For its opening in 2021, M+ commissioned Taiwanese ink artist Tong Yang-Tze to create five large-scale calligraphic works for display in the museum’s Main Hall. These works underscore the importance of the written word in M+’s research on Asian visual culture, while demonstrating the appeal of this quintessential East Asian artform. Just before the museum’s opening, Tong spoke with Lesley Ma (Curator, Ink Art) about these new works and her creative philosophy and practice.
Lesley Ma: You accepted our invitation for the commission in July 2019 and visited the M+ building in October while it was still under construction. Can you tell us how you began to think about the commission after returning to Taiwan from that trip?
Tong Yang-Tze: When you offered two columns as the site for the commission, my reaction was, ‘Why not a wall?’ How was I supposed to work with columns? But this should, of course, be left to the artist to resolve. I’m not sure how you all saw my work, but I thought only I could be the right person for the job. Though I’d never made work on columns before, I took up the challenge to the best of my ability. I simply followed your prompt and carried it out one step at a time.
Each side of the two columns in the Main Hall faces an entrance. With the distance between the entrances and the columns, if I had written smaller characters, you wouldn’t have been able to see anything. I wanted to consider every aspect of these two columns—all four sides. Ordinarily, to view an artwork you would need to stand back to gain a depth of vision, but I wanted to use the lines and strokes of the characters to bring the audience closer as they enter. They would have to stand before the columns to see the work clearly.
If I had made the two columns identical, wouldn’t people think they were a Chinese couplet? That’s why I wanted to write four phrases on each side of one column, and on the other, a single sentence to encircle the whole. I needed one phrase to connect the four sides, so that people would know this was one piece. This was the true challenge.
The phrases I chose from the I Ching are philosophical ideas known throughout the Chinese-speaking world: How does one be a good person? How do we deal with our affairs? Many people already know these phrases, but we still need a regular reminder.
Ma: You originally wanted to write poetry verses. Why did you eventually choose the I Ching?
Tong: I had wanted to write modern Chinese poetry, but since I’m not familiar with the local context, I realised later that would be problematic.
Ma: You originally wanted to write a poem by Yu Kwang-chung.
Tong: Yes, yes. Even though I am very familiar with Yu Kwang-chung, I'm not familiar with what would be appropriate for Hong Kong. Your museum was developed for the world, so, of course, you would hope for people from all walks of life to enter. If there is a heritage to be brought forth in a contemporary museum as this one, East Asian philosophy is certainly the most fitting. So, to tell you the truth, I pored over Laozi and Zhuangzi before finally settling on the I Ching. After I short-listed several phrases, I spoke with the scholar Shih Shou-chien. He considered the matter thoroughly and agreed with my choices, so I began working.
Ma: You had originally chosen ‘The movement of heaven is powerful’ (天行健 tian xing jian) and ‘Renew oneself daily’ (日新 ri xin) along with ‘Act when it is the time to act’ (時行則行 shi xing ze xing) and ‘Change brings continuity’ (變則通 bian ze tong), but the latter two were later replaced by ‘At the auspicious moment, act without delay’ (見機而作 jianji er zuo) and ‘Delight in the existence of heaven and understand its order’ (樂天知命 letian zhiming). Was this a result of your discussion with Shih Shou-chien? Or was it your own decision?
Tong: It was my own decision. I had so much to write already that I, of course, had to consider the repetition of some characters. Like with ‘Act when it is the time to act’, you see there are so many instances of 行 (xing). The phrase’s meaning is also similar to one of the others, so I decided to change it. I only met with Mr Shih after I had made that decision.
Those four phrases each occupy one side of one column; ‘Embracing the way of heaven brings progress’ (何天之衢，道大行也 he tian zhi qu, dao da xing ye) occupies all four sides of its own column. ‘The movement of heaven is powerful’ tells you the heavens are in motion. Abiding by ‘Embracing the way of heaven brings progress’, ‘Delight in the existence of heaven and understand its order’, and ‘At the auspicious moment, act without delay’ brings peace to the world. ‘Renew oneself daily’ implies that life should be lived anew each day. Every day is different—why is that? Because every day, you must come into contact with different things. Your thinking is continually renewed. To learn from anything at any moment is also to change yourself. Isn’t that great?
Ma: It is. You always work in a monumental scale, and this time was no exception. Can you speak specifically about how you wrote the characters? I remember you wrote ‘Delight in the existence of heaven and understand its order’ thirteen times.
Tong: I don’t document my process. How did I write the piece thirteen times? Honestly, I can’t break up the writing into parts; I do it all in one go. But how does one do work of this scale in one go? Imagine, one face of each column is about 100 x 200 cm—approximately the same dimensions as my workspace at home. It is only enough space for me to write, for example, the character 何 (he). After it’s finished, I drag the paper into my bedroom to dry next to my bed. Next, I use an electric fan to dry the cloth mat underneath, then I lay out more paper to continue writing. I finish writing in the morning, and it will be afternoon by the time it all dries. I dry my work from my front door through the living room. I joke that I'm a housewife, because everything happens in my home. When I have a spare moment, I go to the kitchen and check on the soup simmering on the stove. That’s how I work; I do everything by myself.
So, you can imagine, while writing this piece thirteen times, I was constantly revising. But I can tell you that there is no way I could use charcoal to sketch out the characters first and then trace it with a brush; there’s none of that going on. This actually is my sketch. I put it to the side, have a look at it, and determine the composition. So, the results are different every time. My wall is only around 200 cm wide, so after drying, I’d hang them from a thin metal wire on the wall, place them together, and have a look. With years of training, I rely upon my own eyes: if I feel it’s not right, I’ll write it all over again; if there are no problems, then I consider it settled. You ask me how I know when it’s finished? Well, when I'm done writing, it's finished.
Ma: You’ve studied calligraphy since childhood, later going to the United States to study oil painting. Which artists have been the biggest influence on you? How did you integrate the merits of oil painting with your calligraphy?
Tong: Within art history, it’s very difficult to describe what calligraphy is. Calligraphy is like music; its lines are what stimulate me greatly. After I came back from the United States, I realised the enormous influence of the West on our society. We must have confidence in our own culture, and that’s why I challenge myself. The strokes of characters are the lines of calligraphy. If you don’t have this in your own culture, let me show you what it means. This is our script—is there any artistic merit to it? Absolutely. Is there functionality? Absolutely. So, you say there’s no colour? Of course, there is. Within these pieces that you’ve commissioned, I’ve used a thick, dark ink, and within the black there are varying layers of depth and density from which emerge many palettes—dry ink, wet ink, and even the contrast of black ink on white paper.
For a very long period of time, various man-made and natural disasters have caused us to forget our own culture. If I had not returned from the West, I am sure I could not have made this my career. Western oil painters place much emphasis on composition. Of the Western painters, I like Matisse, and among those from the East, every artist, every calligrapher is my mentor. But Yan Zhenqing was the first to enlighten me. I was in my fourth year of primary school when I came to Taiwan from Shanghai. I didn’t have any toys, so I could only run about my house or the air-raid shelters. My father wanted me to calm down, and so he gave me the copybooks of Yan Zhenqing. That’s how I became who I am. I could sit there, preparing ink and writing characters for hours without ever feeling bored.
Besides Yan Zhenqing, the calligraphy styles of Su Shi, Liu Gongquan, and Chu Suiliang each has its own special characteristics. I often bring up an example: You can write the character ‘one’ 一 (yi), and I can write the character 一, but every 一 will be unique. Why is that? It’s the nature of individuality. Why do we write characters from a young age? To refine our wildness a bit, to learn the customs. Even if you're older, it doesn't matter—picking up a brush to write is always a form of cultivation. Isn’t taking time a good thing? The calligraphy artists of old have left so many examples for us to study! I would glance through their calligraphy books whenever I had time and think about how I could use a line or stroke like theirs in my work.
Ma: You mentioned how, when you are considering composition, you browse through calligraphy books looking for inspiration, observing how certain lines are placed and written. At the same time, you also consider how Western painting employs composition. In your mind, are these all fused together as one?
Tong: No matter what I write, I’ll always make a rough sketch first. It’s a habit I’ve cultivated over the years. For example, when I receive a commission, I’ll ask if it should be vertically or horizontally oriented, if it should be written from left to right or from right to left. In my mind, the pencil or pen is already at work, and I'm writing on a piece of paper. It’s an immediate reaction. If I can’t manage to write anything, it means that the sketch isn’t right, and I’ll start again. I remember my old friend Han Baode saying: ‘I honestly don’t know how you write. I can’t read it.’ Because I had moved this dot over there and that stroke over here, I had deconstructed the character’s composition, turning it into art. You can’t ask an artist where this or that stroke is. It’s up to you to read it, and there will always be a wall label underneath. If you look carefully, I do take care of every character. I’m not Cangjie, able to invent characters. If I had written very abstractly such that people wouldn’t be able to read it, they’d just pass right by, no? That’s why I only used regular kaishu and xingshu styles for your piece. It couldn’t be too wild. I wanted it to resonate with people. This is something that I can’t let go of. On one hand, I’m not capable enough, but on the other, I’m still looking for those with whom I can communicate.
Ma: So, your works can be considered very socially engaged. As you said, you want them to communicate with audiences, so they won’t be one-way dialogues. Even when there is an element of self-cultivation, you are also looking forward to a resonance with the audience, or rather a form of mutual encouragement through written communication. This is also the nature of a commission, don’t you think?
Tong: Yes, yes. This is precisely its functionality.
Ma: You just mentioned that you used a dark ink this time. What about the brush? Did you use a different brush than you normally use? Or rather, tell us something about the brushes you ordinarily use.
Tong: Nothing different than usual, but because some of my large brushes are too big, I recall having gone to buy new brushes for this piece. I remember once, when I made an eight-panel work, I worked until several brushes had broken. I asked my sister in Shanghai to have one specially made, but I never imagined it would be so heavy—it couldn’t even be lifted. So later I found a brush directly in Taipei.
Ma: Do you use weasel hair or goat hair brushes?
Tong: Goat. Goat hair brushes lose their bristles quite quickly.
Ma: Why do you prefer goat hair brushes?
Tong: Goat hair is very pliable. I haven’t used weasel hair brushes since I was young, because weasel hair is very particular. With one stroke downward, it’s stiff but relatively elastic. It will move of its own accord. But with a goat hair brush, you must control it. Sometimes before an exhibition, I’ll write out a character a few extra times, but the brush will protest, its tip unable to draw out anything further. I’ll know then that I need to take a break. The tip of a goat hair brush has a core, and, of course, you could say that it would be easier to exert force from the core of a weasel hair brush due to its functionality. But I was taught from a young age with goat hair brushes, and I’ve always used them up to now. There are some traditional calligraphers that specifically use weasel hair brushes, and they write very well, so it’s just a matter of personal habit. Such a large calligraphy brush most certainly will not be purely composed of goat hair; there will also have some weasel hair mixed into its tip, otherwise it would be too soft. But does it really matter? As long as the characters are written well, then it should be good enough.
Ma: So, are your brushes made-to-order?
Tong: No. I’m a very flexible person. I never get paper specially made, nor are my brushes made-to-order. I only asked my sister to help place an order once because I couldn’t find what I needed. But then, in the end, that got put in a corner and never used. So, I buy brushes by chance; if I see something fitting, I’ll buy it.
Ma: That’s quite unique, then. I imagine you could enliven any brush the way you want to. If we speak of audiences who cannot read Chinese, they would be unable to experience the functional aspect of the written word because they don’t know the characters’ meaning. They must read the wall label in order to understand, meaning there will be a gap in the experience. How, then, do you usually explain your work to those that cannot read Chinese? How do you hope they will appreciate it?
Tong: From its lines. A few years ago, I received an unexpected phone call from a person in Italy who had collected one of my works. He said, ‘I was attracted by the lines in your work. I don’t know what it says, but these lines are so charming.’ When he understood the meaning of the words, he appreciated the work even more.
Ma: What do you think is the significance of Chinese script today? Or what is its meaning for you?
Tong: Someone told me that, generally, one in every four people in the world is Han Chinese. So, is Chinese language important? Yes. Chinese characters embody meaning in and of themselves; they aren’t letters to be pieced together.
Ma: It is especially crucial in this visual culture museum to make visible the position and significance of the written word. Just as you mentioned, in addition to its functionality, the written character bears its own artistic nature, and thus your writing in this space also reminds us of the cultural legacy of the script itself. This time, you’ve merged the artistic essence of the script with a philosophy that you want to pass on, all within what appears to be an industrial-like space.
Tong: Thank you all for giving me the opportunity. While the script already has its own artistic essence, it has now often become reduced to function only, and this is a shame for the art of the written word. One character clearly has so many ways of being written. How then do you make use of this artistic essence? There are various facets, but it’s up to you how it gets expressed.
As the most simple example, a character that I write in the morning will be completely different from one that I write in the evening. Its vitality is embedded within it. The printed word, however, is the same all the time. Another old friend once said to me: ‘Goodness, now that there are enlarging machines, you can simply magnify your characters to however big you’d like them to be.' Apologies, but I prefer working with my hands. I want to challenge my mind and my hands to move in concert. To challenge myself with an impossible task. And now I’ve completed it.
Of course, I think the I Ching is our shared culture in East Asian philosophy. Even though modern science changes so quickly, we must remember that which has been given to us by the ancients. That’s why I wanted to choose these texts, and I am certain they can open channels of communication for greater understanding between people.
Ma: Thank you for such wonderful works, a brilliant boost to kickstart our new museum.
The above interview has been edited for clarity. All photos of M+ Commission: Tong Yang-Tze: © Tong Yang-Tze; Photo: Lok Cheng and Dan Leung Leung, M+, Hong Kong (unless otherwise indicated)
Lesley Ma is Curator, Ink Art at M+.
Tong Yang-Tze was born in Shanghai in 1942 and has been practicing calligraphy since a young age. After graduating from the Department of Fine Arts at the National Taiwan Normal University in 1966, she continued her studies in oil painting, earning a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Massachusetts in 1970 before working as a graphic designer in New York. In 1973, she returned to Taiwan and immersed herself fully in calligraphy creation, devoting herself to bringing a synthesis of ancient and modern aesthetics to public life and popular culture. In 2012, she was awarded the Taiwanese cultural sector’s highest honour, the National Cultural Award. Important solo exhibitions in recent years include, among others, the retrospective Moving Ink at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum (2019-2020), Tong Yang-Tze: Immortal at the River at the Johnson Museum of Art of Cornell University (2020), and Brush Beyond Space: Works of Tong Yang-Tze at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum (2010).