Tuesday, 12 August 2008

A blast from the past: The Democracy Wall

Rhetorical question aimed at nobody in particular: How do I write about modern calligraphy without mentioning the Democracy Wall of 1979?

The phenomenon of the 1979 Democracy Wall in Beijing now seems surreal, considering the vast social and economic changes that have taken place in China since then. But there, for a brief period, citizens gathered to read and comment upon layers of large posters painted in bold ink on all kinds of scrap and newspaper, each poster calling for civic and political reform. Within a short time Deng Xiaoping, consolidating his power as the eventual successor to Mao Zedong, suppressed the movement and the wall was moved to a distant suburb.

The short-lived Democracy Wall was the last prominent use of calligraphy as a vehicle for personal expression in the public forum, concluding a long tradition of intellectuals expressing their concerns to the seat of power in their own hand. Calligraphy—the manner of writing itself—was an essential aspect of literacy. It served as a means of displaying sincerity and erudition, with its practitioners drawing from a widely-circulated canon of masterpieces dating back as far as 1,500 years.

Unfortunately I just can't see the good people at the China Tourism and Travel Press considering that to be a healthy topic for conversation in my guidebook. I can picture the explanations now: "There was no Democracy Wall" "The Democracy Wall was not harmonious" "They were misguided people who thought democracy was superior the the Chinese system"

And with the Olympics, a still-roaring economy, and government satisfaction at heady heights, they may even be close to the truth.

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