Ask Mei

The written language

Why Chinese scholars are as good as their word

During a recent visit to the birthplace of Confucius in Qufu in Shandong province, I was amazed and amused by an ironic fact. The two characters identifying qufu 曲阜on the stone tablet at the city gates were written in the hand of Mao Zedong despite the fact that Mao was the instigator of the disastrous Cultural Revolution, which called for the destruction of everything related to the ancient sage.

I learned later from the local tour guide that Mao had never set foot in Qufu nor written about it directly. It was entirely the local government’s decision to pick out the two characters from his works of calligraphy and put them together at the city entrance.

I have always loved Chinese calligraphy for its beautiful and simplistic form, as well as its sophisticated and sometimes poetic connotations. As the only written language that contains both literary meaning and aesthetic qualities, China’s calligraphy or shufa 书法 – literally meaning “the way/method/law of writing” – enjoys a long history that can be traced back before the Qin Dynasty (221BC) and it commands artistic value equivalent to paintings and other art forms. Written with brush pen in ink on paper, calligraphy was counted as one of the Six Confucian Skills for ancient scholars (the other five were courtesy/ceremony, music, archery, charioteering, and maths).

Historically, scholars were judged not only by the content of their writing but the quality of the calligraphy too. Since I was little, I was urged to write neatly and beautifully, with the advice that “you can judge a person’s character by looking at his/her calligraphy”. In a way the art form is like literary fingerprints and good calligraphy is a badge of honour. That’s why when Chinese dignitaries make official visits they are often asked by the local mayor to leave behind a piece of writing about the place concerned. Called tici 题词 in Chinese, this practice has a history almost as great as calligraphy itself because it’s a win-win situation for both the calligrapher (ego and sometimes even financial reward) and the recipients, who put up the finished work to show off their political connections.

In recent years, the practice has been used as a popular form of bribery. One example is Hu Changqing, the former deputy governor of Jiangxi province, who had taken huge backhanders by selling his tici to businesspeople and lower-level officials.

Indeed, Xi Jinping banned the practice for government officials when he launched his much-vaunted anti-corruption campaign in 2012. Since then, many of the tici from disgraced officials have been removed from buildings, public places and company signage, including the two characters of “sword” and “shield” on the rocks in front of Chongqing’s police headquarters. They were penned by the former police chief Wang Lijun, whose dramatic dash to the American consulate in Chengdu in 2012 eventually brought down the powerful Politburo member Bo Xilai (both men are now in jail).

Mao’s calligraphy in Qufu is probably going to survive, however.

A native Chinese who grew up in northeastern China, Mei attended an elite university in Beijing in the late 1980s and graduate school in the US in the early 1990s. Over two decades she has worked in the US, Hong Kong and mainland China, both in the media and with two global investment banks. If you’d like to ask her a question, send her an email at: askmei@weekinchina.com


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