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June 17, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright June 17, 2008 Richard Kraus. Used by permission.


The Beichuan Middle School lost a thousand students in May’s devastating Sichuan earthquake. When Premier Wen Jiabao visited the school’s temporary quarters, he wrote four characters on a blackboard to inspire the students: “distress rejuvenates a nation” (多难兴邦). After his departure, teachers and students could not bear to erase his chalk inscription, which was covered in plastic until the Sichuan Cultural Relics Bureau could devise a method for permanently preservingWen’s handwriting.

Although Premier Wen’s chalk on a blackboard may seem difficult to preserve, China has a deeply established tradition of copying calligraphy. Many of the great works of past masters are only known by copies, often stone carvings, which astonishingly capture the most delicate brushstrokes in a medium which lasts for centuries. And newer technologies can be used to preserve Wen’s temporary inscription for future generations.

The more interesting problem is political. The propagation of calligraphy by powerful men (never women) bolsters personality cults, as I show in my bookBrushes with Power. Calligraphy is said to reveal the inner character of a person—one can detect the virtue of a writer by the beauty of his brushstrokes. Underlings have flattered their bosses for centuries by praising their calligraphy, leading to a secondary tradition of ghost calligraphers to create suitable inscriptions for those men of power who lacked a good classical education. For the powerful, spreading calligraphy around is a way to leave visible markers of their sphere of influence. Book titles, building signs, and newspaper mastheads have all featured inscriptions where politicians use the brush to display their patronage and extend their protection.