Hsu Yung-Chin’s Contemporary Calligraphy
by Zheng Fang-He, Art Critic/ Writer

In The Location of Culture the post-colonial critic Homi Bhabha wrote: 

The 'beyond' is neither a new horizon, nor a leaving behind of the past.... Beginnings and endings may be the sustaining myths of the middle years; but in the fin de siècle, we find ourselves in the moment of transit where space and time cross to produce complex figures of difference and identity, past and present, inside and outside, inclusion and exclusion. For there is a sense of disorientation, a disturbance of direction, in the 'beyond': an exploratory, restless movement caught so well in the French rendition of the words au-delà - here and there, on all sides, fort/da, hither and thither, back and forth.”

Hsu Yung-Chin’s work embraces Bhabha’s perspective that a contemporary artist need not entirely abandon traditional forms, such as calligraphy, in order to express a modern sensibility. Instead, the contemporary artist explores and explodes into many different directions in a way that celebrates both the culture’s past and present identity. It is through the exploration of the various dimensions of their culture that a contemporary artist finds their own voice.

Taiwanese calligraphy is inextricably linked to traditional Chinese culture. However, when looking at Taiwanese calligraphy, you must also consider the nation’s history. Taiwan is a country that has consistently found itself marginalized by more powerful countries.  This was true when it was a colony of Holland, and then a colony of Japan, and it is true today in its political struggle with China, which has caused Taiwan to become a taboo subject on the international stage. What’s more, America’s dominance of the world’s political, economic, and cultural spheres have all had an effect on Taiwan’s development. All of these factors have contributed in making Taiwanese culture not only remarkably hybrid, but also a culture that struggles to find its own identity. 

It begs the question: How can a hybrid nation such as Taiwan, surrounded and marginalized by the world’s two great powers, forge an identity of its own?  Bhabha notes that a nation like Taiwan must create a “third space” for itself as a “precondition for the articulation of cultural meaning”.  This third space is a space that is critical of notions of cultural essentialism and promotes the proactive creation of culture. It is by creating a third space that Taiwanese calligraphy has and will continue to grow. 

The emergence of a new style of calligraphy in Taiwan is in line with what Edward W. Said calls, “reconstruction”. It is a way to counteract the impact of colonialism on present day Taiwan.  In this process of reconstruction we can use the concepts of “replacing language” and “replacing text” found in the book The Empire Writes Back by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. Even though these concepts were originally meant for literature, they can be applied to calligraphy. We can replace language by encouraging local calligraphers to have their own voice in defining their own calligraphic culture. This allows artists to reject the oppressive influence of colonialism and demonstrate the local cultural experience.   We can replace the text by going beyond traditional content and writing styles. 

The Pioneers(2000)
Hsu Yung Chin
Hsu Yung Chin’s Bitter Passage to Taiwan (1993) is based on the poem of the same name by a Hakka poet of the Qing Dynasty.  Hsu’s work focuses on the following lines:

Do not go to Taiwan
Taiwan is like the gates of hell,
Thousands of people go,
But no one returns,
Alive or dead, nobody knows

At the time the poem was written, crossing the Taiwan Strait was very dangerous. Countless people died and it was impossible to notify anyone about the fate of those who tried to cross. In Bitter Passage to Taiwan, Hsu Yung Chin tries to capture the chaos, anguish and terror involved in such a perilous journey. To emphasize these feelings, the paper on which the poem is written is torn in strips revealing a red cloth below.  This gives the impression of the poem being stained by long bloody tears. Taiwan’s larger or more established ethnic groups often marginalized the Hakka immigrants that did survive the perilous voyage. So in order to persevere in a new land, Hakka people repressed their identity and mixed with the other cultures present within Taiwan.  However, a fundamental shift occurs after the KMT declares martial law in 1949 and tries to suppress the Hakka language. After this, a Hakka rights movement is born and the reclamation of a Hakka identity begins. 

In The Pioneers(2000), Hsu contrasts Su Tung Po’s traditional poem, Ode to the Red Cliff, with the previously mentioned Bitter Passage to Taiwan. Su’s poem is written in a small cursive style and forms the background of the piece. It is overshadowed by the large bold strokes that make up selected pieces from Bitter Passage to Taiwan. The characters for “No return”,  “Crying Tears”, “Chopped off head”,  and “Burned to Death” are all written in Hakka. The opposition created by the two poems highlights the antagonism between Hakka and traditional Chinese culture even while the larger size of the selections from Bitter Passage to Taiwan make Hakka culture the focus of the work. 

Doing1994, Hsu Yung-Chin
The experience of Hakka migrants echoes Bhabha’s ideas of marginalized people struggling to find identity within the third space.  Hsu uses his calligraphy to help discover and express a Hakka identity within a hegemonic Chinese culture. 

Hsu’s work also looks at Taiwanese culture as a whole. The piece Nomadic, Adventurous, Wild (1993) examines the hard work and struggles of Taiwanese pioneers. Specifically, the frontier spirit these pioneers embodied. In Doing (1994), Hsu uses a heavy black background and angular golden characters to examine the issue of corruption in modern Taiwanese politics. In Chinese, the term “black gold” refers to corruption. Hsu’s work Taiwan celebrates many of the wonderful aspects of living on the beautiful island.  The hospitality of Taiwanese people, the rich natural environment, the strength of social and familial bonds, and the island’s many opportunities for adventure are all represented within the text. The work Fierce, Wild, Astonishing, Explosive, Hot, Cool (2000) represents the spirit that is evident throughout Taiwanese society.  

Hsu helps define the unique boundaries of Taiwan’s historical and cultural experience. His work helps show the differences between Taiwanese and traditional Chinese culture while contributing to Taiwan’s goal of creating an internationally recognized identity. 

Furthermore, through his calligraphy, Hsu explores a Taiwanese identity that was transformed by colonization and the influence of traditional Chinese culture. Calligraphy’s deep connection with traditional Chinese culture often leaves both the art form and the artist alienated from modern society. In 21st century Taiwan, an artist that exclusively uses language and tropes from a past culture will struggle to legitimately express themselves and their culture. Hsu says, “We live on this land, drink the water here, breathe the air here, eat the rice that is grown here, live in houses built here, but our mind and spirit is far away from here. Our minds are still floating in the illusion of an ancient Chinese culture from thousands of years ago. I would feel sorry for myself, this land and this time if I created art as though I lived in an ancient illusion.” 

Taiwan, 台灣, 2004, Hsu Yung-Chin
Hsu is not only interested in social influences on Taiwanese culture, but also the environmental influences. The island’s unique geographic location, at the point where the Eurasian and Philippine tectonic plates collide, has meant its residents have faced many terrible natural disasters. Hsu’ work The Sky Shakes, The Earth Trembles was inspired by the devastating 9/21 earthquake. The powerful earthquake shook the whole island, changing mountains and rivers, and collapsing buildings across the country. However, this devastation also exposed the strong will and determination of Taiwan’s people. In The Great Flood, Hsu looks at the destruction caused by Typhoon Morakot. The overwhelming size and force of the typhoon caused widespread flooding and horrific mudslides that tragically swallowed entire villages. 

The Ocean Flipping Over commemorates the devastating tsunami that struck Japan on March 11th, 2011. The work is a powerful representation of the chaotic and boundless strength of not just the tsunami, but nature itself. All of the recent natural disasters occurring globally can be seen as nature’s counter attack against the irresponsibility of humanity. Through this work, and the disaster it records, people can contemplate their role in the recent natural disasters occurring around globe. Indeed, after the tsunami there was a large international outcry against nuclear power. 

Hsu is also interested in global warming and the future natural disasters that the Taiwanese might have to face. The characters in Floating take the shape of Taiwan, but Hsu’s deft use of dots in creating the two characters gives the impression of an island overrun by the ocean, with only the taller peaks rising above sea level.

Shock 911, 2001, Hsu Yung-Chin
Only by raising our consciousness can we save our children and the earth from environmental collapse. However, enlightenment is made all the more difficult when we are a facing a constant barrage of social and environmental problems.  Meditation is a reminder that we must calm our minds in order to have a spiritual awakening. The two works, The Economy Soars and The Country Flourishes, The People Live in Peace, were both made as prayers for the world’s people. Love in Light symbolizes an ark filled with love being bathed in a peaceful light.  

Positive works, such as those mentioned above, are necessary after the past century brought so much turmoil to not only Taiwan, but to people all across the globe. The world’s people have been affected by not only environmental disasters, but also by religious and racial conflict, as well as economic uncertainty.  Perhaps nothing underscores this new era of global instability as much as the disbelief felt after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. In Shock 911 Hsu’s heavy use of red and black, coupled with his wild cursive style, captures not only the moment when the planes slammed into the buildings, but also the emotional rending felt by billions of people as these images were broadcast around the world. 

With Black Turning Red, Hsu looks at the effects that international economic interconnectivity have on smaller markets like Taiwan. Specifically, how the American and Chinese markets have a greater impact on Taiwan than ever before.  The expression “black turning red” refers to a bad situation becoming a good situation. The work’s bold golden spiral, cutting through both the black and red, is an expression of hope that Taiwan will emerge from economic troubles as a prosperous nation.  

Life Code, 2007, Hsu Yung-Chin
Hsu is not only concerned with political and economic issues, he is also heavily drawn to Taiwan’s natural beauty. Sacred Bird Mountain is one of many celebrations of this beauty. The three characters that constitute the mountain’s name are piled onto one another to form the shape of a mountain. Dense black strokes are contrasted with softer grey strokes to give the feeling of the fog that sometimes surrounds the mountain. Throughout the work tiny monks can be found relaxing and having discussions about Zen.  

Hsu also looks at aspects of popular culture in Taiwan. Life Code celebrates a unique piece of Taiwanese slang. The characters for “good” and “cock” are beautifully written in an old script that Hsu augments for the purpose of the piece.  The character for “cock” is “diu”, a Cantonese word recently adopted by Taiwanese youth that, when said with “good”, roughly translates to “amazing”. The acrylic work Blessing gets its name from a pop song of the same name. In the center of the work the word “blessing” is repeated many times over a black background. On the left and right side, the following part of the Diamond Sutra is written in glue and then painted over in orange: “If all forms are recognized as illusion, the Tagthagata will be perceived.” The work contrasts the seemingly opposed religious ideas that life is an illusion and yet we pray for blessings. 

Comfort Woman, 2001
Hsu was recently asked to write the title for the movie Monga. The film examines a bloody and dramatic era in Taipei’s history when gangsterism was rampant. The characters in the title embody not only blood and violence, but also the youthful quest for meaning. Another part of Taiwanese history that Hsu has examined is the Japanese treatment of the Taiwanese during the Second World War. The Japanese army hired young Taiwanese women as domestic workers and then forced them into sexual slavery. In Comfort Women each character used in writing the words “Comfort Woman” resembles a woman’s naked body. Hsu’s use of gentle flowing lines gives the bodies a feeling of youth and virginity. The work is a way of both remembering a painful part of Taiwanese history and of commemorating the pain suffered by these young women. 

How can calligraphy be combined with theater and multimedia art? How can calligraphy give a timeless recounting of Taiwan’s history? Hsu’s latest multimedia work, Taiwan Dreams: A Fusion of Calligraphy, Music, and Motion offers answers to these questions. It contains sixteen different works separated into three chapters: The Bitter Passage to Taiwan, Rebirth from Disaster, and Love and Bless. Taiwan Dreams combines Hsu’s calligraphy with drumming and visual effects to create an overwhelming sense of emotion and momentum while telling the story of Taiwan’s history. It is a clear demonstration of how contemporary calligraphy can be used to record Taiwan’s history in a way that reflects our time.

 title for the movie Monga, 2009
Taiwanese calligraphy may have originated in ancient China, but Taiwan’s history as a colony and the influence of a globally connected world, have made both Taiwan and its calligraphy into a hybrid.  Taiwanese calligraphers face cultural imperialism by the world’s dominant cultures, a situation which resonates with many of Bhabha’s ideas.  The influence of Japan, China and the West have allowed Taiwan to develop a new and heterogeneous type of calligraphy. It is defined by the core boundaries of traditional Chinese calligraphy, yet exists at the edge of this boundary, manufactured by its hybridity and its differences from the center from which it came.  In this way, Taiwanese calligraphy escapes the hegemony of traditional Chinese calligraphy, resets the expectations that govern all calligraphy, and helps create a new cultural aesthetic within Taiwan.

All of these ideas are what drive Hsu. He creates beyond the restraints of a single art form or culture in order to examine both the spirit of Taiwan and humanity as a whole.   

Love and Light, 2011, Hsu Yung Chin

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