Chinese calligraphy: ‘in memoryam’

Taiwan’s Ministry of Education has the custom of sending memorial calligraphy banners to the families of recently deceased scholars. This is roughly the equivalent of sending flowers to someone’s funeral. The banners are meant to be displayed at the memorial service. They’re usually sent under the name of the minister, who would almost never review them personally, much less write them himself.

Even so, it was an embarrassment all around when someone noticed that a scroll from the ministry that should have had the stock polite phrase ???? (y?nróngw?nzài — “the voice and face [of the deceased] still seem here”) instead had ???? (y?n-róng yuàn zài — roughly “the voice and face [of the deceased] are in the park”).

Compare: w?n ? ? yuàn.

This wasn’t a slip in just one scroll. The exact same text was used in some one hundred such scrolls, about seven of which had already been sent out.

While I enjoy Schadenfreude as much as the next person and more than occasionally rail against government sloppiness, which this is certainly an example of, I’m not trying to play “gotcha” here. What interests me particularly about the story is what it says about the state of calligraphy. (For this entry, I’ll not bother to go into detail about how many people would be uncertain of recognizing ?.)

It turns out that the person who did the calligraphy isn’t an artist but a security guard at the ministry. While that might sound like proof that the ancient art of calligraphy extends through all levels of society, the more accurate conclusion is likely that more or less anyone was able to get the job — he’s obviously not an expert, or he wouldn’t have made the same mistake one hundred times — because relatively few people really care much about calligraphy anymore. Certainly the Ministry of Education could have found a qualified calligrapher if it looked outside its own personnel; but it wouldn’t want to spend the money required and preferred to find someone in house. (I worked for years at a Taiwan government ministry and have seen for myself how things operate.) The people who do such tasks are almost never young. Chinese calligraphy has become a specialist pursuit, and a diminishing one at that, as calligraphers and traditionalists often note with sadness and occasionally alarm.

It may surprise some of my readers to learn that I actually love Chinese calligraphy. (For example, I’m in awe of Huai-su’s “Autobiography.”) I’ve got a large shufa in my living room. Quite a number of people have remarked on how well done it is; not one of them, however, has been able to read it. So let’s not confuse an art form — which, lest we forget, has a fine tradition, too, in plenty of places that use alphabetic scripts — with a good idea for a dominant script for a language.

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