Recently, an unusual artifact came into the gallery for restoration and framing. A work on paper, it was neither an etching nor lithograph but a boldly inscribed, black ink affirmation in Chinese calligraphy. It reads “Eternal Peace.” A red chop mark in the corner identifies the scribe as an important figure in Chinese history, Sun Yat-Sen, the revolutionary and statesman who overthrew the last Manchu emperor and proclaimed the Chinese Republic (1911).
The scroll is one of many tens of thousands of examples of Chinese calligraphy. Contemporary examples of the ancient artform are being executed for sale and can be obtained in gift stores or from dealers in Asian imports at modest prices. Other scrolls with more historic provenance can command high prices at auction. Because of his role in shaping modern China, Sun Yat-Sen’s scroll has at least modest financial value in the art market.
In contemporary Western culture writing is prized for its message more than its visual beauty. The word calligraphy, however, comes from the Greek for “beautiful writing.” While the art of penmanship has been marginalized in a world where hundreds of fonts are accessible at the click of a mouse, in earlier cultures scribes with pen, parchment and other writing materials were often concerned with the beauty of their handwriting almost as much as the meaning of the words.
This is certainly true in written languages whose characters began with pictures representing each word. In one of the world’s oldest living languages, Chinese, the pictorial origins of words such as “tree” or “up” can still be discerned in the configuration of the letters. To read classical Chinese literature requires knowledge of at least 10,000 different characters. Even after the Communist Chinese regime ordered the alphabet to be simplified in the 1950s, readers must still recognize over 3,500 letters to read a contemporary novel. It’s a lot of letters and over the centuries, the beautiful brush strokes of the country’s scribes have given rise to an abundance of artifacts featuring Chinese calligraphy.
Brush calligraphy, or Shu Fa, is considered an artform in East Asian culture. As paint strokes can reveal the soul of an artist, the careful application of the brushwork in calligraphy expresses the temperament and character of the scribe. As a result, experts with a discerning eye can distinguish the work of one calligrapher from another.
Wang Xi Zhi (AD 303-361) has been called the “Sage of Calligraphy” and was the foremost calligrapher in early Chinese history. He lived during the Jin Dynasty when the collecting and cataloging of writings began. The artform was reserved for the literary elite, the Confucian scholars who administered the empire. For them, knowledge of literature and the arts was considered essential. In the centuries following his death, examples of his calligraphy were already being collected in China. Copies and forgeries were produced.
Even for those who do not understand Chinese, the elegance of his compositions, the use of space and the deftness of his strokes, is apparent. Wang’s son, Wang Xian Zhi also became a renowned calligrapher.
At auction, prices for Chinese calligraphy are all over the map with the Asian markets commanding particularly high returns. At Sotheby’s Hong Kong house, a hanging scroll by Changshuo Wu (1844-1927) titled Bodhidharma (1915) sold in April 2008 for $53,927 (with buyer’s premium). The two scrolls from a single lot, Flowering Plum and Loquats, also by Wu and dated from 1920, sold at the same auction for $106,571 (with buyer’s premium). An auction house in China’s capital, Beijing Forever International Auction, sold the scroll Calligraphy in Cursive Script (1797) by Xiang Song (1748-1826), for only $978 (with buyer’s premium) in May 2007.
A typical theme in calligraphy is a narrative or a poem created by the artist. The Lanting Xu is one of the earliest surviving examples of Chinese calligraphy and is considered a masterpiece of compositional and aesthetic value. Created and written by Wang Xi Zhi in 353, Preface to the Lanting Collection of Poems tells the story of a summertime visit to a place called Lanting, a small pavilion on the outskirts of the town of ShaoXing (northeastern Zhejiang province). Also called the Orchid Pavilion Preface, it describes the Purification Rites festival and the events of the outing. Legend has it that Xi Zhi’s scroll was buried with the Emperor when he passed away.
Healthy auction results indicate there are plenty of 20th century artists that have followed the tradition of their ancestors. Christie’s in Hong Kong featured 20th century calligraphy in November 2006 with the works of Youren Yu (1879-1964), Calligraphy in Cursive Script, selling at $8,539 (with buyer’s premium) and Calligraphy in Running Script for $9,645 (with buyer’s premium). In October 2007, Sotheby’s in Hong Kong sold Calligraphy, also by Yu for $12,890 (with buyer’s premium).
As for Sun Yat-Sen, mass produced artifacts bearing his likeness, including coins, postage stamps and paper money, are often available at auction online. If the provenance can be proven, an original piece of calligraphic writing by the founder of modern China would command interest among collectors of Asian art and artifacts.
The international art market in 2007 ended with a dramatic shift in ranking among countries. China’s contemporary art market bumped France in sales, coming in third with the United States and Britain remaining first and second in revenue standing. Although Chinese calligraphy is not a part of the emerging art trend in China, it remains a market of value with collectors adding calligraphy to their Asian acquisitions.