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Kang Youwei’s (1858-1927) Study and Vision of the Chinese Calligraphic Art

Today, the pertinence of Kang Youwei relevant figure and the historical role he played in China during the turbulent years between the 19th and 20th century, is no further object of discussion.

BY MASSIMO CARRANTE | MARCH 06, 2012
Kangnanhai
Kang Youwei, who came from a family in which some of his members served the country as government officials, has often been at the centre of academic debates for his political activities and for the philosophical content of his writings. Amongst Kang Youwei’s characteristic traits, there was a vast and heterogeneous cultural formation, derived by his widespread interest towards different fields of human knowledge, learned from the disciplines and the writings of the western world and from the more traditional kind of culture tied to his native homeland. In China, as it is well-known, the cultural level of a person was also judged on the basis of the depth of his calligraphic education, thus, his inherent knowledge for this type of visual art, that over the centuries had developed a strong bond with the scholar-officials[1]. Throughout his life, Kang Youwei, has dedicated time and energy to the art of calligraphy, acquiring a ample theoretical and practical knowledge, later merged in his compendium published in 1891, entitledGuang yi zhou shuang ji 廣藝舟雙楫.


Even in its complexity and through different observation levels, Guang yi zhou shuang ji, structured in twenty-seven chapters compounded in six books, presents itself like a work of criticism to calligraphy,  putting in evidence Kang Youwei’s approach towards this art which many considered essentially theoretical. Nevertheless, he produced an enormous amount of calligraphic works; created a personal and  characteristic style, and entered, by rights (most of all for his theoretical competence), in that circle of experts and art connoisseurs, who, since the middle of the Qing dynasty, tried to inject into calligraphy new vital lymph derived from the more ancient calligraphic tradition – like those of the stone tables dating back to the Jin (265–420) and Northern Wei dynasties (386-535) –  that, in the course of history, found themselves ruled out of the process of establishing the calligraphy classical tradition already described by Ledderose.

In the Guang yi zhou shuang ji, despite the fundamental conceptuality, there are some parts that the author dedicated to eminently practical aspects and are concentrated in the following four chapters: Zhi bi di er shi (執筆第二十), where Kang Youwei offers his considerations  about the right method of holding the brush; Zhui fa di er shi yi (綴法第二十一), discussing on the composition method of a calligraphic work starting from the correct movement of the writing tool; Xue xu er shi er (學敘第二十二), in which the author speaks of the right sequence to follow in the calligraphy learning process; Shu xue di er shi san, (述學第二十三), where, with a prose rich of personal details, Kang Youwei, relays his personal experience in studying the chinese calligraphic art, which began at the age of ten under the guidance of his paternal grandfather, Kang Zanxiu. His grandfather, a government official, taught calligraphy in the administrative residence of Lianzhou, in the province of Guangdong. Later on, his illustrious grandson, described his attendance at the course with this words:

[At that time] I had in my mouth the sweet taste of sugar and dates[2], and I amused myself playing with the brushes. My defunct grandfather would begin teaching with [making] imitate [by the students] the Yue yi lun and the calligraphy of Ouyang Xun and Zhao Mengfu. The lesson was quite strict[3].

On these occasions, Kang Youwei, had the role of his Grandfather’s young attendant, whom, besides schooling him in the different examination subjects for entering the bureaucratic career, was also getting him acquainted with the basics of the calligraphic art. According to what Kang Youwei describes in this chapter, for many years, his calligraphy didn’t make any substantial improvements; for his demeanour, that he defines as laid-back and slow in understanding things and also for the absence of good calligraphy rubbings in the house of his grandfather, with whom Kang Youwei was living since 3 months after the premature death of his father in 1868.

 

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downloadbutton3Published in Political Reflection Magazine (PR) Vol. 3  No. 1
 
* Massimo Carrante is a PhD candidate of Centre for East Asian Studies, Heidelberg University.
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