Grounding Chinese Calligraphy

The documentary photographer, filmmaker, and designer François Chastanet has been developing a fascinating multimedia project: Di Shu, a survey of contemporary calligraphic practices in Chinese public spaces. The photographic and video documentary began during the summer of 2011 in Beijing, Xi’an, Shanghai, and Shenyang.

Chastanet writes:

In China cosmology, the square or ‹di› represents the earth and the circle represents the sky; ‹shu› signifies book, writing by association. The expression ‹dishu› literaly means square calligraphy, i.e. earth calligraphy: practicing ephemeral calligraphy on the ground, using clear water as ink.

Very popular nowadays, this recent phenomenon appeared in the beginning of the 1990s in a park in the north of Beijing before spreading in most of major Chinese cities. Thousands of anonymous street calligraphers operate daily in parks and streets, the different pavements becoming a large paper surface. Displaying literature, poetry or aphorisms, these monumental letterings, ranging from static regular to highly cursive styles, convoke the whole body in a spontaneous dance and infinite formal renewals. The calligraphic practice corresponds to a research of self accomplishment or improvement, this improvement modifying our perception of the world.

An extensive video sampling of Chastanet’s discoveries can be found here. And learn more about Di Shu and his other street lettering projects, Pixaçao and Cholo gang graffiti, here.

I recently asked Chastanet a few questions about his work:

You’ve done books on Pixação, the Brazilian graffiti lettering, and Los Angeles’s Cholo street lettering. In each case they are distinct codes designed to appeal to specific groups. What attracted you to Di Shu Chinese street calligraphy?

I was firstly interested in documenting a graffiti practice outside of the occidental/Latin alphabet’s global influence, so I have been looking for a similar practice of massive writing in public space, but this time in an ideogrammatic and logographic civilization. After some research in Asia, Di Shu, or water-based ground calligraphy in China, imposed itself by its growing popularity. We are not talking here of small underground groups of writers or gangs mainly composed of young people, but about probably several million street-calligraphy practitioners. And unlike in São Paulo and Los Angeles, this practice is largely accepted and respected socially. But even if they’re emerging from very different urban cultures—from so-called vandal graffiti to widely accepted practices like Di Shu—related issues can be noticed. For example: written signs’ formal evolutions, their relation with public space and architectural context, and the use of efficient handcrafted tools made of everyday industrial objects. Chinese street calligraphy, using clear water as ink on the pavement, is also very interesting by its ephemeral nature; it is an ode to impermanence.

What have you learned about the form and the people who make it?

It is extremely difficult for an outsider to say something relevant about the Chinese art of writing forms. Not as an expert of hanzi shapes but as an (occidental) observer sensible to the relation between large-format manual inscriptions and public space, I prefered to simply present the roots of this handwriting phenomenon and its actual development in Chinese society. I also wanted to focus on the do-it-yourself writing tools specially designed for calligraphy in an urban context. While making this survey, in order to exchange with Chinese street calligraphers, given the fact that I wasn’t able to speak much Chinese, a communication based on drawing was the only solution (along with the help of a questionnaire pre-translated into Chinese.) It was also necessary for me to demonstrate my capacity to understand a line, a stroke, or a gesture by showing my own calligraphic level in Latin letters—the only way to be accepted as a photographer amongst the different parks and clubs of ground letterers.

Di Shu, like traditional calligraphy on paper, is above everything an introspective dialogue. Calligraphic practice corresponds to a research of self accomplishment or improvement, this improvement modifying our perception of the world. Even if the image of the text is a highly sophisticated object, calligraphy is more a ritual thing and a lifestyle. The process of making is more important than the sign produced: a silent dialogue experiencing the subtle pleasure of discovering yourself through the movement of the brush and your own body. But here the practice is both individual and collective; I think we can talk of lettering in public space as socializing. Early morning parks are the stage of an essential moment of Chinese life where the need of the group, of sharing, expresses itself—notably amongst elderly people but also young adults and kids. The different practitioners of ground calligraphy refer, first of all, to the fact of being together, meeting, making friends, not staying at home, and sharing moments in a nice environment surrounded by nature. Talking about literature, commenting on a gesture or a calligraphic detail—this seems to be more important than the inscription on the ground itself. But the quality of the calligraphic rendering nevertheless stays the central point of the debate. The elderly people’s role of transmission is essential; some kids are trained by their parents or grandparents in this context.

What is impressive in China is the fact that every pedestrian passing by (from the daily construction worker to the old grandmother coming back home after some early shopping) seeing a piece of ground water calligraphy is able to stop and discuss it with the street calligrapher. Endless debates about the form of a given sign can follow: dialogues that you can only hear in the occidental world between professional type designers or sign painters during specialists’ meetings. The ability to appreciate the sheer quality of a writing form is shared amongst millions of people. Bookshops propose a huge variety of epigraphic books explaining in detail the ductus of each sign and its evolution through history. These books are cheap, very popular, and not at all reserved for a scholars or elite designers. Such an enthusiasm for letterforms is refreshing for an occidental observer, especially if he or she is interested in the field of graphic design and typography.

What is your ultimate goal in chronicling this ephemeral street lettering?

Through the description I propose of the Di Shu phenomenon, the aim is to try to spread this practice outside of the boundaries of Chinese art of writing towards other writing cultures—specifically Latin-based ones. Ground calligraphy made with Chinese street-foam brushes is indeed possible in an occidental context: the possible link with latin calligraphy can be found in the stroke thick and thin contrast quality given by a Chinese foam street brush that is very close to the «expansion» contrast (related with the pressure applied to the writing tool), typical of many handwriting styles in the West. I gave several workshops where each participant is invited to create his own writing tool out of salvaged materials (mainly foam and wooden sticks) and to make experiments in the streets or a public square following a latin lettering model optimized for street calligraphy based on the specific expansion contrast that Chinese street brush produce. (Please see this video of a workshop conducted in Utrecht, the Netherlands, in November 2011: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9YrhDfI9lP8).

These workshops, aimed to an audience of basic to advanced calligraphic level, is in an attempt to spread Di Shu Chinese handwritten practice in a global context. The idea is not, of course, to try to reproduce Chinese signs, but to translate in our own writing culture this capacity to invade public spaces through ephemeral water-based lettering. It’s about trying rediscover the gestures of our own letters, to promote handwriting practices surviving outside of the keyboard world. Writing or drawing by hand remains one of the most efficient education methods. The fact that this practice is urban, large-scale, and fun makes it a sexier way to sensitize people to our own calligraphic history. In addition, the urban context can provoke new formal solutions, such as the Pixação handstyle in São Paulo, Brazil, that I previously documented. The fact that Di Shu is water-based permits all experiments without restrictions or legal issues, and usually the reception by the pedestrian audiences is enthusiastic and friendly.

[Editor’s note: A photographic book is scheduled for publication during spring 2013 at Dokument Press.]

You might also be interested in the book Playful Type: Ephemeral Lettering and Illustrative Fonts; it’s now on sale at MyDesignShop.com.

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