No brush off
Master calligrapher Xu Liming underlines the importance of handwriting with his just-concluded Beijing show, Lin Qi reports.
For calligraphy master Xu Liming, 62, the presentation of Chinese characters on paper and silk is far more than a matter of technical mastery.
For calligraphy master Xu Liming, 62, the presentation of Chinese characters on paper and silk is far more than technical mastery.
He says it should be a passionate process that — even if exhausting— should leave the writer thoroughly delighted. Those who have seen Xu’s work will agree.
Back in his studio at the Nanjing Arts Institute in East China’s Jiangsu province, where Xu teaches Chinese calligraphy to postgraduates and doctoral students, he is often seen weaving beauty on xuanzhi (traditional rice paper). He prefers rolling out the paper on the ground and then writing big characters with the rhythmic style of a dancer.
“I can work on the entire composition better only when I look down,” he says in Beijing.
While creating, he sometimes pauses, turning around to accumulate more strength and throw the final stroke to complete a character. The writing process normally lasts for hours.
“It is physically challenging. But it’s important to finish the whole piece of work in one breath with stability.”
Xu’s works have helped him to connect with master calligraphers of the past. A video showing his approach was played on a TV screen installed at his recent exhibition at the National Museum of China in Beijing, impressing the audience during the National Day holiday week that began on Oct 1.
Twenty-two years after his debut show at the same museum, Xu’s second exhibition, which ended on Sunday, displayed dozens of scrolls in different calligraphy styles, especially the caoshu (cursive script) he specializes in. Many of his floor-to-ceiling works were also on display.
Other than ink works, including paintings, the show exhibited stamps of Xu’s seals — he is a trustee of the timehonored Xiling Seal Art Society based in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province.
The exhibition, he says, also helped to tell his fans and fellow calligraphers: “Although I’m aging, I keep progressing in calligraphy.”
Xu’s message for modern viewers, who prefer typing over writing with pen and paper, is that penmanship isn’t outdated but a practice that must be continued to endure the changes of time.
He says the title of his show, Cultivating a Noble and Fearless Spirit, made a similar suggestion.
The contents of his writing on display were largely inspiring verses from ancient poems and classical texts that were familiar to many in the audience.
He also showed poems he composed himself. Together with his calligraphy, paintings and seal art, Xu demonstrates the comprehensive cultural attainments Chinese literati have pursued for centuries.
Born in Nanjing, a historic city boasting rich artistic traditions, Xu’s first cultural mentor was his uncle, whom he says took wide interest in composing poems, performing Peking Opera and studying traditional Chinese medicine.
Xu majored in the traditional bird-and-flower genre, painting in the highly meticulous gongbi style for his degree. Gongbi portrays subjects with realistic and detailed depictions.
He shifted to calligraphy and seal art when pursuing a master’s degree. He researched into art history during his doctoral studies in the 1990s. His instructors included such prominent artists and scholars as Qi Gong, Lin Sanzhi and Xu Bangda.
“What they taught is that the perfection of skills is not realized by memorizing textbooks but by broadening one’s cultural vision,” Xu says.
He says he used to practice daily for technical perfection, while now he writes when he feels the desire to create.
“I fear that practicing too much will end up producing characters that look too sophisticated or similar. A little bit of unfamiliarity (with the brush) otherwise gets me excited about what and how to write.”
When fully devoted, he works for hours to complete a calligraphy set of 12 leaves, each measuring 5 meters in height. Such hours result in shoulder aches for days, he says.
Xu believes that calligraphy in modern times also encapsulates the value of a quality lifestyle that was shared by the olden-day literati.
To convey that spirit, he has extended from paper to other mediums, such as zisha (red clay special to Yixing city in Jiangsu) teapots and porcelain.
His calligraphy on teapots and porcelain vases, featuring his carving of verses and paintings, were on show at his just-concluded solo exhibition at the national museum.
Xu says calligraphy forms the foundation of Chinese aesthetics, and he will never get bored with exploring the richness of the form.
In the 1980s, Xu exhibited widely as a young calligrapher. Master Lin told him that too much exposure might bring fame but for a young artist, nothing was as important as to practice.
“There is no need to compete with your peers. You should aim to rival past maters,” Xu quotes Lin as telling him.
Xu Liming (top) says calligraphy forms the foundation of Chinese aesthetics. Calligraphy remains a significant feature in his ink paintings.