Calligraphy as a "first level discipline" in the PRC

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I am making this post because I think it is something that we should be aware of and try to understand in terms of the motivations of the Chinese government in enacting and carrying out these policies.

"First-level discipline a new starting line of calligraphy", China Daily (9/28/22)

The Chinese term for "first level discipline" is "yī jí xuékē 一级学科".  Here's a recent list of the first level disciplines in the Chinese educational system.  You will note that the disciplines are arranged from sciences at the top (with math at the very top), then moving down through history, engineering, agriculture, medicine, military science, management, philosophy, economics, law, educational science, literature, and art.  Calligraphy (shūfǎ 書法) was not included on this list of first level disciplines, which accords with the great commotion its addition to the list is currently causing.

The following are some pertinent excerpts from the China Daily article:

Calligraphy has been recognized as one of the 114 first-level disciplines in the country according to the latest discipline catalog released by the Education Ministry. The great attention that has grabbed from the public shows how surprised some people feel about its inclusion on the list.

Calligraphy is an important element of Chinese traditional culture and a unique artistic treasure in China. The starting point of the decision of the ministry is, of course, to promote the prosperity of calligraphy art.

It should be noted that calligraphy becoming a first-level discipline means that it can be studied for a doctorate, and that is the result of the efforts of various colleges and universities.

The article notes some reservations from sectors of the public concerning the elevation of calligraphy in the Chinese educational system (e.g., one can be an excellent calligrapher without undertaking specialized study of it as an academic discipline; it will increase the workload of primary and secondary students; there's not much of a job market for professional calligraphers [!]), then concludes:

In practice, relevant colleges and universities should prudently design the courses for the new first-level discipline so that the reform can be conducive to the development of the art form without being led astray. They should focus on improving the quality of the calligraphy education and research instead of simply expanding the scale.

Can we imagine such policies being enacted by contemporary Western educational authorities?


Selected readings

[h.t. James Fanell]


  1. AntC said,

    September 28, 2022 @ 5:16 pm

    Mao was a great calligrapher. Have any more recent leaders been noted for such abilities?

    From sundry posts here, it would seem Xi struggles to pronounce the literary allusions sprinkled into his speeches. Then are these 'disciplines' more a case of 'do what I say' rather than 'do what I do'?

    The PRC education syllabus seems already crammed with disciplines. Or perhaps I mean crammed with learning Party dogma — which is not a discipline? Famously, learning calligraphy is hugely time-consuming. How are kids going to cope with the workload?

  2. John From Cincinnati said,

    September 28, 2022 @ 5:22 pm

    Can we imagine such policies being enacted by contemporary Western educational authorities?

    Indeed. An article in The Atlantic, October 22 issue, is titled "Gen Z Never Learned To Read Cursive, How Will They Interpret the Past?"
    by Drew Gilpin Faust, who is a former president of Harvard University. It is not behind a paywall. The link is here.

    In an undergraduate seminar that the author was teaching, about two-thirds of the class couldn't read cursive, and more of them couldn't even write it. A student had told the class that a book he was referencing includes photographs of civil war manuscripts, which weren't very helpful to him because of course he couldn't read cursive.

    Then comes an eye-opener I had not been aware of. The author reports that in 2010, cursive was omitted from the new national Common Core standards for K–12 education. Lessons in "keyboarding" assumed an ever more prominent place in the classroom. Personally, I use the cursive that I was taught in elementary school (USA) when I send handwritten letters and post cards, and so do my correspondents who write back to me. They all have different handwriting, but I usually have no difficulty reading any of it.

    There's also a reference to something called Elizabethan Secretary Hand. I had to look that up. Evidently, "Secretary hand" is the name for the dominant form of handwriting used by writers of the English language from the late 15th through the mid-17th century. This particular style was known as secretary hand because much of the work of writing was done by professional copyists, known variously as secretaries, clerks, scriveners or scribes. And you know what? I am unable to read most of it.

  3. Mike Grubb said,

    September 29, 2022 @ 9:47 am

    I recall, in my elementary school in south-central Pennsylvania decades ago, being graded on the category of "Handwriting". Presumably, handwriting experts with advanced degrees created rubrics for primary school teachers to use to assess… Okay, no, I can't imagine it in a Western context.

  4. Paul Garrett said,

    September 29, 2022 @ 5:18 pm

    In Indiana in the late 1950s, "handwriting" received a grade. We did practice with suitably lined paper, imitating models posted above the blackboards all around the room. :)

    No one seemed to be able to succeed. I certainly did not. My own handwriting was terrible until I was 15, when I broke my dominant forearm, and had to learn to write with my "other" hand for several months. It must have stimulated something in my brain… :)

  5. Rodger C said,

    September 29, 2022 @ 8:45 pm

    I had to read a bunch of secretary hand once. A form of it survived in Germany into the 20th century, and I was semi-familiar with that, otherwise I'd have been up the creek.

    AS for the school handwriting classes of previous decades, I was always terrible at it. In my first semester of grad school I taught myself chancery hand, which appealed to me for its crispness and its obvious origins in printing, and I still use it on the increasingly rare occasions when I use cursive at all.

  6. Bloix said,

    September 29, 2022 @ 10:38 pm

    John from Cincinnati-
    Historians and genealogists have to study to be able to read early modern and older handwriting, see e.g.-

  7. maidhc said,

    September 30, 2022 @ 2:46 am

    Because I attended primary school in two different countries, I missed those classes that were supposed to teach cursive writing. In those days, the usual teaching approach when a pupil obviously didn't know how to do something was to ignore it, rather than showing them how to do it. So I tried to teach myself from those writing samples posted above the blackboard, with very little success.

    Fortunately, I later went to a school that taught italic script, so I said farewell to cursive forever and never looked back. I can read it though.

    My wife knows prewar German cursive, because she used to correspond in German with a sort of surrogate grandmother who wrote that way. I wonder how many modern German people can read it?

  8. Rodger C said,

    September 30, 2022 @ 10:45 am

    Is "Italic script" not a form of "cursive"? I always think of what most people call "cursive" as a degenerate/pointlessly elaborated form of Italic hand.

  9. Kristian said,

    September 30, 2022 @ 11:33 am

    I learned some form of American cursive in elementary school in the 1990's in California, and we were graded on our penmenship for a few years at least. Having looked up these systems, I see it was apparently the D'Nealian system. I have never liked it, for instance the way the capital A is formed like a big lower case a and the capital M and N are rounded at the top. Italic handwriting is much more attractive.

    There does seem to be some ambiguity about what people mean when they talk about "cursive". Some people seem to mean some specific kind of system and some people seem to mean any handwriting with connected letters.

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