OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Chinese calligraphy books--art or mass culture?

Center for the Humanities Newsletter Photo
Lei Xue

The rules governing Chinese calligraphy are strict and enduring, from the shape of the individual strokes used to create a character to the order in which the strokes are made. The characters have remained unchanged for several hundred years.

This tradition has deep cultural significance that art historian Lei Xue believes has been influenced by two distinct types of “model” books produced to teach the art of writing. The books are known as compendia. One sort reproduces hand-written characters as “rubbings,” the other consists of reworked characters printed on cheap paper for mass distribution. “From the late sixteenth century onward, it was these compendia that the vast majority of calligraphers studied, not antique rubbings,” said Xue, a Center Research Fellow and art faculty member at OSU.

The “ambiguous status of these compendia between artwork and mass-produced books” is the territory he will investigate in a series of articles that may culminate in a book. The compendia have received little attention from scholars, said Xue, because of “traditional disdain for mass-produced calli-graphic models among elite critics and connoisseurs.” A clear look at their history, he argues, is necessary for understanding the later history of Chinese calligraphy, as well as certain socioeconomic aspects of visual culture.

Three areas in particular interest Xue: the incorporation of traditional carved calligraphy stones into Chinese gardens; a popular compendium “Jade Cloud” published in 1612, and the local business of compendium production in Haining, a small town hear Shanghai where some 17th-century carved stones remain; and the history of the “calligraphy wall” and the politics of calligraphic education at the 19th-century Chang Villa.

Many of Xue’s questions have to do with the material production and distribution of compendia. To what extent were they viewed not as luxury goods but as mass-produced artifacts? Were they a subfield of publishing houses that produced all manner of books or were they a relatively independent industry? Was there a fundamental difference between calligraphic compendia and other picture books, especially those that included facsimile printings of calligraphy? What impact did the compendia have on the perception of calligraphy by the reading public?

Through drawing on literary writings, local gazetteers, family genealogies and other historical sources, said Xue, “I expect to provide a new perspective on Chinese calligraphy as a special cultural product determined by the networks of social, economic, intellectual and cultural forces. This project also aims to illuminate one crucial component of the visual culture in China as well as in East Asia.”