Bad Chinese handwriting or just another style?

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Lisa Chang took this photo of two paintings at an antique store in 2015 (the store was either in Maryland or Pennsylvania):

Lisa Chang writes:

The paintings stood out to me because the Chinese characters on them were so outstandingly bad. Now, I'm no Chinese expert, but I have taken 4 semesters of it, so I have some understanding of how the characters are formed and what they should look like. Is there a famous artist with bad handwriting who I know nothing about, or are these paintings a really bad rip-off at $350?

My honest reaction:

The characters are so deformed and distorted that many of them are wholly or nearly unreadable.  Still, I think the artist has a style, but it is totally idiosyncratic.  He is not following any school or tradition.  Many calligraphers who are famous for their cursive or even "crazy" styles write in a way that is largely illegible for many viewers, but still they adhere to certain principles of character construction and brushwork.  This artist throws all caution to the wind and intentionally makes his / her characters misshapen in an inconsistent way.  I view this work the way I do Fauvism (the precepts of les Fauves ["wild beasts"]) in modern art.

I also asked several colleagues to assess the writing beneath the paintings.  Here are their views.

A professor of the history of Chinese calligraphy:

You raise a very important question: how do we tell the difference between inspired invention or improvisation and plain old incompetent calligraphy.  My own view is that no matter how wild or inventive calligraphy may be, characters in good writing retain a sense of structure, and internal architecture and visual coherence, achieved through the composition and brushwork, or at least by one of the two.  The writing you sent has none of these qualities, and I'd say it's just pretty awful.  But whenever I issue such an opinion, I try to keep in mind one of my favorite jokes:

A man claimed to be an atheist, but he consistently took his family to religious services.  Finally, a friend asked, "Why do you do this?  You don't believe in God."

The man said, "I've been wrong before."

And so have I.  But this time, I'm pretty sure: the writing is bad.

From a graduate student in Chinese literature and esthetics who practices calligraphy assiduously at least an hour a day:

This is not classical calligraphy but modern art, as can be seen from the note on bottom left on the material the artist employed, and therefore can't be approached in the same manner.

I unfortunately am unable to appreciate modern art most times.

From a historian of Chinese calligraphy and art:

I believe the artist attempted to imitate the antique scripts carved on pre-Qin bronzes (usually called jīn wén 金文). His calligraphic lines, with sharp ends, are similar to those carved by knives. In addition, the painting subject is precisely an ancient bronze vase with incised scripts. It is reasonable for the artist to follow the similar calligraphic style to write his colophon.

For a few earlier posts on bad handwriting, see:

[Thanks to Robert Harrist, Leqi Yu, Xiuyuan Mi, and Bai Qianshen]


  1. David Ayer said,

    October 3, 2017 @ 1:04 am

    The characters are clearly just copied by a know-nothing – have seen many such bastardizations on regrettable tattoos as well as posters and ads that cluelessly appropriate pictogrammic letters

  2. Rodger C said,

    October 3, 2017 @ 7:05 am

    I think this goes with the territory of calling a distinctly Chinese object "Oriental."

  3. Anthony said,

    October 4, 2017 @ 6:03 am

    Here is my attempt at transcribing the contents of the bottom panel. I have read the panel from Right to left. I preserve the line breaks in the original. I enclose uncertain readings in square brackets. Empty square brackets [ ] indicate illegible characters.

    人[爲] [ ] [ ] [三]
    [ ] [ ] [々]
    [ ]
    水[菊] [竹]
    [ ]真[乙]

    Perhaps the artist had attempted to transcribe the inscription on the vase? Unfortunately,the only inscriptions the artist depicted on the vase are squiggles, so we can't tell for sure. A cynical part of me thinks the inscription has nothing to do with the vase at all.
    The seal stamped on the painting seems more legible than the calligraphy below. Perhaps a reader with sharper eyes might be able to read it?

  4. Fluxor said,

    October 6, 2017 @ 12:19 pm

    The lower left of the painting beside the red seal is typically where a rough date of the painting is written. In this particular case, it feels like to me it reads “辛丑年”, which indicates the year from early 1961+60x to 1961+60x, where n is an integer.

  5. Fluxor said,

    October 6, 2017 @ 12:19 pm

    …where x is an integer (not n).

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