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The legend of Qi Gong
Latest Updated by 2005-07-07 09:28:56

A WEEK after the death of Qi Gong (1912-2005), one of the greatest modern Chinese calligraphers to date, a commemorative ceremony is held in Beijing today for people to pay their last respects to the master.

When the general public mourned the death of Qi Gong, they also lamented the passing of the generation of superb classical Chinese scholarship Qi Gong represented.

"With Qi Gong's death China has lost one of its 'living cultural treasures,'" commented Zhou Ruchang, one of China's leading experts in literature.

Such scholars' learning has been characterized by their encyclopedic knowledge of all subject matters concerning the humanities and liberal arts, from Chinese history, society, classical Chinese literature, arts connoisseurship, to the actual mastery of calligraphy and painting.

Some of them, such as Qian Zhongshu (1910-1998), were also admired for their great learning of both the East and the West.

Even though Qi Gong has remained the best-known calligrapher in the public's eye, few perhaps are aware that since 1999, Qi Gong also headed the Central Research Institute of Chinese History, whose members have been appointed by the country's premier.

The institute currently has 29 members, with an average age of 79, all leaders in their fields of history, the humanities and the arts.

Despite the fact that he also chaired the Chinese Calligraphers' Association and served as a senior scholar on a team of national experts on cultural relics, Qi Gong was always unassuming, both among his peers and towards other artists.

The straitened circumstances of his family and the poverty he grew up in as China was plunged into the turmoil, probably contributed to his innate humility.

The changing of family name

Qi Gong was originally surnamed Aisin Giorro, an imperial clan name of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). But he has never used the regal family name to sign any of his calligraphy, paintings, letters, or articles.

By refusing the noble surname, Qi wanted to show his resolutions to make a living by himself instead of depending on his noble ancestors.

But Qi does have an orthodox noble ancestor. One of his forebears was the son of Emperor Yongzheng, the fifth emperor of the Qing Dynasty and brother of Qianlong, the sixth emperor of the dynasty.

However Qi's great-great-grandfather was forced to move out of the imperial palace as his mother was a concubine. Both Qi's great-grandfather and grandfather managed to obtain very high official ranks by participating in imperial examinations.

But Qi's father died at the age of 19, when Qi was just 2.

As a forsaken royal offspring, Qi made up his mind to abandon the imperial family name and make a living by himself to support his mother and unmarried aunt.

Qi went to school under the care of his grandfather, and one of the latter's favorite pupils who tried hard to make sure Qi would carry forward the family tradition and become an official.

Learning from a distinguished teacher

Qi was recommended to learn from distinguished historian and educationalist Chen Yuan in 1933.

Qi once recalled with passion, "I came to know Chen at the age of 21. Since then I had learned from him for nearly 40 years until he died."

Before the 120th birthday anniversary of Chen Yuan, Qi spent three years creating over 100 pieces of handwritings and paintings.

At the anniversary, Chen sold all the works for 1.63 million yuan (US$197,000) in Hong Kong and established a scholarship fund for Beijing Normal University, where Chen was president.

The fund was named after Chen's library name "Liyun," meaning working hard in the field, to return the teacher's love.

Sharing hardships together with his wife

Qi's marriage was arranged by his mother within the clan according to Qing Dynasty tradition. He married Zhang Baochen, a woman he had never met before, at the age of 21. Different from Qi, Zhang knew nothing about calligraphy or painting. She also brought to the family her little brother.

Zhang devoted herself to the family without any complaint. Gradually Qi's sympathy towards his wife turned into love. When Qi's mother died, he was so grateful for Zhang's devotion to the family that he kneeled down before her to express his gratitude.

Qi was labeled as a "rightist" in 1957, and was much depressed. Zhang encouraged her husband to keep on working and sold her jewelry to buy books for Qi.

During the "Cultural Revolution," Qi was arrested because of his family background and was forced to surrender his family's belongings. Fortunately Zhang packaged all Qi's works and collections and hid them well. So although the Red Guards searched their house several times they returned empty-handed every time.

Before Zhang died of illness in 1975, she held Qi's hands and told him where she had hidden his manuscripts. Qi later recovered the pieces, which were as good as new - having been well covered in sheets of kraft paper.

Creating his own handwriting style

Qi started practicing handwriting at a tender age. But his pictures were better than his handwriting.

In an interview two years ago, Qi Gong said he was stimulated to learn calligraphy after a relative of his refused to let him add a colophon on his painting.

His teacher Chen Yuan once asked him, "How would you feel if your students can write better than you when you correct your students' papers?"

Qi had worked hard on writing since then. His profound knowledge, his skill at traditional painting and his diligence enabled him to become a great modern Chinese calligrapher.

"He creates calligraphy of seemingly effortless elegance through the skillful interplay between the proportions of his characters," commented Gordon S. Barrass, a British scholar in Chinese calligraphy who guest-curated the exhibition "Brushes with Surprise: The Art of Calligraphy in Modern China" at the British Museum three years ago.

Qi's humor

Qi was also remembered as a humorous man with a very pleasant character.

Phony calligraphy works bearing his name appeared in many shops. When Qi heard about it, he once went to a shop to have a look.

When first asked whether it was his own writing, Qi answered "better than mine," although he then changed his mind and claimed it as his own writing. Why? Later he explained that whoever forged his handwriting must have been in financial difficulty. "If he asked me to lend him money, I still would," said Qi.

Editor: Wing

By: Source:Szdaily web edition
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