Sat, Jun 16, 2001 - Page 11 News List

Writing pictures

Modern calligraphy in Taiwan is still fighting to establish itself against resistance from traditionalists who demand that calligraphers stick to the rules

By Gavin Phipps  /  STAFF REPORTER

The Speck of Dust shows how one traditionalist believes the ancient tradition of calligraphy can be expanded without abandoning fundamentals.


When curators at the Ho Chuang-shih Calligraphy Society (何創時書法藝術基金會) decided to hold an exhibition of contemporary calligraphy earlier this month, they had no notion that the event would spark an uproar in the local calligraphy community, re-igniting an argument that began 25 years ago. On one side are the traditionalists and on the other the modernists.

The traditionalists claim works that contain unrecognizable characters should not be classified as calligraphy. Such works should instead be described as abstract or calligraphy-influenced art. The modernists on the other hand argue that the rules the traditionalists abide by are outdated and should be reformulated in order to make calligraphy relevant to today's society.

Some of those responsible for challenging traditional calligraphic norms are members of Taiwan's only avant-garde calligraphy group, the Mochao or Ink Tide Society (墨潮會). Formed in 1976, the society's aim was to explore new avenues in calligraphy -- avenues that founding members such as Hsu Yung-chin (徐永進) considered suited to the 20th century.

The Ink Tide Society conveyed its message by incorporating calligraphy into installation art, turning characters upside down and inside out or writing in a variety of colors. The group's work was often so radical and contrary to calligraphic norms that many galleries remained apprehensive of exhibiting their works until the early 1990s.

"Many called it a betrayal of tradition. The traditionalists and critics who were brought up to believe that calligraphy can only be presented in one particular pattern were outraged," says Yang Tse-yun (楊子雲), a member of the society since 1991.

"Of course, they had to be careful what they said, as the people they were criticizing to weren't unqualified. All the members [of the Ink Tide Society] were teaching art and traditional calligraphy full-time and were well known in the calligraphy community," Yang said, pointing out that the group was simply creating works that "were beyond the imagination of those calligraphers who persisted in following tradition."

Experimentation within the art of calligraphy is by no means new. During the 1940s, Japanese calligrapher Ueda Kuwabapo (上田桑鳩) began experimenting by representing "kanji" -- the Chinese characters used in Japanese script -- in non-standard forms. Color was added and traditional stroke patterns were ignored. Although initially there was an outcry against his tampering with tradition, by the early 1960s, Ueda's works were highly regarded.

The acceptance of non-traditional calligraphy has taken longer in Taiwan. Works by contemporary calligraphers are closely scrutinized by conservatives, who want to ensure that calligraphy does not veer away from tradition.

Even before the current exhibition in Taipei opened, traditionalists and modernists had exchanged heated words. A work entitled Wei An Fu (慰安婦, The comfort women), by Hsu, so enraged the traditionalists that the artist was asked to re-submit the work with specific changes. (The work finally accepted is pictured on the right.)

"The traditionalists called it a painting. They said the three characters `wei' (), `an' () and `fu' () had no recognizable form and all I had done was to paint abstract nudes," explains Hsu.

"The excuse they gave as to why I had to re-do the work was rubbish. The rules as to what is and what isn't calligraphy are not written in stone; they are written by the traditionalists who are set in their ways and will never change. We are trying to bring calligraphy into the present day ... [We want to] make it accessible to the younger generations of people who haven't been taught about calligraphy, but who should still be able to enjoy it."

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