Writing for the future

By Wang Yizhou Source:Global Times Published: 2012-12-20 14:05:05

Pupils at a local primary school practice calligraphy. Photo: CFP
Pupils at a local primary school practice calligraphy. Photo: CFP

Spawned from symbols carved on animal bones and turtle shells more than 5,000 years ago, Chinese calligraphy has developed into a variety of styles and is practiced not only by the Chinese, but also in South Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. 

With their Four Treasures of the Study, the ink brush, paper, ink and ink stone, calligraphers create artistic inscriptions to reflect emotions, character and accomplishments using abstract lines, and applying different styles as the brush touches the paper. More than just a method of communication, calligraphy has inspired other Chinese art forms and been in turn inspired by them. UNESCO listed it as an intangible cultural heritage in 2009.

However, in recent years the popularity of this art form has been dwindling. With technological advances, many of the younger generation no longer write words by hand but use keyboards. Many now struggle to write sentences on paper let alone attempt the complexities of calligraphy.

The drastic decline prompted China's Ministry of Education to introduce compulsory calligraphy classes in elementary and high schools nationwide. In August last year, the ministry announced that grade three to six students at all schools should attend one class in calligraphy every week and at high schools calligraphy should be an elective subject.

The Shanghai Municipal Education Commission has instructed that marks for calligraphy will be listed separately from the study of Chinese in students' report cards and will account for 5 percent of their overall academic score.

Difficulties encountered

With no precedents to follow, 55 schools in the city began to conduct calligraphy classes in a pilot program, but soon encountered difficulties. City media reported that many schools lacked qualified or competent teachers and several principals had to ask their art teachers to run the classes even if they didn't know a lot about the subject.

"Many of our young teachers have never written one character with an ink brush let alone taught others how to," Zhu Honglin, an elementary school principal in the city's Huangpu district, told the Oriental Morning Post. He said the lack of a training program for teachers was the main stumbling block to Shanghai's 2,000 or so elementary and high schools offering calligraphy classes.

After calligraphy was listed as an intangible cultural heritage in 2009, the Chinese Calligraphers' Association began moving to revive the ancient art form. As part of its program, it set up calligraphy centers to train and test teachers from local schools in each capital of the country's provinces and autonomous regions, and municipalities. The tests were based on the association's existing calligraphy test.

On November 18, its Shanghai center handed out more than 150 calligraphy teaching certificates to elementary and high school teachers from the city's Chongming county. 

Li Xiaowu is the deputy director of the local center. He said this was the first time they had worked with the education authority and they had chosen practitioners from Beijing and Shanghai to teach at the program.

Some 200 teachers attended the two-week workshop where they learned a brief history of calligraphy, copied different styles from famous calligraphers, and wrote their own inscriptions. After that they took tests. There are 10 levels and most of the teachers took the level-six test. People who past the level-10 test are invited to join the association as practitioners.

"We want teachers who go for the certificates to already have certain some knowledge of calligraphy, otherwise they will not be capable of teaching students properly," Li told the Global Times.

Expansion planned

Although he admitted that the two-week course would not dramatically change many of the art and Chinese teachers who went through the classes, Li plans to expand the program to include more teachers. He said they expect to issue another 300 certificates to teachers by the end of next year.

Zhang Xin is a professor at Shanghai Normal University. He established the city's only calligraphy faculty in 1999. He believes the government should provide universities with more concrete support to train calligraphy professionals devoted to teaching.

"It is necessary to make calligraphy a required course in normal universities, so teachers at least would have a basic understanding of the skill and this eventually will form the teaching and learning environment," he told the Global Times. 

Every year, Zhang's faculty recruits just 20 new students although hundreds seek to join the course. Of the graduates though, only half wind up teaching because few city schools employ specialist calligraphy teachers.

"The education authorities should introduce practical policies to implement these goals of ours otherwise the goals are nothing more than empty words," he said

Zhang studied in Japan in the 1990s and found many universities there had departments researching and teaching Chinese calligraphy. This inspired him to return and establish the faculty here.

"It's shameful to see neighboring countries work so hard on the promotion of our culture. If we don't hurry up, this ancient skill as well as our art will fade away," he warned.

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