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Brushes with Power - calligraphy and Chinese politics

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I got a loan of this from realmayo, so I did the only appropriate thing in the circumstances and rushed it to the top of my reading pile. 


Brushes with Power: Modern Politics and the Chinese Art of Calligraphy, Amazon US and UK. (someone recently managed to buy $250 worth of wireless security alarms via a forums affiliate link, first time in ages my quarterly affiliate income has hit double figures)


Three parts to the book - Imperial China, Calligraphy and Revolution running up till Hua Guofeng, who does not come out of the book well, and then Post-revolution. 


This made for a surprisingly interesting read, and I rattled through it in a few hours. The historical review chucks up some interesting nuggets of information - apparently paper with writing on it used to be burned separately from the rest of the household waste, a practice the 1991-published book says is still current in parts of Taiwan. And the author doesn't pull his punches, happily describing Ezra Pound as having the 'true conviction of an ignorant blowhard'. The sub-headings are often great. Kang Sheng: Man or Devil. Showdown at the Red Star Chicken Hatchery and Experimental Pig Farm. 


The Demystifying Chinese Characters chapter isn't likely to provide much new though. 


One thing I did like is that it provides a source for the old 'Bible stories in Chinese characters' myth which comes up on here once or twice a decade - a 1979 book entitled The Discovery of Genesis. 


As it gets into the links between calligraphy and power we have the idea that calligraphy took the place, for Chinese court officials, that public speaking held in the West. It was how people judged your character. 


Part II spends time on the dilemma of those who wanted to destroy all the old traditions, but couldn't quite give up the brush, or never thought to as it was just such a part of life. There's a lovely quote from Mao when he handed his masthead for the People's Daily to Bo Yibo: "The two characters in the middle are a little smaller, and the two on each end a little larger, to make it pretty."


There's also a picture of Mao's last known inscription, for BLCU when it wasn't yet a U. Kind of sad to see, it's all over the place. And various stories about how leaders touted their calligraphy about, and had it solicited, as signs of patronage and protection. Amusing tale of Xiamen University copying and pasting the necessary characters for their signage out of Lu Xun's letters. Lin Biao's calligraphy being torn down as soon as his plane crashed, even if his death wasn't announced for months*. Etc. 


Anyway, I'm afraid that turned out not so much a review as a list of my favourite bits. Never mind. Fun little book, would be nice to have a newer edition. Bear in mind that this copy, at least, was a print-on-demand one and as such the print and image quality isn't what you might hope for. 


*There's also a tale of Lin asking for asylum from Chiang in Taiwan, which was new to me. 

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Thanks for the review.  Interestingly, this book is listed on Amazon China.  Delivery time is 7-9 weeks, though, and it's quite pricey, so probably won't be clicking the buy button any time soon.  




I do occasionally buy foreign-published books that have no Kindle editions from Amazon China to save myself the hassle of dealing with Chinese Customs if I order through Amazon US.  

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Glad you liked it Roddy, feel free to mail it to gato!


I remember the book saying how important it was for government officials to be able to recognise each other's handwriting, and not just that of the top guys. You get a printed policy document and someone has scribbled a change in the margin -- if you don't know who wrote it, you don't who he or his patron is and so you don't know whether you should agree with it or not.


If I remember correctly the book was written some time ago, and was showing how and why calligraphy/handwriting is much more important than in the West. But 25 years later it's mainly of historical interest. 


Edit: I also liked the name of the book a lot!

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Gato, if you want to pm me an address I'll pop it in the mail.


Published in 1991, it makes a fair bit of reference to 1989 events.

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Ah, too bad the book was so rarely and the author didn't get a chance to comment on the proliferation of Jiang Zemin signed calligraphy in public places all around the country. You don't see the same with Deng or Hu. Did it just bring ridicule behind the scene, or was it a successful case of cultural oneupsmanship?

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Thanks for reviewing this; looks interesting! The title is my second-favorite for a China/Chinese-related book, the first being Chinese Characters: A Radical Approach by James C. Whitlock Jr.

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