Keeping Up with the Chinese Calligrapher

By Bras Basah Bugis on Feb 2017

While Western calligraphy videos and workshops seem to be all the rage these days, its Chinese counterpart doesn’t seem to be experiencing a similar revival. Before you dismiss Chinese calligraphy as antiquated or boring, two captivating exhibitions will soon have you seeing the traditional artform in a whole new light.

21st Century Calligraphy: Selections from the Nanshun Shanfang Collection is the Private Museum’s current exhibition held in conjunction with Singapore Art Week 2017. It features 19 calligraphy works from five established Chinese calligraphers.

Far from being monolithic, a quick scan across the gallery will reveal diverse styles that reconsider the conventional approach to Chinese calligraphy. From the more nuanced neo-classical works to the bolder, contemporary pieces, the lines between calligraphy and painting, modernity and the traditional, and masterfully blurred.

Take for instance the works of Wei Ligang, a renowned calligrapher of the modern ink movement from the 1980s. A mathematician by training, his works reflect his study of modern Japanese calligraphy and often double as an examination of the aesthetic patterns of Chinese writing.



Wei Ligang, Listening to Chirping Birds, Under the Embrace of Deep Mountains Fog (2011). Chinese ink and acrylic on gold paper. Collection of Mr Whang Shang Ying.


In Listening to Chirping Birds, Under the Embrace of Deep Mountains Fog, the written characters capture your attention with the compelling pictorial images that accompany them. These images are actually reconstructed forms of deconstructed Chinese characters.

Wei also experiments with colour and materials – in this case, Chinese ink and acrylic on gold paper – to add layers of meaning. Even so, the modern never fully dislocates from the tradition as the technique of juxtapositioning of characters (ideograms) with floral and bird pictograms hark back to the forms of seal script, from the ancient Zhou dynasty.



Wang Dongling, Wu-you: Nothingness-Being (2013). Silver salt calligraphy on photograph. Collection of Mr Whang Shang Ying.


A photo negative? Not really, though Wang’s bold “big-character poster”, Wu-you: Nothingness-Being was indeed produced in a dark room, using silver-salt solution and photographic paper to create richly layered and textured calligraphic works resembling negatives. With only two characters occupying the whole piece in a striking silver ink no less, the meaning of the phrase “Nothingness-Being” is further accentuated.

More than just a method of communication, Chinese calligraphy is also a means of expressing emotions. The rhythmic movements of lines and strokes offer insight into the calligrapher’s emotions, temperament and thoughts and naturally, the structures and art of composition differ in style from one calligrapher to the next.

A canvas for self-expression - that’s perhaps why it’s said that the best of works spring from the freest of minds. Case in point? Singapore’s Renaissance Man, Tan Swie Hian’s latest exhibition, Anatomy of a Free Mind: Tan Swie Hian’s Notebook & Creations at the National Library of Singapore.



Tan Swie Hian, Graffitied Portrait of Charlie Chaplin (2013). Ink and acrylic on rice paper. Collection of Tan Swie Hian

From the sketches and notes recorded in Tan’s notebooks, there’s much to peek into the unfettered mind and soul of the multi-disciplinary artist. It’s all the better to appreciate the thought process and artworks such as the Graffitied Portrait of Charlie Chaplin, a piece where elements from both the Chinese and Western worlds collide. Here, even as Tan experiments with painting ‘graffiti-style’, the distinctive traditions of Chinese ink paintings are observed.

Like a broth enriched by the flavour of its multiple ingredients, the art of Chinese calligraphy has, at times, been enhanced through thoughtful injections of other artistic disciplines and cultures, to evolve to what it is today.

Contrary to popular belief, Chinese calligraphy is actually much more accessible in the present day with many privately-collected artworks of cultural value available for public viewing at exhibitions, held at public galleries like the Private Museum.

Impressed and inspired? Why not sign yourself up for a class with the Singapore Calligraphy Centre? Other than calligraphy classes, the centre also offers seal-engraving and Chinese painting classes. More than 50 classes take place every day of the week, so it’s easy for you to get closer to these traditional Chinese art forms.

21st Century Calligraphy: A Selection from Nanshun Shanfang Collection can be viewed from now till 12 March 2017 at The Private Museum, 51 Waterloo St, #02-06. Opening hours: 10am to 7pm on weekdays, and 10am to 5pm on weekends, closed on public holidays. Admission is free.

Anatomy of a Free Mind: Tan Swie Hian’s Notebooks and Creations can be viewed from now till 23 April 2017 at the National Library Building, 100 Victoria St, Level 10 Gallery. Opening hours: 10am to 9pm daily except on public holidays. Admission is free.

The Singapore Calligraphy Centre is located at 48 Waterloo Street and opens daily from 8:30am - 6:30pm. More information on the available courses can be found at its website: