No brush off

Mas­ter cal­lig­ra­pher Xu Lim­ing un­der­lines the im­por­tance of hand­writ­ing with his just-con­cluded Bei­jing show, Lin Qi re­ports.

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - Con­tact the writer at linqi@chi­nadaily.com.cn

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.

ZOU HONG / CHINA DAILY

Xu Lim­ing (top) says cal­lig­ra­phy forms the foun­da­tion of Chi­nese aes­thet­ics. Cal­lig­ra­phy re­mains a sig­nif­i­cant fea­ture in his ink paint­ings.

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