Coloured Calligraphy

Chinese calligraphy is traditionally written with black ink on white paper. Red paper may be used for auspicious posters (red being a lucky colour in China) and red ink is often used by calligraphy teachers to correct students’ work (to distinguish the correction from the error), nevertheless it is true that Chinese calligraphy is almost exclusively black and white. Indeed, on the rare occasions that colour is used, for example in the work of Wei Li Gang (魏立刚, fig.1) and Huang Yao (黄尧, fig.2), it is tentative and  subdued. It seems that colour can only be used confidently when actual characters are abandoned and the strokes become abstract forms, see for example Gu Gan (古干, fig.3).

As a black and white palate is also a feature of Chinese ink painting, the obvious question is: why the preference for an achromatic colour scheme in Chinese art?
According to Abdollah and Ahmed (2011), the restricted palate of traditional Chinese art reflects certain traditions within the country’s philosophical and religious thought. Firstly, “the Black and White system became the most suitable visual artistic pattern to render the ancient Chinese detachment and otherworldly consciousness. [It implied] Chinese style rationality apart from reality, because it lacked the vividness and stimulation of lower-level sensory impressions as provided by the full color artistic palate.” (2011: 109).
Secondly, they suggest a polarised black and white palate reflects the philosophical “dualism” that underpins much of Chinese thought. This is most famously expressed in the Tai Chi (太极) diagram of the Yin / Yang school (c.500 – 220 B.C.E.) in which polarised forces of dark / light, positive / negative, hot / cold etc. are opposing yet interwoven and complementary. They see this dualism as providing the basis for China’s “cultural consciousness”.
Thirdly, they specifically relate the black and white scheme to the Taoist dialectics of Lao Tze (c.604 – c.521 B.C.E.) and describe white paper as a formless void akin to Lao Tse’s “non-being” from which all things came to be. (2011: 100) And futher claim that “the colourlessness of the Black and White system could also be understood as the consumption of the aesthetic values of all colors”. (2011: 110) In other words black ink contains all colours within it and has the potential to render all phenomena within a white space that is formless yet equally expressive.
There is certainly an unusual degree of achromatic art in the Chinese tradition compared to other traditions around the world. But while modern Chinese painting (both in ink and western materials) has as diverse a palate as any other country, Chinese calligraphy has remained resolutely black and white. Although this maybe because calligraphy is sometimes seen as old fashioned compared to painting and therefore remains traditional and unmodernised, and of course, in terms of writing, black on white provides the boldest and most legible schema.
However, if no colour is used in the fine art of Chinese calligraphy it is beginning to be used in the graphic design of Chinese characters. While I was in Taiwan I collected examples of coloured Chinese characters on shop signs and magazine banners. Often signs had characters in a particular colour to stand out from their background or fit with the shop’s paintwork but occasionally characters were coloured individually and seemingly for their own sake, see fig. 4, (a pawn shop sign). More rarely individual strokes were rendered in different colours, see figs. 5-7. More rarely again whole characters were multi-coloured with patterns or painterly strokes, figs. 8-9. Very occasionally I came across a sign in a “brushed calligraphic” font in colours other than black, such as fig. 10, although arguably still monochrome and of course a commercial sign (for a private art school and framers) rather than a deliberate work of art in-itself.

Perhaps this distinction can be related to the difference between black and white and coloured photography in the 1950’s and 1960’s. At the time Art photography was made in black and white, while colour was reserved for commercial work or family snapshots. “Color photography is vulgar” said Walker Evans in 1969, and this was the prevailing view until William Eagleston’s famous Red Ceiling (1973) opened up new formal and expressive possibilities. Sarah Sau Wah Ng voices this implicit hierarchy when she writes: “At present, some craftsmen use coloured ink instead of ink to write calligraphy and sell their works as souvenirs to tourists. Strictly speaking, these works can only be classified as Chinese folk art or commercial art rather than Chinese calligraphy. Most of them are highly decorative and look more like paintings. The content is usually someone’s name or a proverb, but they look like pictograms. This type of work is more down to earth and looks more pleasing to the general public as it is easy to read and understand. Nevertheless the discrepancy between a highly educated intellectual and a less trained craftsman would suggest the different levels of artistic and cultural values in their calligraphic works. The aesthetic value of the “pictogram” seems to be overwhelmed by its utility and commercial value. With the strong commercial properties of this type of calligraphic work for tourists, it is hardly surprising that the artistic value is not up to the standard of being regarded as calligraphic work in China.” (2011: 199) Here, characters written in coloured ink cannot be real calligraphy but are merely “folk art”, just as those who use colour are “craftsmen” not calligraphers, and those who appreciate such works are “tourists” or “the general public” and are by definition not “highly educated intellectuals”. It seems that, for Ng at least, colour in Chinese calligraphy indeed suggests “lower-level sensory impressions” as Abdollah and Ahmed argue. This attitude resembles that of the New York Times when Egglestone showed his Red Ceiling at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1976: “Eggleston’s photographs strongly resemble the color slides made by the man next door; and his show at the Modern was the most hated show of the year”. It is also interesting that in Ng’s text black ink is regarded as synonymous with ink itself, and in fact this idea is written into the Chinese language, where the character for ink (墨 / mo) contains the character for black (黑 / hei) within itself as a radical – that part of a Chinese character that specifies the meaning (the semantic indicator).
Despite the low status of colour in Chinese culture, I experimented with writing calligraphy in coloured inks during my time in Taiwan. This was an extension of my work on “visual onomatopes” – words whose phonemes (sounds) resemble their referents (see figs. 11-12). I also used colour for a series artworks in 2014 entitled Each Different, Each The Same; the third of which was featured in Guanxi Magazine in Taiwan (see fig. 13).  Recently I have returned to using coloured ink while investigating text – image relationships. Fig. 14 (see above) shows the work Green, Yellow, Blue, Red (2016). The characters and colours however, do not match and the effect is one of dislocation*. Lewis (2001) identifies four basic text – image relationships: symmetry, enhancement, counterpoint and contradiction. While Chinese painting very often contains both words and images, the relationship between the two is usually enhancement; whereas I am interested in exploring the more dissonant relations. In Green, Yellow, Blue, Red the word-referent relationship is clearly contradiction. The final two figures show the preparation for the piece: research into the characters themselves and how they are written (fig. 15) and the calligraphic practice for the characters (fig. 16).

(1) The character for blue is written in red ink, green is written in yellow ink, yellow in blue ink and red in green ink.

Abdollah, Z. and Ahmed, B., 2011. ‘The Philosophical Origins of the Absence of Colour in Chinese Painting’, International Journal of Humanities. 18 (1) 103-115

Lewis, D., 2001. Reading Contemporary Picturebooks: Picturing Text. London: Routledge Falmer

Ng, S., 2011. Understanding The Art of Contemporary Calligraphy in China. In Michelle Ying and Ling Huang (eds) Beyond Boundaries: East and West Cross-Cultural Encounters. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, p. 192 – 212


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