Chinese Printmaking Today

Book From the Sky Dialogues 2: The status of art and writing

Sophie and Bridget have started a conversation. They have raised lots of questions which don't have easy answers. To join in, please send an e-mail to with the subject 'Dialogues' and clearly number the questions you are answering (e.g. Q1.1). We will moderate your replies and add them to the dialogue. You can also find out more about The Book from the Sky or investigate the teachers' notes.

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Sophie: In China, the art of calligraphy (Shu Fa) is on a par with painting, more noble than printmaking and sculpture. In fact, it is regarded as the most abstract and sublime form of art.

Bridget: Even Chinese printed characters have the same fluid effect as calligraphy. The characters carved into wooden blocks often look as if they were made with a brush, perhaps to make the printed page look hand-touched and not mass-produced. This emphasis on calligraphy is amazing given that China invented printing 1500 years ago, a millennium before William Caxton. The British Library owns the Chinese scroll, the Diamond Sutra, the world's earliest surviving printed book. ?> Follow these links to find out more about the early history of printing:

Q2.1 Do you think in China calligraphy is kept alive because of this long history of printing? Or despite it? Why?

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Bridget: Maybe calligraphy is so important because there is great reverence for the written word in China, so much that in Shanghai any discarded paper with words on used to be collected and ritually burnt at temples. ?> For more read Adeline Yen Mah 'A Thousand Pieces of Gold'. The words have a kind of powerful spirit, not so much in their literal meaning but in their very existence. The reverence seems to come from sheer wonder at what writing allows us to do, to transmit knowledge across the centuries and cultures.

Sophie: Although a calligraphic text has a literal meaning, the content is less important than the way the characters look. You use special brushes and strokes to make the characters and these precise techniques have been developed over centuries. Those who study calligraphy can instantly recognise a master's 'hand' (or style) and this is often thought to reveal personality traits. During the Imperial era, calligraphy was examined as an important factor for choosing members of the Imperial court. Skill in calligraphy is a general sign of talent.

Bridget: The high status of calligraphy is similar to the 'fine art' status given in the West to abstract and expressive art. The art that got noticed in the 20th century was more about form than meaning. The brushstroke was full of the 'genius' of the artist. Matisse and Van Gogh loved Chinese and Japanese art. Pablo Picasso said, "Had I been born Chinese, I would have been a calligrapher, not a painter." Perhaps the Chinese acceptance of Western formalist modernism (e.g. Kathe Kollwitz's Expressionism) is due to its own long tradition of gestural painting and calligraphy. Whereas, Xu Bing's work was just too different...

Q 2.2 Is Chinese calligraphy in a completely different world, incomparable with Western art? Or is it similar?

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Ming Wong responds:

Certainly I've found many traditional Chinese paintings to be very ahead of its time, very 'contemporary' in the views expressed or how they are presented. It's a complete art, and I think half the meaning of a work is lost to people who can't read Chinese, or understand the rules of Chinese painting, or have a deep knowledge of the culture, which might explain its marginalised position in contemporary art, and even amongst the younger generations of Chinese people.

Sophie: This quote is interesting: "The quality of Chinese prints made during this period (since the 1980s) has been transformed from the crude to the refined, from the shallow to the profound.Refined means the refinement of the effect of the printing as well as of the technique of cutting. Profound... is meant to suggest that some works, especially by academic printmakers, have combined ideas with cultural content and spiritual quality, and not just depicted life on a superficial level." Qi Fengge, p.23 Chinese Printmaking Today Catalogue, British Library Publications

Qi Fengge seems to be claiming that Chinese printmaking now has finer qualities and therefore a higher status than it did before. I wonder, does this mean that printmaking has only become a proper art since it has become less Chinese (e.g. less like folk art)? Does it mean that non-traditional art is better?

Bridget: I found this quote from a dealer in modern Chinese prints, which would suggest it's not quite like that: 'The cultural revolution is now history. Modern Chinese printmaking artists have nothing to do with social realism. Instead, many of the artists put their focus on the preservation of the Chinese rural environment and on traditions.' (source)

?> Follow this link for more about popular folk prints (or New Year prints)

Q 2.3 Which path do you think artists should take - keep alive their traditional folk culture or create contemporary international art?

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Ming Wong writes:

In traditional Chinese art, one is said to 'read' a painting instead of merely 'look at'; one 'writes' an image instead of 'draws'.

Chinese 'painting' was a literary pursuit; it had to have balanced elements of creative writing expressed with calligraphy and seal carving in addition to brush painting.

Years ago when I studied Chinese art I had to learn to be a painter, a poet, a calligrapher, a seal carver; in other words, a traditional Chinese 'scholar'. (I gave up after a few years)

Nowadays everyone writes with a ballpoint pen or types on a keyboard; handwriting has become undisciplined. (including mine)

However I have learnt to have tremendous respect and admiration for good calligraphy as it is an uncompromising art, using the most sensitive of materials, it takes constant practice, almost a meditative exercise in itself.

It's a shame that even in China it's suffering a decline.

Bridget: How does it change the effect if you make a character from a printed block, rather than freehand with a brush? Carving is more mechanical and results in a clearer standard form. Calligraphy has more grace and flow, allowing a faster link between the mental idea of the character and the hand's gesture. But, when you have to carve a block in a calligraphic way, there isn't that much difference. The main difference comes in the way that printed text can reach a mass audience - it packs more punch. What it says to masses of people is more important than how it looks.

?> Find out how Chinese type is printed today? How did the technology of moveable type develop?

Q 2.4 But does it change what is said or how you read it? Do printed or hand-written words (in any language) have different meanings for you?

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