Dishu: Ground Calligraphy in China

Extracts from the book Dishu: Ground Calligraphy in China, Dokument Press, 320 pages, 2013 • ISBN 978-91-85639-59-5

Extracts from the book Dishu: Ground Calligraphy in China, Dokument Press, 320 pages, 2013 • ISBN 978-91-85639-59-5


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Ground Calligraphy

in China


Dishu: Ground Calligraphy in China


François Chastanet




Ground Calligraphy

in China

— www.dokument.org

85639-59-5 ;


Box 773,

120 02 阿


Dokument Press 出


isbn 978-91-


Fälth & Hässler,


240 克





Print White 90 克



Legato 粗

- 86 ;


Legato 常

Pro 中

持 相

與 片

鼓 處

Astrain, 理

。 。

Jérémie Baboukhian 和

Michèle Wang 的

Perrine Saint Martin,

Pablo García

Sjöwall Trodden 和

Jean Dalens,

Per Englund,



François Chastanet,

— www.atari-ka.org




— www.institutfrancais.com


Photographs, texts, editing and design

François Chastanet. Chinese translation and

consulting Yuan Yuan. English proofreading

Katarina Sjöwall Trodden and Jean Dalens.

Photo retouching Per Englund. This book

has benefited from the constant support

and encouragement of Perrine Saint Martin,

Pablo García Astrain, Jérémie Baboukhian

and Michèle Wang.

Texts are set in Legato Regular and

LiHei Pro Medium, titles in Legato Bold

and Amber hdzb-86. First edition, 1500

copies printed on Munken Print White 90 g

and Invercote G 240 g by Elanders Fälth

& Hässler, Värnamo, Sweden.

«Dishu: Ground Calligraphy in China»

copyright 2013 Dokument Press isbn 978-

91-85639-59-5 Dokument Press, Box 773,

120 02 Årsta, Sweden — www.dokument.org

«Dishu: Ground Calligraphy in China»

is a laureate project of the «Hors Les Murs»

2011 international mobility program of

the Institut Français, the cultural office

of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs

— www.institutfrancais.com

This publication was supported by

Atari Cultura Arquitectónica, Donostia-San

Sebastían, Spain, an association promoting

urban and architectural knowledge

accessible to all — www.atari-ka.org


Preamble 9

Dishu: Ground Calligraphy in China 11

Recording Process 23


Ground 47

Streets 95

Parks 127

Socializing 175

Long texts 207

Learning 223

Portraits 239

Tools 277

Manual 313


reproduce Mao’s poetry for example) seems to constitute the unique (wise)

choice for the street calligraphers, the only mode of expression and possible

freedom lies in formal and stylistic experiments.

In a way, then, dishu participates in the implementation of the current

official watchwords «tradition» and «harmony». But it is difficult to evaluate

the real adherence of street calligraphers to these slogans. Some are maybe

conservatives that wish to work for the celebration of classic imperial Chinese

culture in the current nationalist impulse initiated by the government. But

more probably most practitioners simply prefer to avoid any problems with

the authorities and practice their craft calmly. Dishu is to be institutionalized

with local newspapers or government newspapers in English such as the

Global Times {11} reporting dishu competitions are another expression of

this process. For example, each year in Beijing a contest with hundreds of

participants in Taoranting park celebrates the city’s best dishu calligrapher

on an official podium, a ceremony with attractive female hostesses, and a

diploma. The atmosphere is nevertheless sympathetic and the participants

are genuine and the demonstrations qualitatively interesting, the event is

sincere. But in this unquiet context, it seems that serious calligraphers are

staying far from the crowd of park competitions to pursue their own calm

interior dialogue without having to show off at an event, a situation they

may perceive as contradictory to higher calligraphic practice.

The media-related appropriation is also already active: dishu was

used for the opening of the International Horticultural Exposition in Xi’an

during the summer off 2011 (the biggest fair and international event in China

that year), a large demonstration took place near a river with many street

calligraphers coming from different parts of China {12}. Water calligraphy

on the ground was promoted as an environmentally friendly practice in

a green development propaganda genre. Dishu aesthetics are ideal for

increasing public awareness about environmental issues, with water as

an ecological icon.

The Development of Writing Tools

In the early days of dishu at the beginning of the 1990s, the writing tools

were very basic, like a piece of sponge or even a rolled towel. The first street

brushes were made out of linen or wool rags, but also from wooden palm

fibers. These kinds of tools can still be seen today, especially in Shanghai

were «archaic» street brushes made of tissues or palm fibers still seem to

be popular. The making of the street brush seems to vary from one city to

another, but on the other hand, the same industrially made street brushes

can now be found everywhere in specialized art shops in Beijing, Xi’an or

Shanghai. The most commonly used model is referred to as the «baiyun»

brush, named after Bai Yunzhu, who has practiced dishu since 1999 in the

Taoranting park in South Beijing. He reformed the existing tools and was

the first to propose a piece of foam imitating the Chinese hair brushes

and a longer metal shaft, usually a light tube. This type of brushes were

handcrafted and hundreds of thousands of copies were made by later

generations of street calligraphers. You will sometimes see the use of a

simple plastic bottle, which has the double purpose of brush and water

container, on top of which is placed a similar foam nib. This tool seems

to be more popular (because it is smaller and easier to carry) and is primarily

used in Shangai. Some calligraphers specialize in outlining letter forms,

using the plastic bottle with a tiny hole in the cap as a precise spray can,

controlling the pressure on the bottle manually in order to obtain a shaky

thin line.

These different street brushes give much the same effect as a

traditional chinese brush with hairs, the movements are the same, but

the placement of the hand and fingers differs, mainly because of the force

needed to move the brush on a rough, coarse surface which provokes


stronger frictional resistance. The calligraphic rules and basic movements

seem to remain unchanged, since the contrast of the strokes is driven by

both pressure and the rotation of the brush. From the point of view of the

calligrapher and the ductus’ construction, there is no difference between

dishu or practice on paper.

Most practitioners raise the question of the lack of financial means

in the appearance of this writing training practice in public spaces. The

traditional practice of calligraphy on paper indeed quickly becomes very

expensive and requires a large working area, which is impossible to find for

most amateurs. The lack of space in apartments, the need for a large table

covered with felt, the high price tag on «xuan» paper and hair brushes seem

to have given birth to a do-it-yourself philosophy among the practitioners

of the Chinese art of writing. Detailed instructions for how to build a proper

street brush can easily be found on the Chinese web.

The street calligrapher clearly pays a lot of attention to the design of

his handcrafted writing tool: an oversized brush with a foam nib optimized

for the use in public spaces and able to simulate the strokes and effects of

a traditional Chinese brush with hairs. Some industrially made foam street

brushes have started to appear in the typical parks’ shops, but Chinese

calligraphers still prefer their own clever devices or small craftsmen’s

workshops that are able to offer special foam tips suitable for their chosen

calligraphic style. Some brushes used in ceremonies can be up to 1.5 m,

the average of the production being around 65 cm long. The body of the brush

itself can be made out of a fixed or telescopic stick or may be composed

of several screwable modules in order to be carried compactly in a small bag

or a jacket. All salvaged materials can be used, any everyday object can be

turned into a writing tool: the stick of the brush can be made from a bamboo

stick, a broom stick, a broken umbrella, pvc tubes used for plumbing, an

aluminum camera tripod, an antenna, telescopic trekking canes, and the

nib can be made from old foam mattresses or sofas, sponges, socks, linen,

wooden palm fibers, et cetera. The variation is endless. Manufactured

brushes have a better-looking overall shape, but the tips of the handcrafted

ones made by the calligraphers themselves are usually better. Each

practitioner chooses a specific tip, more or less wide, more or less smooth,

depending on the style they want to achieve from regular to cursive writings.

Some brushes have integrated water tanks in order to permit a longer

continuous use of the brush on the ground. Some models even come with

an adjustable flow of water in the nib, strong for cursive styles and lighter

for a regular script. These brushes are not liked by serious calligraphers,

as they are too heavy to control. Different techniques are used to create

a water «tank» in the street brush without affecting too much the overall

weight of the stick, which interferes with the mastering of strokes, trying

to avoid creating heavy points at the wrong place that provokes unbalance.

Usually small pet bottles are used, together with medical equipment such

as catheters and small tubes for controlling the flow, these elements are

integrated into the main handle of the brush.

The water is usually carried in the street and parks in anything from

big capacity plastic bottles with an enlarged aperture, to old metallic cans,

foldable buckets or even simply in doubled plastic bags that are hung on

fences or tree branches, et cetera. Some writers use plastic bottles with

a small hole in the cap, which regularly injects some liquid to dampen the

foam tip of the brush. Very rarely it is possible to see a calligrapher using

fine mud together with water to produce a slightly longer lasting inscription.

These handcrafted brushes with tapered sponges constitute an

impressive example of home-made writing tools, a perfect example that

echoes Victor Papanek’s Design for the real world {13} philosophy of objects

applied in the field of signage, i.e. designs with a social value made out of

cheap materials, possibly assembled by the users themselves. This easily









































square book

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Long texts





François Chastanet is an architect and graphic

designer working in Bordeaux, France. Teaches

graphic design and typography since 2002

in the Graphic Design department of the

École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Toulouse

/ isdat, and jointly from 2010 to 2012 in the

Design department of the École Supérieure

d’Art et de Design de Saint Étienne / esadse.

Writes on contemporary epigraphy, with a

special interest in the visual communication

of urban cultures. Published in 2007 a work of

reference entitled Pixação: São Paulo Signature,

a photographic survey in São Paulo, Brazil,

documenting the relation between urban

signature, body and architecture. Published

in 2009 at Dokument Press a second work

entitled Cholo Writing: Latino Gang Graffiti

in Los Angeles.

Cholo 的



Dokument Press 出




Pixação :

Chastanet 尤




François Chastanet 是













Thousands of anonymous street calligraphers

operate daily in Chinese parks and streets,

endlessly tracing texts composed of «hanzi»

characters that slowly disappear as the

water evaporates. This phenomenon called

«dishu» (earth writing or practicing ephemeral

calligraphy on the ground using clear water

as ink) appeared in the beginning of the 1990s

in a North Beijing park and soon spread to

most major Chinese cities. Based on classic

Chinese literature, poetry or aphorisms,

these monumental letterings, ranging from

static regular to highly cursive styles, make

the whole body break into a spontaneous

dance and infinite formal renewals. This street

calligraphic practice corresponds to both

a socializing need and an individual search

for self accomplishment or improvement.

Dishu: Ground Calligraphy in China is

the first survey on contemporary calligraphic

practices in Chinese public spaces, documented

during the summer of 2011 in Beijing, Shanghai

and Shenyang. It takes the form of a major

photographic essay, which traces the roots

of this handwriting phenomenon and its

development in Chinese society, analyses in

detail the home-made writing tools specially

designed for street lettering and explores

its possible transposition into other writing


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