Friday, Mar 24, 2017, 12:17 PM CST – China

Politics

Calligraphers Association

Graphical Graft

Controversies surrounding one of China’s largest artist associations, the China Calligraphers Association, have sparked calls for its disbandment

A local calligraphers association in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, holds a “ground calligraphy” demonstration to celebrate the second nniversary of its founding, December 8, 2012 Photo by CFP

The election of the chairperson, vice chairs and the council of the China Calligraphers Association (CCA), an event which rarely elicits much public interest, recently unleashed a nationwide storm of questioning, criticism and mockery.

On December 7, 2015, the Seventh National Congress of the CCA was held in Beijing, with its main aim being the election of a new chairperson. 14 vice chairs and 195 council members were also up for election.

However, a couple of weeks before the poll, a list of candidates for the positions of chairperson and vice chairs was already circulating among prominent collectors of contemporary Chinese calligraphy, who immediately began buying up the works of every name on the list. The election results vindicated their shopping spree. All those listed were duly elected, and the prices of their works immediately doubled.

Although similar lists were said to have circulated for some time, this one seemed to finally light the fuse on a powder keg of discontent and complaints. A number of CCA members and calligraphers such as Zeng Xiang, Qi Jiannan, Wang Haiquan and Feng Zhengming implied they would quit the association, shaking public faith in the credibility of this self-described “people’s professional non-government organization” made up of China’s foremost calligraphers. Along with this scandal, more allegations of corruption within the association have bubbled to the surface, including fraud, membership trading and the use of calligraphy to bribe government officials.

Two Photos

As alleged evidence of the CCA’s chaotic situation, two photos that have emerged online have been circulated widely.

One is the ballot for the CCA leadership election, upon which electors can apparently only choose to abstain or vote against candidates. Any ballot that doesn’t include a vote against a candidate, therefore, becomes an automatic vote in favor of those listed. A mid-level cadre representing the CCA confirmed the authenticity of this image to NewsChina. “The result has actually been fixed before the vote,” he told our reporter.

The controversy surrounding the latest CCA election process has dogged the fledgling premiership of new chairman Su Shishu. “Su is very senior in the CCA. But his calligraphy is not so convincing,” a source within the CCA, who preferred to remain anonymous, told NewsChina.

Su was born in Beijing in 1949, and studied under famous calligraphers Liu Boqin and Qi Gong. He formerly served as president of the Cultural Relics Publishing House under China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage, as well as vice chairman of the CCA and the head of its Seal Cutting Committee. Our anonymous CCA source told NewsChina that Su’s skills as an engraver were “excellent,” but that his calligraphy was more lackluster.

A second image, the authenticity of which was also confirmed by our CCA source, is a work by Su Shishu. Completed in 2007, the work quotes a household phrase from The I Ching. However, Su’s complementary commentary, also visible in the image, mistakenly attributes the phrase to the Zhuangzi, a Taoist classic by philosopher Chuang Tzu. Su’s questionable “knowledge” of ancient Chinese culture, as well as his skills as a calligrapher, has made him the target of mockery on the Internet.

Moreover, Su’s ability to lead the CCA has also been called into question. In the view of many of his opponents, Su is seen as a “good guy,” but not a capable one.

“[Su] is not able to lead reform of the CCA,” another anonymous source from the CCA told NewsChina. According to the same source, Su has not appeared at work once since being elected on December 7, 2015. “He’s just an image and a symbol. He participated in no real work,” the source added.

Serving on the general council of the CCA is also lucrative for those elected. Not only will the market price of a council member’s work rise sharply upon election, the position typically comes with nominations to the presidencies of lower-level calligraphy associations around the country, giving council members further opportunities to enrich themselves. During the latest election process, a government official and part time calligrapher also got his name on the candidate list for council members. Only a boycott by other CCA members, who called his artistic credentials into question, drove him off the ballot.

Price

The CCA was not always dogged by scandal. Its founding in 1981 was hailed as an inspiration to not only calligraphers in China but all admirers of traditional Chinese arts. For a long time after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, calligraphy, other than that penned by Communist leaders on revolutionary topics, was seen as a feudal art form to be squashed. The first major summit of classical calligraphers on the Chinese mainland, the “Chinese Calligraphy Congress,” was held in 1978, the year the Communist Party launched its policy of Reform and Opening-up.

However, given the social and political resources commanded by “people’s organizations” in China, the potential and influence of the CCA were soon realized by those in the calligraphy industry. Membership could automatically bestow both fame and wealth. For some calligraphers with political interests, it could also facilitate bribery.

One famous example of a government official exchanging calligraphy for favors occurred in the late 1990s. After becoming a CCA member and then getting elected to its council, former deputy governor of Jiangxi Province Hu Changqing started selling his calligraphy. Average prices for his works usually fell within the range of 3,000 to 6,000 yuan (US$361-722 at the time). However, one piece was recorded as selling for 90,000 yuan (US$10,800). Hu was later arrested for corruption, and ultimately found guilty of taking bribes worth some 5.5 million yuan (US$663,000). He went on to become the first deputy provincial governor to be executed for corruption since 1949.

Another famous case involved Chen Shaoji, former chairman of Guangdong’s People’s Political Consultative Committee, who spent 10 million yuan (US$1.33m then) to be nominated as chairman of Guangdong’s provincial calligraphy association. Chen was arrested for corruption in 2009, and was sentenced to death with reprieve.

Becoming a CCA member does not, according to insiders, come cheap. According to one source, potential candidates need recommendations from two current members, two published theoretical essays on calligraphy and two “awards of excellence” in national-level calligraphy competitions. Still, certain relationships are often needed to secure a nomination. The same source told NewsChina that a 20-something “calligrapher” from northeast China recently became a CCA member. “I asked him what relationships he used and how much he spent, and he told me he spent 60,000 yuan (US$9,500),” the source told our reporter.

When the CCA was first founded, it was run by a single secretariat. Yet rapid expansion has seen the organization outgrow its administrative departments, with a current total of eight professional committees covering different schools of calligraphy, and nine work committees in charge of education, publishing and business development. Each committee has its own director, secretary-general and membership of around 40 people. A mid-level cadre in the CCA told NewsChina that the level of efficiency in terms of coordination between these multiple departments and committees was very low. “The benefit is that there are more posts for more people,” he said.

The CCA’s membership has also increased sharply. “The CCA currently has about 12,000 members,” said one insider. The result has been that the supply of members’ works has outstripped market demand. “Now, except for those of the leadership, it’s difficult for members’ works to sell at a good price,” the same source told our reporter.

Discontent towards the CCA has been mounting in past years, with voices among China’s online commentariat frequently calling for its disbandment. Even some CCA members admit that the association can no longer represent the pinnacle of Chinese calligraphy – many outstanding calligraphers have declined to join, or have never been nominated.

But still, some are optimistic about the organization’s future. A mid-level cadre told NewsChina that the CCA is trying to reform. He held up the skills test required for membership as an example of this. In the past, candidates didn’t have to be present for the examination, a peculiarity that led to cheating. Now, since the presence of candidate calligraphers is required, “many give up,” the source said.

“The pursuit of art is something that comes from deep in one’s heart,” the anonymous cadre continued. “No matter if it’s in the CCA or in the wider world of calligraphy, opportunists are always in the minority.”

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