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Chinese Script (Review)

Reviewed item: 

Thomas O. Höllmann, trans. by Maximiliane Donicht. 2017.
Chinese Script: History, Characters, Calligraphy
New York: Columbia University Press
ISBN 9780231181723

With this publication Thomas Höllmann has certainly undertaken a formidable task. To cover a subject of this size in a text of such restricted length is by no means easy. In his own words in the preface ‘The author … faces a great challenge: on the one hand, he may not upset the already knowledgeable reader with an at times necessary “reduction in complexity”; on the other hand, he should not discourage the layman with too great a focus on detail and technical jargon’. And, referring to ‘the predetermined length of the book’ even within the historical framework chosen, he then apologizes for superficialities on several topics such as the politics of script, book printing, and calligraphy.

In beginning of his story the author whets the appetite of the reader by describing how early in the morning in public parks in the big cities of China men and women practice the writing of large characters on the pavement. Before the water which they use instead of ink, dries up, they will discuss the calligraphic qualities of their writings. Relatively unknown in the West, in China it is a practice growing in popularity. The author then explains that besides Mandarin Chinese China counts six other major Sinitic languages like Cantonese, which, although written in the same script, has different grammar and phonetics. The last part of the chapter treats of the traditional differences between men and women in the upper circles of society with regard to education in the field of writing and literacy. In the final critical note on the present lack of access to the officially compulsory school system for large parts of the population, the pernicious consequences of the hukou registration system for migrant workers and their children in big cities could have been mentioned.

Table 2.3 of the second chapter usefully illustrates the different script forms throughout history.  Having discussed the early period of ‘oracle bone’, ‘bronze’, ‘seal’ and ‘clerical’ scripts (16th to 3rd century BCE), the author observes that the other three styles, ‘regular’, ‘semi-cursive’, and ‘cursive’, ‘can be traced back to the early imperial period evolved from … [the clerical], even those whose degree of cursiveness is so great that the similarity is not immediately discernable’, and turns directly to the 1950’s script reforms in the newly established People’s Republic of China (PRC). The three styles thus not discussed any further are what the Chinese themselves call the ‘three modern scripts’. They have generally been used for both official and other public, as well as private, purposes for nearly two thousand years, until the time of the 1950’s script reforms undertaken by the PRC. Having had such a longstanding role in the history of Chinese writing might have earned them at least a succinct description of their general characteristics. The chapter concludes with a short description of the traditional division of characters into six types according to their construction and usefully explains the practicalities of the consultation of Chinese dictionaries.

The materials used in handwriting and the techniques for reproduction of texts are discussed in the next two chapters. The ‘Four treasures of the study’ – brush, paper, ink, and inkstone – were preceded by knife and chisel for the early hard materials like oracle bones and stone steles. Reproduction started with rubbings of texts chiseled in stone, while, as from the 7th century, woodblock carving of whole texts was the predecessor of movable type printing invented in the Song Dynasty (960–1279 CE). The birth of newspapers in their present form took place in the 19th century, inducing the phenomenon of censorship. This has only become stronger in the modern days of the vast spreading of electronically produced texts. The whole story is told with great speed and verve.

In the next chapter Höllmann makes an interesting point concerning the subordinate position of the Chinese script in the world at large, certainly in comparison to the Latin and Arabic alphabets. Apart from the number of languages spoken by the recognized minorities in China itself – half of them with their own script (table 5.1) – the role of Chinese script is in his view also shrinking in other Asian countries like Vietnam, Korea, and Japan, where it was introduced long ago under the spreading political and cultural influence of the Middle Kingdom. His explanations illustrate his position generally well, but are not absolutely convincing for Japan. In Japan, the mixed use of traditionally several thousand characters, hiragana and katakana syllables is still the common way of writing a text. And in addition, the country still has, like South Korea and Singapore, a living tradition of calligraphy.

The final chapter is on that living tradition of calligraphy. The use of the aesthetic possibilities of character-writing has always been and still is widespread, both in the public and the private sphere. Calligraphy has even become, as from the 3rd century CE, the most valued art in Chinese culture. This was due to certain developments in the circles of scholar-officials, where the ‘Wang tradition’, superior since the Tang (618–907 CE), took its beginnings in letter writing. Nowadays also calligraphy is to be seen everywhere, from shop signs to newspaper headings, to political ‘big character posters’, to religious texts and to all sorts of other phenomena in society. Besides providing a short overview of the great tradition, Höllmann also comes up with some interesting examples of works from the modern art movements since the late 20th century, in which some artists try to deconstruct the power of the written word. Like Xu Bing’s Book of the Sky (天書), consisting of several thousand non-existent characters, but executed in traditional Song woodblock printing that carries great authority. Very confusing; the form provides authority, but there is no content! As at a conference in Leiden this reviewer heard the artist explain with a great smile on his face, he had even been able to deceive the great Chinese learned doctors by putting them in the same position as Western readers: they saw Chinese writing, but they could not read it! And there is more of this.

The author, himself qualifying his publication as a modest one, has succeeded in choosing the right stories and an enchanting way of telling them to cover all the aspects of a subject that most would deem too wide for the present format. His story has indeed sometimes suffered from a reduction in complexity that might give rise to criticism from knowledgeable quarters, like the absence of some explanation on the ‘three modern scripts’ mentioned above. And some of the tables provided, like table 3.1, might be somewhat overwhelming for a layman. But without doubt Höllmann has produced a book that, even if – or maybe just because – afterwards there remains a lot to learn, every reader will be delighted to have chosen as a first entry into the world of the Chinese script.

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