SOAS teacher seeks to make calligraphy easy

Updated 2018-01-30 09:00:01

Zhao Yizhou's calligraphy works are on display in Beijing.

While calligraphy is often hard even for average Chinese people to appreciate, Zhao Yizhou has taken up the challenge of making the age-old writing style an "international language" through the combination of tradition and innovation.

Having lived in the United Kingdom for nearly 20 years, Zhao, 59, has been a calligraphy teacher at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, since 1998. And he has given calligraphy lessons at the British Museum.

Zhao has been described by The Times newspaper as the finest contemporary Chinese calligrapher living in the UK.

He has also held a couple of solo exhibitions of his calligraphy in the UK over the past few years, and some of his works have been collected by British museums or private collectors.

More than 20 pieces of Zhao's works are currently being showcased in Beijing. The exhibition, entitled Chasing the Unseen, opened on Jan 16 and runs through March 2.

Zhao has been exploring new ways to change viewers' perceptions about calligraphy and used Chinese writing as a carrier of Chinese culture in cross-cultural exchanges.

Zhao believes that calligraphy is one of China's most important traditional art forms, yet it is not as popular worldwide as other traditional Chinese art forms.

Zhao Yizhou with his student at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. His calligraphy works are on display in Beijing.

"For foreigners who cannot read Chinese, the door to shufa (calligraphy) is closed. But I am always thinking how we can turn shufa into an international art category like painting, music and dance," says Zhao, who advocates that the art should be called shufa instead of calligraphy to dismiss any misunderstanding around it, including merely taking it as "beautiful writing".

Zhao has loved calligraphy since he was a child and trained himself in the art form.

Zhao believes that calligraphy, like other arts, should reflect the "spirit of the age". His own experience of living for years in a foreign environment allowed him to approach the issue with a unique perspective.

He finally brought in his idea of letting the "body language"-meaning the images of characters-do the talking.

His works often come with exaggerated shapes and formations to create a unique vitality, and sometimes borrow concepts from paintings, such as the colors and backgrounds.

He also adopts new methods and media in his calligraphy.

For example, some of his works were written with candle wax instead of ink, and sometimes he mixed wine with ink to create unique textures and effects on the paper.

Zhao's calligraphy is still based on the traditional principles of Chinese calligraphy, but are not restrained by them, according to Yun Ping, vice-chairman of Henan provincial committee for calligraphers.

Many of his single-character pieces display his capability in employing Western aesthetic features, Yun says.

"That allows him to expand the expressions of Chinese calligraphy to allow Westerners to have a taste of Chinese calligraphy."

Zhao says he is not surprised to see that his works are well-received by foreign visitors, because most foreign viewers don't speak Chinese, so they are not stuck with individual characters, and view the work as a whole instead.

"If I assumed my work was a forest, they would first see the whole forest rather than each tree, so they can enjoy the beauty of my shufa more easily," he explains.

If you go

9 am-6 pm, through March 2. British House, W4 Building of Beijingfang, Xiheyan Street in the Dashilar area, Beijing. 010-6313-2122.

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