Chinese Calligraphy: A Dance on Paper
Reviewed by Lisa Bixenstine Safford,
Professor of Art History, Hiram College
Yang Xin is an extraordinarily gifted Chinese calligraphy artist and the subject of a new DVD produced by Raymond Olson titled “Chinese Calligraphy: A Dance on Paper.” The artist, now in his eighties, is undeniably a national treasure with a distinctive technique. In 2010 he donated over one hundred of his works to Peking University, an event noted in several online English language e-news publications.i His remarkably free-handed, cursive script might well be mistaken for the playful late works of Joan Miro or Jackson Pollock’s later career black and white drip paintings were it not for the inclusion of his yìnzhāng (red seal) and occasional smaller scale poetic text, such as this definition of “Spring” added at the side of the calligraphic character:
Spring is the beginning of the year,
Summer is the life of spring,
Autumn is the harvest of spring,
Winter is the storage of spring,
That’s why the whole year is spring.
The video is recorded live from a public lecture-demonstration given at the University of Beijing (Peking University) in 1998 to a group of American scholars. First the history of calligraphy, based on lines and dots, extending back to prehistoric pottery designs is presented in a recording of what appears to be a slide display (the woman speaker is not clearly identified). The evolution of styles and their purpose—official, casual, playful, or serious—is identified. This is followed by Yang Xin’s discussion with the aid of an interpreter of his works hanging on nearby walls. Often one hears only the voice of the interpreter (or some other woman speaking in English; since we do not always see them it is hard to distinguish the speaker). His explanations of meaning of an art that emanates from the heart and soul, and technique—never using a straight line--are invaluable to the student of his art, and of Chinese calligraphy in general.
While a DVD highlighting Yang’s career, his art and cultural philosophy, and his creative method is fascinating, this is not, however, a production that can be unequivocally recommended. The quality of recording both the moving and static visual images of Yang speaking and of his work, as well as much of the audio is sub-par, made by a recording from a hand-held camera that is shaky and occasionally out-of-focus. The quality is also marred by some highly pixilated static images, and muffled sound, the latter made less disturbing thanks to English subtitles. But the content is well worth the effort to see and hear the lecture-demonstration.
The most exciting part of the video is the demonstration showing the master at work, set to traditional Chinese music. A master of Yang Xin’s status deserves a more polished recording of his efforts to educate about his creative impulses and brush technique. But lacking such a record, this effort by Olson is gratefully received as a lasting tribute to a distinguished creative exemplar. Some of Yang’s unconventional interpretations of standard and familiar characters as finished works are also available to view on line, as is a PowerPoint of Professor Yang giving a similar lecture-demonstration to another visiting group in 2004. For educators who might show this DVD to their classes, these might prove useful as corollary materials. It is hoped that exposure to this video might spur someone to produce a finer quality record of the artist in action while he is still vital.
||Yang Xin is a reknown professor at the Peking University in Beijing, China. This
film is based on his presentation of his art during a San Francisco lecture which
took place during 1998. He shows us how the rich expression for meanings and
feelings of Chinese calligraphy is more than simple written communication.
Yang poetically describes the art of calligraphy as“a dance on paper.”
Practiced throughout China by young and old, Chinese calligraphy has changed
though time. Yang created the Running style, which uses soft color and fluid
lines without straight lines. To Yang, calligraphy is more than writing with the
hand, it is writing with one’s own heart. He describes how calligraphy has
absorbed other artistic forms including painting, music, and dance.
In this film, Yang walks us through his scrolls illustrating life and nature, and
how each character expresses the ideas of Spring, Happiness, a Horse, a Dream,
the Dao and others. He also demonstrates his art and describes his use of brushes,
ink, and the rice paper iteslf and how each contributes to the meaning of his
work. More than simply the character on paper, Yang’s calligraphy is the expression
“of one’s mental world, one’s soul.”