Bronze, Stone and Newspaper: The Materiality and Mediality of Writing in Socialist China
This research project examines elite and popular practices of calligraphy in socialist China (1949–1979). In particular, it looks at the use of epigraphic styles in calligraphy as an aesthetic practice as well as in “fine arts characters” (meishuzi) used for writing slogans and billboards. Here, “epigraphic style” refers to what is called jinshi (literally “metal and stone”) in Chinese, a denominator for ancient bronze vessels from the Shang (ca. 1600–ca. 1046 BCE) and Zhou (ca. 1046–256 BCE) dynasties and stone stelae with inscriptions. Modern intellectuals and artists who practiced epigraphic-style calligraphy continued an aesthetic tradition that had been shaped in the eighteenth century, and which was informed by antiquarian interests and included a critical revision of the Confucian canon on the basis of excavated or rediscovered texts. “Fine arts characters,” while treated as a practical communication medium, likewise cited epigraphic scripts, most prominently the blunt and square styles from Northern Wei dynasty (386–535) stele inscriptions. Contrasting strongly with the elegant cursive writing epitomized by the calligraphy of Wang Xizhi (303–361), Northern Wei inscriptions were considered coarse, provincial and antiquated prior to their re-evaluation in the eighteenth century. During the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), so-called big-character posters (dazibao), handwritten with a brush on industrially produced sheets of paper or even old newspapers, became the most important means to launch political attacks, claim revolutionary legitimacy, or communicate important news. Together with large-written slogans, these items of mass calligraphy became a dominant element in Chinese cityscapes that relied on the visual power of “fine arts characters” to effectively convey their message. One writing style that came to be particularly associated with Maoist mass writing is the so-called New Wei Script, based on the style of fourth- and fifth-century stele inscriptions.
This research project will examine the connections between the scholarly discourses and aesthetic practices around epigraphic writing styles on the one hand and the use of those same styles in practical and highly politicized forms of public writing; furthermore, it will study how both elite and mass writing deployed the medial qualities pertaining to these scripts, qualities that enabled a translation from one material to another.