Brushing up on Chinese culture
Parents are discovering the benefits of getting their kids to learn calligraphy.
Dressed in traditional Chinese dress, called hanfu, with a long plait hanging down her back, 9-year-old Zhang Linxi introduced her artworks — two calligraphies and two ink paintings of birds and flowers — to those who stopped by her works during an exhibition in Beijing’s 798 Art District in June.
The three-day show featured works by about 360 calligraphy and ink painting lovers, many of whom were children aged between 5 and 10.
Linxi, a 4 th-grade primary student, has been studying calligraphy for two years. She has a practice room at home, with ink brushes, ink stones and seals bought by her father from fancy stores.
“We encourage her to learn calligraphy. It’s a good way to learn about our culture,” says her mother. “It helps her gain wisdom and fosters identification with Chinese culture.”
“Most parents, who can afford it, appreciate art education, and they regard calligraphy as a gateway to traditional Chinese culture,” says Li Xiaoya, CEO of Beijing-based Hanxiang, a franchised calligraphy training school, who organized the 798 exhibition.
Learning calligraphy also means learning classical poems because the written scripts are excerpts from poetry from the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties. Calligraphy students also have to learn traditional sealmaking skills since each piece of calligraphy has a name printed with a seal.
“It’s more than just calligraphy. It’s about Chinese history and culture as well,” Li says.
The popularity of calligraphy has grown rapidly with the central government’s promotion of traditional Chinese culture, and Hanxiang has expanded rapidly. In 2015, Li had eight calligraphy training schools in China. Now the number has nearly tripled.
Li recalls that in 2009 when she opened her first calligraphy training school with several teachers, many of her friends tried to advise her against it as calligraphy was such a “marginalized subject”. But the once unpopular subject is now hot.
Besides letting their children learn history and culture, many also hope to help build their children’s personalities, so they become more focused and persistent.
Fu Yankai, a 9-year-old boy who started learning calligraphy two years ago, sat quietly in the noisy exhibition room in the 798 Art District where his calligraphy was displayed, taking his time to carefully write a scroll. His mother says he is quite different from the naughty boy he used to be.
“He can now sit down for hours concentrating on one thing,” says his mother.
Yankai took part in a culture tour for children earlier this year to explore an ancient city, Suzhou of Jiangsu province, with traditional Chinese gardens and architecture where many well-known poets and calligraphers of the past wrote their poems.
The kids played a game in which they let cups float down a stream and when the cup stopped, the person next to it on the bank had to sing a song or recite an ancient poem. It is a game the ancient poets were fond of playing.
Such kind of culture tours have increased Yankai’s passion for both calligraphy and Chinese culture, says his mother.
“We’re Chinese; our children must understand our culture,” she says.
Li’s training schools also provide lots of culture tours. For instance, they provide tours to explore how Chinese porcelain wares are made and how to write and paint on them.
They are organizing a tour to Dunhuang in Northwest China’s Gansu province to appreciate the murals in the caves that were painted thousands of years ago.
Such kinds of activities are popular and sell out quickly, Li says.
Song Weiyuan, a calligrapher and a long-time educator and scholar, says writing calligraphy may seem like a “useless thing” which many of the children may never write when they grow up, but it’s still important for them to learn it.
“Calligraphy represents the highest level of Chinese art, since it is an art that has lasted for thousands of years. And it’s a continuous record of how the Chinese characters change and how people write them,” adds Song.
Children learn to put their hearts on Chinese characters while writing traditional calligraphy with ink and brushes (top), appreciating veterans’ calligraphy art in exhibitions (middle) and students make copybook rubbings on inscriptions using paper and inked pads (above).