Americans are forward-looking people. When referencing the past, it is usually to see how far they’ve come. So it might take a moment for an American audience to grasp the fascinating "Reformer’s Brush," the latest exhibit at the University of Hawaii Art Gallery.
The show examines the past century of China’s history through the classical Chinese art forms of painting and calligraphy. The era saw dramatic change, from the exit of the country’s last emperor to the founding of the Republic of China, as part of the Xinhai Revolution. Leaders pivotal in this modernization looked to the past to empower themselves as they navigated change via the practices of calligraphy and painting.
"The communist movement in 1921, for example, was a movement of intellectuals interested in social justice. This was not a group of rabble-rousing peasants," says Kate Lingley, UH assistant professor of Chinese art history and curator of the exhibit.
Being "intellectual" meant being educated in calligraphy.
‘THE REFORMER’S BRUSH: MODERNITY AND TRADITIONAL MEDIA IN CHINA’
From the collections of Ernest and Letah Lee and Chin-tang Lo
» On exhibit: Through April 8, 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays; also open 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. April 2
» Where: University of Hawaii Art Gallery
» Information: 956-6888, www.hawaii.edu/artgallery
» Also: Brush painting demonstration at 2 p.m. today in the art gallery courtyard and 3:30 p.m. screening of "The Last Emperor" in Room 101. Additional film screenings: "A Spray of Plum Blossoms," March 20; "Rickshaw Boy," March 27; "King of Masks," April 3. Gallery tours on same dates at 2 p.m. in art auditorium.
"Traditionally, the calligrapher was highly educated, one of the social elite with a Confucian education who served the government," she says. "Calligraphy of great men were treasured not only for their high artistic value, but because of the belief that in a man’s hand was traces of his greatness. The Chinese believed that character was reflected in calligraphy."
In the 20 years between 1890 and 1910, China’s education was revamped to include both classical studies — literature, poetry, philosophy and calligraphy — and a modern curriculum of math, science, art, music and foreign language. Students often traveled to Japan, where technical, military and art academies were ahead in modernization.
The result of exposure to the modern, outside world was an educated youth that sometimes became politically radicalized. Among those were founders of China’s Communist Party. But the way these free thinkers proceeded to implement change was to first re-examine their history.
"Even in wanting to revitalize China, they turned to the past. They believed China’s history provided models of values, so they went back to the greats to see if they could learn something new. The idea of striking out on one’s own isn’t particularly valuable in China," says Lingley.
Yet while their method of stepping forward honored tradition, it was what these men chose to study that was radical, she says.
"They started to rediscover ancient inscriptions from bronze vessels and stone tablets. Calligraphy is a well-established tradition, but the kinds of inscriptions they were paying attention to were not brush calligraphy. Carvings in stone require a different action from writing with a brush.
"They also took writings from neglected historical periods," she continues. "China in medieval times was ruled by Central Asians, not the Chinese. But they went back to these periods and studied the calligraphy of wedge-shaped forms made with chisels. They looked at ancient sacrificial vessels in bronze from 3,000 years earlier.
"They were radical yet traditional."
Reformist scholars also looked to ancient forms of calligraphy to deal with poverty, which they linked to a lack of education and, more specifically, illiteracy. A big issue was whether Chinese writing was too difficult to learn, and leaders explored simplifying Chinese characters by researching the ancient writings.
No matter how large or small the vision, tradition in many ways served as a foundation for modernity.
"Men who were classically educated were reaching deep into the past to create new things for the future," Lingley says.