There is a tiny room on the fourth floor of the Presidential Office Building where Liu Wei-chuang (劉維椿), the official calligrapher for President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), toils away with his ink and brushes.
Liu writes the banners with inscriptions that are signed by Ma and Vice President Vincent Siew (蕭萬長) to be presented at weddings, funerals or other special occasions.
Calling himself Ma’s shu tong (書僮, or a person who assists a wealthy person with his or her studies), the 70-something calligrapher prepares the ink and brushes for Ma when the president has time to practice calligraphy or write banners himself.
Liu’s work keeps him busy. Many people like to obtain politicians’ calligraphy on paper or fabric on special occasions. The requests come from all over the world, except China. Even if the Presidential Office did receive such a request, they would not do it, he said.
The most requests that Liu filled in one day was 180.
Due to the heavy workload, the Presidential Office hired another calligrapher last year.
Their only off-season is the seventh month of the lunar calendar, traditionally known as “ghost month,” when it is not considered auspicious to hold weddings or other celebrations.
Liu began his career as a professional calligrapher in 1949 when he relocated to Taiwan with the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) after the Nationalist troops lost the Chinese Civil War. A native of Shandong Province, Liu was among the 8,000 exiled students from Shandong to settle in Penghu.
Liu said his grandfather was an excellent calligrapher who had a great influence on him and that he had begun practicing calligraphy in first grade and has never stopped.
Liu joined the China Youth Corps, an organization founded in 1952 by former president Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) when he was director of the Ministry of National Defense’s General Political Department. The corps’ goal was to eliminate communism and recover China.
“Little Chiang [Chiang Ching-kuo] was the one who interviewed me,” Liu said.
At that time, Liu said he did occasional writing for Chiang. When Chiang was appointed deputy defense minister, Liu was transferred to the defense ministry. He also served at the KMT headquarters for several years as a secretary-general of the youth corps.
He then became a researcher at the Mainland Affairs Council, which happened entirely by accident, he said.
It was at the council that he met Ma, who was the deputy chairman of the council at the time. He worked with Ma for two years, Liu said, before he retired and moved to the US to be with his children and grandchildren.
When Ma and Siew began campaigning for the 2008 presidential election in 2007, Liu was recruited to be their official calligrapher, he said, and has held that position ever since. Liu said Ma has a profound interest in Chinese calligraphy and usually spends more than an hour practicing if he gets a chance. Ma usually uses the style created by Liu Kung-chuan (柳公權), a calligrapher from the Tang Dynasty, which later became known as Liu Ti (柳體).
Liu said he prepares the brushes, paper and ink for Ma’s calligraphy practice sessions and that the president asks for his comment afterwards.
Ma has a solid foundation in calligraphy, probably from the training of his late father, Ma Ho-ling (馬鶴凌), Liu said. He is particularly fastidious about his brushes and paper, preferring brushes made of mixed animal hair such as goat and weasel, while the paper must be made in Taiwan because it holds the water better, Liu said.