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Calligraphy has long been associated with Asian intellect and aesthetics, as it carries an ethereal feel that is both graceful and expressive. In China, calligraphy is a supreme art form that surpasses painting and sculpture or ceramics. Along with poetry, calligraphy is highly valued as an art for self-expression and cultivation of the mind. From the Song Dynasty to the early 20th century, the practices of calligraphy, poetry and ink painting were intertwined in a trinity of expression known as “san jue” (三绝 sān jué), or the “Three Perfections.”
Traditional Chinese culture is often described as a “culture devoted to the power of the word”. The written word commands great respect, as it unites Chinese people from different regions with a variety of often unintelligible dialects.
Calligraphy forms the cornerstone of this culture, in which one’s handwriting skills reveal much about a person’s education, self discipline and character. Calligraphy is “shufa” (书法 shū fǎ) in Chinese, which translates to “the way of writing” that unifies the cerebral written sign with the visual vivacity of painting.
Calligraphy is the space where the Chinese language, history, philosophy, and aesthetics merge. It invites enthusiasts to step in and unravel the enigmatic Chinese culture and wisdom within these simple graceful strokes. Brands are recognizing the creative and communicative potential of calligraphy in interpreting the middle kingdom’s cultural heritage for their Chinese and global audiences. While rooted in tradition, calligraphy is fast finding a place in contemporary art, design and fashion.
Understanding the spirit of calligraphy
Global brands and designers have been fond of using Chinese characters to appeal to western audiences while connecting with the Chinese diaspora through their roots. These visually exotic and mysterious characters seem cool and trendy to the global audience, but many brands have struggled to get them right, resulting in backlash from the Chinese community.
As a written art form, calligraphy offers abundant creative space for designers to express their thoughts and feelings. However, a fair amount of research will be required to ensure that the intended meaning of the characters is properly conveyed, to prevent the opposite effect from what designers have intended. Furthermore, as a visual art, calligraphy is an intimate interplay between the brush strokes and the white space around them, resulting in a contemplative mood that immerses the reader in the feelings of the creator, much like a painting would.
In order to properly use calligraphy, or even Chinese characters, in any form of artistic endeavor or communication, it will be imperative that designers first study and appreciate the spirit of calligraphy, as a space for connection to nature, intellectual reflection, and creative expression.
Connection to nature
Like ink painting, calligraphy is a visual manifestation of the wonders of nature in ink and paper. In the same way that it symbolizes the beauty and vitality of nature, it also encapsulates how people perceive and relate to their living environment, coming through as the energy “qi” (气 qì) of the human body that gives life to the brush strokes that run over the paper.
Early critics and connoisseurs have often compared the expressive power of the brush to elements of the natural world. A vigorous movement of the brush is akin to the force of a boulder plummeting down a hillside, while a delicate stroke is reminiscent of the graceful fleeting ripples left on the surface of a pond that trail the paths of swimming geese.
Brands need to understand this interplay between man, nature, brush and paper — the important elements of calligraphy that are reminiscent of people’s connection to natural elements. This way, brands can spark people’s imagination and connection to the brand message by capturing action and emotions through these calligraphic elements, or stylized Chinese characters.
Modern calligraphy can exist on any platform, not necessarily paper. The self-proclaimed “digital-age artist” Zhu Jingyi uses calligraphy to convey the angst of his generation. Instead of writing sweet-sounding Chinese poetry, Zhu’s calligraphy work is ironic and wry, capturing intense emotions in phrases like “no desire in this life, except the desire for money” and “only losing weight could solve my sorrow.” Although perceptibly negative, there is nothing less powerful nor poetic that this new form of calligraphy conveys, to reflect the connection between man and his environment.
Chinese calligraphy is known to require, and activates a balanced use of both hemispheres of the human brain. As such, calligraphy has been an essential element in Chinese education to exploit, upgrade and develop human potential.
When studying calligraphy, the student must observe and analyze the details of structural writing as an art — a feat that is simultaneously cerebral and emotional. Their mastery of the ink brush, and the final scroll, reflects inner calm, flexibility and determination — qualities that strongly suggest a person’s education, self discipline and character.
Indeed, calligraphy used to be an important testing subject at the imperial civil service examinations, which facilitated the social mobility of people with talent and abilities. Most of China’s rulers were masters of calligraphy, which reflected not only their intelligence but also their ability to empathize with the community whom they serve, and would therefore, perform well in their posts.
The contemporary interpretation of Chinese calligraphy does not differ much from its traditional meaning — a brand’s intelligence and allegiance to the community can be emphasized using calligraphy, measured by the flow, strength or delicateness of its brush strokes.
Prada’s “Rong Zhai” typeface, created for Rong Zhai, a mansion in Shanghai that is owned by the Prada Group, has been widely celebrated as a West-meet-East hybrid that has won over the brand’s Chinese fans. The typeface is created by breaking down the strokes of the original Prada logo into Latin script, which are then reassembled to form the Chinese characters. The result is an original logo of both intellectual rigor and classic Prada flair, with a Chinese identity.
Similarly, Coca-Cola created the ‘Care’ font to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its presence in China last year. The brush strokes symbolize important elements in Chinese culture, including harmony, strength, responsibility, ease and progress, to indicate Coca-Cola’s solidarity and integration into Chinese society as a global company.
An important feature of calligraphy is to cultivate a person’s creative nature. It conveys not only thoughts, but also the silent dialogue between simple lines, dots, and their interplay with the white space. Calligraphy delivers a mesmerizing dance of these diverse elements, which come together as a harmonious ensemble that flows with rhythm and grace. The soft brush, used to vary each stroke according to the intention of the calligrapher, makes every character unique in a style that is fully owned by its creator.
Throughout time, Chinese calligraphers make great effort to develop styles that are different from one another. Variation is the key, as personal expression of thought and emotion is encapsulated in the abstract beauty of their calligraphic creations, which chronicle their individual upbringing, life experiences and values.
In modern days, the distinctive personality of calligraphy, or the artists behind each masterpiece, offers brands much creative freedom for personalization. The seemingly disparate calligraphic elements — the shape and strength of the strokes, the flow of the ink, or the way they rule the space on which they are built — is a strong narrative of what a brand represents and how it wants to relate to their customers.
Dior has learned the hard way that the sociocultural context of how Chinese characters are presented is key to their public perception. When Dior offered a customization service to its customers, allowing them to have their Chinese names embroidered on the brand’s Book Tote handbags, the Chinese fashion community responded with disappointment and disgust.
Instead of researching Chinese calligraphy and creating its own exclusive characters, Dior had borrowed the “Source Han Sans” font, one of the default fonts for Chinese characters in Microsoft and Google, for this project. Used daily by billions of Chinese users across the globe, the font is associated with functional communication, such as street signs. It was the very antithesis of what luxury was about — exclusivity and glamor.
Li Zhiqian, co-founder of Shanghai-based type foundry 3type, observes, “The fonts that people see on demolition houses, in villages, under the bridges, by garbage houses … are usually considered cheap.”
Li adds that brands must recognize that visual resemblance does not equate cultural resonance, and vice versa. Calligraphy, like other forms of Chinese heritage, will require effort from designers and marketers to research, comprehend and execute, in order to create products or brand communication that can resonate on a deeper level.
“Chinese consumers keenly analyze the actions of international brands. They can smell inauthenticity from a mile away,” concludes Paul Wong, the executive director of branding agency Kollektiv.