Brushes with Power
Tiananmen imageTiananmen Square

Tiananmen, the Gate of Heavenly Peace, "is at once the entryway into the inner vastness of the Forbidden City as well as the exit from that imperial and bureaucratic world into the zones of public space and revolutionary memory" (Jonathan Spence, The Gate and the Square). Hung with a portrait of Mao Zedong and flanked by the slogans "Long live the People's Republic of China" and "Long live the unity of the peoples of the world!", Tiananmen Gate was hailed after the founding of the People's Republic of China in1949 as "the place where the sun has risen." Both the Gate and Tiananmen Square have staged critical events in the history of modern China: the founding day ceremonies, the celebrations of the victories of socialism in the 1950s, the crushing of the Gang of Four, and the protest movement of 1989, to name but a few. For further readings and related video clips, see the Tiananmen Square tour page.

The "Tiananmen" characters that appear on the home page and throughout this website were written by Mao Zedong, whose calligraphy has been described as "a wild grass hand that sprawls grandly across the page and is quite difficult to read. It is expressive, even self-indulgent, in contrast to the orderly characters required of lesser bureaucrats."

Read more about Chinese calligraphy and its relationship to politics and power, in the following excerpt from Richard Curt Kraus, Brushes with Power: Modern Politics and the Chinese Art of Calligraphy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), pp. 169-171.


Art and power remain linked; yet their connection has changed remarkably in this century after Marxist revolution, the institution of mass education, and the demise of a class of landed and leisured patrons. The institution of calligraphy has persisted not because Mao and his colleagues selected it consciously, but simply because it embodies communication. When reformers failed to replace characters with the latin alphabet, calligraphy, was saved, and with it the impossibility of separating written communication from elitist aesthetic evaluation.

The reconstitution of the bond between art and politics is encapsulated in the transformation of calligraphy from a private to a public art. Calligraphy in the People's Republic publicizes relationships that were conventionally private by using an art that was traditionally personal. Emperors did not write signs and newspaper mastheads; the great calligraphers from China's classic tradition could not easily imagine that their genteel art could be turned into a tool of mass mobilization. The cultural performance of calligraphy gained an audience in unimagined ways, including photographic records and video cameras.

The reconstruction of calligraphy was left to the politicians because the calligraphers were tainted by feudal associations. This loss of authority by the calligraphic elite increased the ambiguity between high art and ordinary writing, as did the parallel development of mass education and the incorporation of the art into political movements. Writing and calligraphy became more easily conflated as the edge between public and private was dulled. At the same time, the expansion of literacy enabled many ordinary Chinese to take the first steps on a calligraphic road that promises a powerful mix of pleasure, upward social mobility, and self-respect in a culturally approved format.

[Lothar] Ledderose points out how China's traditional elite turned calligraphy into a brilliant game:

The inherent potential of calligraphy to furnish social coherence was realized to its fullest degree when the tradition of the Jin masters was instituted as the classical one. The technique of writing, the system of forms, and the aesthetic standards of calligraphy underwent no fundamental change thereafter: the technique was hardly ever modified, because the material used, that is, brush, ink, inkstone, and paper or silk, remained the same. The repertoire of types of script was not enlarged any further, and a universally accepted artistic standard was established in the handwritten pieces of the classical masters. A game was set up in which all the participants used the same elements and observed the same rules. (23)

In imperial China, the power of the brush separated those who could play the game from those who could not. The game reassured the players of their shared status as it excluded all others. But in modern China, the calligraphy game was adapted to serve as a curious channel for delivering coded messages across political strata.

Calligraphy began to be adapted for its utility in modern politics early in this century. Sun Yat-sen used calligraphy to strengthen his ties to his supporters. According to the testimony of Sun's bodyguard, Morris "Two-Gun" Cohen, "the doctor received countless requests for an inscription by himself. He kept a list of these and on a good evening he'd send for it and knock off forty or fifty at one go." (24) Sun and others used calligraphy as an alternative to public speaking in a nation whose leaders often speak the official Mandarin dialect with heavy regional accents. Sun Yat-sen's utilitarian approach to calligraphy persisted with his Communist successors' discovery that calligraphy was useful to them in many ways.

Calligraphy helped provide legitimacy to some political leaders, and their successful use of it encouraged emulation. Mao Zedong effectively used his distinctive calligraphy to underscore his accomplishments and to build up a personal political cult that eased his dependence upon the Party organization. In contrast, Hua Guofeng's attempts to brush a personality cult into being made him look foolish. Perhaps more important than such individual cases, however, was the use of calligraphy in countless small rituals to paint the entire Communist bureaucracy with the luster of authority. The new technology of television was also useful for bolstering political authority after the expansion of broadcasting in the 1980s; but China's leaders have combined the new medium with the old, broadcasting inscriptions by Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng across the nation.

Calligraphy offered a special channel of communication from leaders to their followers, joining mass communications, education, ideology, and propaganda in binding the new Chinese elite to their citizens. The display of calligraphy provided an instant cue to the political health or illness of important leaders. Ceremonial inscriptions were public expressions of patronage from the leader and loyalty from the receiving unit. At a key point in the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong used his right to present units and publications with inscriptions to create an alternative system of political communications. Hua Guofeng used his 1977-78 calligraphy campaign to touch base with his allies. Hu Yaobang wrote inscriptions to remind all of his support for intellectuals.

Calligraphy enabled Communist intellectuals to maintain a unifying social bond that transcended political factions. Beijing cultural boss Deng Tuo employed calligraphy to form bridges to both the conservative painter Qi Baishi and the radical politician Kang Sheng. Moreover, the elite's shared participation in calligraphic rituals proclaimed its cohesion to the nation, however false this unity sometimes may have been.

Officials of the People's Republic lack permanent individual assets beyond those controlled by bureaucratic office. The former literati were landlords with property to fall back upon when their political careers went awry. (25) Communist officials are more vulnerable to political pressure and even more dependent upon personal ties than their mandarin predecessors. They seek the protection of senior officials, who in turn bind themselves into a web of social relationships with their colleagues and superiors. China's calligraphic rituals are well suited to serving as markers for such a system of tenuous authority, indicating subtly the progression of power and sending signals of its demise.

Calligraphy's traditional role as an escape from power atrophied. Only Mao could play at escape; but he did it in a peculiarly public way, broadcasting his subtle calligraphic resistance to the nation. For others, the only escape was to put down the brush altogether. When Liu Maobi was in elementary school in Chengdu in 1958, her father was labeled a rightist. (26) Liu learned about this humiliation during a public announcement at school. Her classmates sent her to see a big-character poster denouncing her father, an intellectual who was serious about calligraphy. The poster caricatured Mr. Liu attacking the Communist Party with his writing brush. In 1961, when Liu Maobi's fifth-grade class began to learn to write with the brush, she refused to take part, although she had already studied calligraphy with a tutor at home. This determined child refused to take up the brush at all when she discovered that calligraphy no longer offered any opportunity of escape from politics.

Sophisticated Chinese observers have long maintained that culture is both an important source of power and a signal of' its metamorphoses; this insight remains appropriate for the People's Republic. The elegance of calligraphy is a central part, if not the irreducible core, of China's high-art tradition. Despite the revolutionary destruction of the imperial social order, the mystique of calligraphy endures in China today. Calligraphy's fate as an elite art cannot be disentangled from shifting social practices as the Chinese people invent new ways of being Chinese and develop new methods by which art is endowed with political meaning. China, like any other nation, renews those parts of its tradition that powerful groups find most useful and discards those that have lost their social basis.


23. Lothar Ledderose, Mi Fu and the Classical Tradition of Chinese Calligraphy , (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), 33.
24. Charles Drage, Two-Gun Cohen (1954), quoted in Hugh Baker, "Memories of a Great Revolutionary," South China Morn ing Post (February 9, 1979).
25. I compare Communist officials to their mandarin precursors in "The Chinese State and Its Bureaucrats," in State and Society in Contemporary China , ed. Victor Nee and David Mozingo (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983), 132-47.
26. I have changed the name and city of Liu Maobi, who told me this story in 1990.

Richard Curt Kraus, Brushes with Power: Modern Politics and the Chinese Art of Calligraphy
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991). © 1991 The Regents of the University of California. All Rights Reserved.

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