Muni buses and streetcars, tattooed onto Mission district hipsters, and ubiquitous in San Francisco's Chinatown and the Richmond, Chinese writing nevertheless remains exotic and strange to most of us. To help unravel its mystery, the Asian Art Museum is staging a fall 2012 exhibition of sublime calligraphy lent by collector and Yahoo! founder Jerry Yang, which doesn't require Chinese lessons to appreciate.
Calligraphy: The Highest Art Form in China
Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy contains 40 works by some of the best calligraphers in Chinese history, the literati who were also high government officials. Regarded as the premier art form in China, ink-brush calligraphy was associated with erudition and refined taste and was tested on the imperial civil service exams. One's calligraphy was also considered to reflect one's character, similar to handwriting analysis.
Calligraphy was so integral to literacy, which in turn was so determinant of one's socioeconomic status, that some students whose ink-brush writing was inferior became obsessed with improving. That was done by copying endlessly. Wen Zhengming (1470-1559), whose calligraphy ranked so low that he was ineligible to take a provincial-level exam, is said to have copied a 1,000-character classic text ten times a day--a total of 10,000 characters daily. He went on to become one of the Ming dynasty's most famed calligraphers, writers and poets. Dong Qichang (1555-1636), the leading calligrapher and painter during the late Ming dynasty and "one of the dominant figures in Chinese art" overall, according to one art scholar, also did poorly on the calligraphy tests at first.
Jerry Yang as Collector
None of this mattered to the young Jerry Yang, who was forced to take "quite tedious" calligraphy classes in Taiwan and was glad to leave them behind when he moved to the US. But in the late 1990s, a Chinese friend advised that to be a "cultured Chinese person," Yang ought to have some "reminders of Chinese culture" at home, he recalled during a recent press conference at the Asian Art Museum. (Yang is more casual in the exhibition's catalog, writing that a Chinese friend mused that "wouldn't it be funny" for the tech mogul "to have some really old Chinese stuff laying around?"). Yang bought a couple of scrolls at a Christie's auction in New York, including a scroll by Dong Qichang, the calligrapher with the inauspicious start. It turned out to be one of the artist's earliest surviving calligraphy works (dating back to 1594-95) and the earliest Dong calligraphy found outside of China.
Calligraphy "had more connection to me than other art forms," Yang said. Specialists at the Asian Art Museum and elsewhere helped shape his appreciation and eye for calligraphy, which he now calls a "passion" that he wants to share with the public. He has collected more than 250 works, and the "Out of Character" exhibit will move on to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2014.
Yang now enjoys pulling out his brush and ink to practice. "Like all great art, the best calligraphy looks like water flowing, words singing off the paper," he wrote in the exhibit catalog's forward. "Yet when one tries to practice the art form, it couldn't be more difficult."
In that way, Chinese calligraphy is similar to dance, says Michael Knight, the museum's senior curator of Chinese art. Copying the writing of old masters is like a dancer's warm up routine. "A great calligrapher is like a great dancer" (such as Rudolf Nureyev), able to demonstrate power and control of the brush while following well-established rules and steps particular to each style of Chinese writing, Knight says.
Here are some of the artworks to look out for:
Lotus Sutra in small standard script by Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322): Zhao was the Yuan dynasty's greatest artist, and his 22-foot-long hand scroll of more than 15,000 tidy, consistent characters in standard script, each one smaller than a pinkie fingernail, required tremendous concentration and stamina. Chinese calligraphy does not allow for mistakes or daubs; writing on top of a brush-stroke is forbidden. Zhao's small standard script became the foundation for all printed books as of the early Ming dynasty. The poet and high-level government official was also unusual in that he was skilled at writing the other four styles of Chinese script, too.
Incredibly, this scroll is just one of an original set of seven hand scrolls that Zhao completed when he was about age 60. The Lotus Sutra text discusses the cosmos and Buddha's teachings, and in choosing to transcribe it, Zhao demonstrated his devotion to Buddhism.
Copying Zhao's scroll is like meditating, Yang says.
Couplet in clerical script by Deng Shiru (1743-1805): This pair of hanging scrolls was Yang's 40th birthday present from his wife. In China, such couplets were popular gifts and were displayed during special occasions.
Written on elegant, cloud-patterned gray silk, this couplet has a timeless message. Each of its halves, "The heart is a good field--Plow it for 100 generations, and it's never depleted" and "Goodness is a perfect treasure--Use it for a lifetime, and some will still be left over," is expressed in a mere ten characters, showing the succinctness of Chinese language.
Pieces on a Houseboat in semi-cursive script: This hand scroll done around 1450-1500 is a collection of poems and essays by 13 Ming dynasty masters, possibly written at separate occasions, and was created for a patron. Its modern-day equivalent would be an artwork done by President Obama's cabinet members. Its title comes from one of the entries, a poem about riverside houses and fishing villages.
Poetic lines in semi-cursive script by Zhang Ruitu (1570-1641): As you'll see, this mammoth required clever installation in a special display case that stretches up to the gallery's 14-foot-tall ceiling. "Each character is bigger than our heads," Yang notes. "Imagine how big the house was" in which it was displayed, a result of the increasing wealth of the late Ming dynasty.
Yang is also struck by the bold abstraction in the 17th-century piece. The calligrapher wasn't concerned about exactitude; his quickness and a fat brush made individual strokes indistinct. While Zhao Mengfu's standard script is akin to the printed alphabet-letter placards hung in American first-grade classrooms, Zhang's semi-cursive calligraphy is a doctor's handwriting (with an extra thick marking pen) on a billboard.
Zhang probably wrote the scroll for a birthday or other celebration. Although the text, about aging and the scholar's life, is from a well-known poem that was penned centuries earlier, "aesthetically, it's kind of zen," Yang says.
The Character of Characters by Xu Bing: Presented in a long, horizontal-scroll format, this 18-minute animation shows the genesis of Chinese language and its influence in today's China. Cave drawings of things like trees, stones and sheep evolve into pictographs and modern Chinese characters. The video shows the rudiments of brushes and proper calligraphy technique. We also see hordes of scholars taking the imperial exam, and the tradition of reverence for the writing of China's rulers, from emperors to Mao--which Xu believes has contributed to the Chinese citizenry's current obsequiousness toward other symbols and icons like those of Gucci, Chanel and Louis Vuitton.
Every Chinese character has a particular order in which its lines, curves or strokes are written, and "the last stroke is very important in that it balances the whole structure," Xu says. Xu sees parallels between calligraphy and traffic flow in Chinese cities: Both are spontaneous yet also ruled by an internal order, which isn't obvious on the outside.
Xu, a winner of the MacArthur "genius" award, is known for inventing a writing system in which what appears to be a Chinese character is, upon closer examination, an English word. The animation, his first, was inspired by Zhao's Lotus Sutra and took 10,500 hours of work by him and 14 art students in Beijing. Xu himself drew more than 10,000 images for the video.
OUT OF CHARACTER: DECODING CHINESE CALLIGRAPHY
On view through Jan. 13, 2013
The Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., San Francisco 94102