Social and Cultural Implications of Chinese Calligraphy in Public Venues in Hong Kong

Project: Research project

Project Details


Although there has been richly multi-faceted development of Chinese calligraphy in public venues in Hong Kong, little research has been conducted that yields a thorough and satisfying understanding of this subject. Only exhibition catalogues and chronicles pertaining to calligraphic activities, or scattered discussions of individual calligraphers’ biographies and personal styles have been produced. These previous works have essentially treated calligraphy as a form of high or fine art, produced and appreciated by only a small community of literati. As a result, it has been generally assumed that calligraphic art is of little importance, save for a restricted circle of specialists. In view of this neglect of a significant traditional art, the proposed research project will carefully select various works of publicly displayed calligraphy, and investigate how these works have been transformed from a literati-oriented, elitist form of art with a restricted audience into a more accessible form of visual culture that reaches wider audiences, acts as an appealing type of decoration, and forms an integral part of Hong Kong’s public venues. Hence, the proposed study will treat Chinese calligraphy as a rejuvenated form of public art in the modern world, which intriguingly constructs social and cultural discourses in wider communities.

Unlike my last GRF project, in which I studied calligraphy in traditional materials and formats (such ink on paper or silk and portable hanging scrolls), and the meanings given to these works within limited literati circles, in this proposed project I will examine the broader social and cultural implications of 60 calligraphic works that are embedded in public venues around Hong Kong. This specific type of calligraphy exists as engraved couplets and tablets, for example, as signs highlighting the cultural, historical or religious significance of ancestral shrines, schools, charity organisations, public parks, historic sites, temples or Christian churches. Other examples of calligraphic art serve to express vernacular culture in various public venues for daily activities such as shops, restaurants or MTR train stations. The calligraphic works under examination will be public art, instead of the products on private display in artists’ studios that were examined in my previous GRF project. In the calligraphy to be examined in the new project, matters of aesthetic choice are obviously intermingled with consideration for the various functions of public venues and for the social, cultural and historical contexts involved. The proposed study will therefore shed light on important aspects of the social and cultural developments that are reflected in these calligraphic works with their specialised formats.

In the proposed project, the PI will draw on eclectic adaptations of Craig Clunas’s approach to the social history of art, and on Cary Liu’s effective methods for analysing the symbology of buildings. These approaches will be combined in an integrated methodology for examining and interpreting the relationships and the synergistic effects between 1) the intrinsic elements of calligraphy (i.e., the relationships between the literary contents and the aesthetic or stylistic choices), 2) the architectural symbology (i.e., the interpretation of the systems of symbols used, including the integral elements of calligraphy, decoration, name, numerology, geomancy, ritual layout and design models) and 3) the social and cultural contexts involved in the production of the calligraphic works under examination.

Calligraphic works embedded in the public venues of Hong Kong will be analysed, compared and interpreted with reference to the PI’s newly developed methodological framework. This framework will be applied to examine five major elements of calligraphic expression, namely 1) indigenous village clan culture, 2) charitable and civic culture, 3) revolutionary culture, 4) pluralistically religious culture and 5) vernacular culture.

The proposed project will take 24 months. Field trips to various sites will be taken to conduct on-site investigations of the physical conditions of the calligraphic works. Textual and pictorial research materials will be collected, analysed, interpreted and used to form pertinent archives. A series of academic papers for presentation at conferences will be written, and a book manuscript will be written for publication. As there are no ready-made or systematic collections of research materials pertaining to this project, the collection of the relevant materials will require the assistance of a research assistant for twelve months.
Effective start/end date1/01/1830/06/20

UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This project contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 11 - Sustainable Cities and Communities


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