Calligraphy in China, with a twist…

Back in my university days, a part of my Chinese studies course involved learning Chinese calligraphy – writing Chinese characters with ink and a brush. The one thing I really learnt was this: IT’S FREAKING DIFFICULT! This highly involved art form still permeates Chinese culture, and on a recent walk on my way to an interview, I stumbled upon people creating impressive works in ways you may never have seen before…

Chinese calligraphy in Guangzhou

It’s not uncommon to see people missing limbs begging on the street here in Guangzhou. Whenever I see one, I wonder if there’s any way they could earn their money instead of simply sitting there begging for it. It’s easy to say they should just go and apply for work that doesn’t require those limbs, but many people here in China would not employ such people, even if they were fully capable of doing the job. There are two main reasons: firstly, they feel uncomfortable seeing people that are not what they would consider “normal”, and secondly, many still hold a superstitious belief that people who suffer misfortune or serious illness have received some karmic form of punishment, and so could not possibly be good people, or that they will bring bad luck to the business. Occasionally, however, I see individuals who have found ways to earn money for themselves despite such challenges, and the first case of “alternative” Chinese calligraphy I discovered on my walk was one such person.

Chinese calligraphy in Guangzhou

The man you see in these photos has found a way to earn a considerable wage despite the challenges not having hands has brought him. Not content to beg for money, this man taught himself how to create stunning calligraphy by holding the ink brush in his mouth. As I mentioned above, Chinese calligraphy is extremely difficult even for people who are able to use their hands, so the fact that this man can create quite good calligraphy with his mouth is simply incredible!

Chinese calligraphy in Guangzhou

The man churned out a work every three or four minutes which he then sold to passers-by (I purchased one myself to support the guy). People passing by also put money in the box he had next to him to recognise his talent and to support his efforts to actually do something for himself instead of just lying there and taking pure charity. I found him inspiring and was pleased to see he made quite a good wage (judging by the money that was amassing in the box). It’s easy to say “the system makes it impossible to succeed” – this guy refused to give up and found a way to overcome the situation, but there’s even more to it than this…

Chinese calligraphy in Guangzhou
Here the man is stamping a work with his personal chop.

Chinese calligraphy in Guangzhou
Getting out a fresh page for his next work

To truly understand the significance of the situation here, one must appreciate a little more of the background…

In China, calligraphy was for hundreds of years the domain of the ruling nobles. Everyday people were largely illiterate, and those that could read and write did so only in a crude way – certainly nothing close to the status of “art”. The ability to produce a calligraphic work was automatically related to a high social status. Those that suffered from some form of physical disability, on the other hand, were at the bottom of the social hierarchy. With that history, this guy is basically turning the feudal hierarchy on its head and shattering ancient socioeconomic stereotypes (assuming he works everyday, he would earn a substantial amount that would put him somewhere around the average income level in Guangzhou or possibly higher). I love to see that kinda thing!

On my way back after the interview, I stumbled on yet another case of public calligraphy…

Chinese calligraphy in Guangzhou

Wandering through a park, I spotted a couple of men each with what looked like a fusion between a mop and a giant paintbrush in their hands. They were using these brushes to write calligraphy with water on the pavement within the park.

Chinese calligraphy in Guangzhou

In what is a fusion of Confucian and Buddhist thinking, these men paint their poems and sayings not with any resulting product in mind, but rather seeing the act of creating in itself as a way to cultivate their own character. It is the process that is important, and so any form of permanence is unnecessary.

Chinese calligraphy in Guangzhou
The four characters the man has just written in a column say “Chinese Calligraphy”

Living in China, it’s easy to become disillusioned and cynical about Chinese society and culture. I am so thankful that the two scenes I came across today both restored my faith in the spirit of many Chinese people, as well as reviving a long-deceased appreciation of Chinese culture as having anything of value. I realised that as bleak as my outlook may make things seem here, China still has many redeeming features that I perhaps too often overlook. I guess it made me appreciate that the writing may not necessarily be on the wall for China as I had recently felt.

Advertisements