Calligraphy as an important metaphor for Chinese learners?

A few days ago, I published a post on the relationship between Chinese artists and the importance of engaging friends in reflecting on one’s work.  Specifically, I looked at how the Chinese artists at the Boston Museum of Fine Art’s Fresh Ink exhibit included writing on their works from friends who provided constructive criticism of the work.  As I continued to read through Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time In China, I noticed that calligraphy itself holds a special importance to the Chinese people in a way that westerners might not grasp.  Two excerpts in Oracle Bones particularly struck me as interesting:

1. Liang Sicheng states,  “My experience was that local people were not interested in architecture.  When I told them I was interested in antiquities they would guide me to their stone stelae inscribed in earlier times.  They were interested in calligraphy…, impressed by the written word, not the carpenter’s handiwork (p185).”

2. “In Fuling, my students had recognized some beauty in the written word that wasn’t apparent to a Westerner like me.  And in Beijing,  I sensed that I saw something in the old city that wasn’t obvious to most locals.  Ever since childhood, like any Westerner, I had learned that the past was embodied in ancient buildings – pyramids, palaces, coliseums, cathedrals. Ionic, Doric, Gothic, Baroque – words I could recall from junior-high lessons.  To me, that was antiquity, but the Chinese seemed to find their past elsewhere (p185).”

If calligraphy, the written word, does truly represent beauty and the past in Chinese society, what effect does a history of appreciation for writing, instead of architecture, have on the intellectual development of a society? What effect does the historic respect for the written word have on the modern Chinese education system? Do students just tend to write neater or is there a deeper connection to the importance of art, diligence towards detail, and a respect for practice and repetition to improve skills?

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