t does not paint a pretty picture. Usually associated with calm and thoughtfulness, calligraphy circles in China have been roiled after the firings of high-ranking officials, all suspected or convicted of graft and using their positions to curry favor with local government administrations.
On October 28, 2019, Zhao Changqing, former vice-chairman of the China Calligraphers Association (CCA), was put under investigation by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, China’s top anti-graft agency. The current whereabouts of Li Shijie, former chairman of Anhui Provincial Calligraphers Association who is close with Zhao, is unknown.
Many officials, especially those approaching retirement, liked to style themselves as calligraphers. Wei Chuanzhong, former deputy chief of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, Chen Shaoji, former chairman of the Guangdong Provincial Political Consultative Conference, and Wang Youjie, former Party chief of Zhengzhou in Henan Province sought and accepted exorbitant payments for their works.
In China, most provinces and cities have calligraphy associations. Lately, many associations at various levels have been in chaos. A coalmine boss pushed his way to the top of the Anhui Provincial Calligraphers Association, becoming the chairman. Deputy chairmen posts in local calligraphy associations were sold for a fixed price and the provincial calligraphy association in Shaanxi Province ended up with dozens of leaders.
Insiders told our reporter that calligraphy associations have become increasingly bureaucratic and a hotbed for corruption, where officials care more about expanding their personal connections and profits than academic research and art itself.
Zhao Changqing, 66, was born in Liaoning Province and worked for years in Heilongjiang Province. In December 2005, he became Party chief of the CCA, then the organization’s vice chairman in April 2014. He retired in June 2018.
On October 18, 2019, Zhao was invited by the local government to the Mount Dahei scenic area in Heilongjiang, to participate in an artistic workshop. He led a 16-member team which produced dozens of calligraphy works, including a 50-meter scroll. Just 10 days later, he was under investigation.
Liu Youju, chairman of the China Calligraphy and Painting Artists Association and dean of the Guangdong Chinese Calligraphy Institute, met Zhao several times. He told NewsChina that Zhao was the vice chairman of the CCA but he was also the organization’s Party chief, making him the most important figure at the CCA. “When he ruled the CCA, Zhao really encouraged unhealthy tendencies in the calligraphy field,” he said.
In 2007, the Ninth National Calligraphy Work Exhibition was held in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province organized by the CCA and the local calligraphy association. Liu said when the first event was held in 1980, it cost 50,000 yuan (US$7,100). In 2007, even allowing for inflation, costs had spiraled to 25 million yuan (US$3.6m). Liu gave other examples of excesses and dodgy dealings. After the exhibition, a collection of calligraphy works was collected and published in a book at cost of at most 600,000 yuan (US$85,000), but the listed cost was more than 2 million yuan (US$285,000). The venue was rented for 3 million yuan (US$427,000), more than three times the regular price. Some officials were using the calligraphy associations to line their own pockets to ensure a comfortable retirement.
In 2015, Zhang Gong, a non-fiction writer in western China’s Gansu Province, published an open letter online which accused Zhao of malpractice. His allegations detailed 10 ways in which Zhao solicited wealth, including selling works, cashing in on calligraphy activities, blackmailing governments and selling positions at the CCA in exchange for interests. Zhang told the reporter that Zhao is not an accomplished calligrapher, but after he assumed office at the CCA, sales and the price of his works shot up. When Zhao paid a working visit, senior local officials and even those at the ministerial level would accompany him.
Zhang claimed that once, during an official dinner, Zhao had said that his position at the CCA brought so many benefits that he would not quit, even if he were promoted to the ministerial level.
Zhang said that over the years he had received many complaint letters about Zhao, and in order to verify them, he sought help from retired CCA leaders. “Zhao sent me several messages in 2015 through several middlemen to ask me to delete my article but I refused. Zhao even asked high-ranking officials in my hometown in Gansu Province to exert pressure,” he said.
On August 11, 2015, police in Lanzhou, capital of Gansu, interviewed Zhang, asking him to delete the article as it was full of gossip and rumor. “I was interrogated by police from 2pm to 7pm and they eventually let me go for lack of concrete evidence,” he said.
After Zhao Changqing was reported to be under investigation, speculation abounded about the whereabouts of Li Shijie, former chairman of the Anhui Provincial Calligraphers Association. An official at the Anhui Academy of Calligraphy told Shanghai-based news portal The Paper that Li was not in Hefei, capital of Anhui, and could not be reached.
Born in Suzhou, Anhui in 1952, Liu joined the army at 17 and fought in the China-Vietnam War in 1979 where he was decorated for valor. After working many years in both the private and State sectors, he was elected a councilor at the CCA. After he retired in 2012, he founded the Anhui Academy of Calligraphy and became chairman of the Anhui Provincial Calligraphers Association in 2013. He was relieved of his posts in January 2019. According to Tianyancha, a search platform for business data, Li Shijie is the legal representative of 14 companies, including the Anhui Supply and Energy Company, whose activities range from coal, steel and construction material to calligraphy and painting. Li Shijie and Zhao Changqing were found to have attended events together and maintained close contact.
On November 5, 2017, Cao Baolin, a famed calligrapher and professor at Jinan University in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, publicly accused Li of having engaged in bribery and election rigging at the CCA’s general election in 2010. Cao alleged that Li was not on the candidate list for the position of vice chairman, but still got half the votes. Li sued Cao for libel, which was later settled. Li withdrew the lawsuit.
Liu Youju told our reporter that Li was a boss of coal mines in Anhui Province and had become a councilor at the CCA after bribing people for votes. “Li Shijie is not a calligrapher himself. His calligraphy is at most a form of exercise in his free time, a common pursuit for retired officials,” Liu said, adding that rumors spread that Li had offered huge bribes to Zhao for the position of vice chairman.
On January 1, 2011, Liu Youju delivered a resignation letter to the presidium of the CCA in which he stated bluntly that the CCA had turned from an academic association into an alliance of corruption where leaders contend with each other overtly and covertly.
Liu argued that in the 1980s when he joined the CCA, he maintained regular contact with the chairmen of the CCA including Shu Tong, calligrapher and founder of the CCA, and Qi Gong, a famed calligrapher at Beijing Normal University. “I often went to Qi Gong’s home to exchange views on art with him. The old-school calligraphers are very accomplished and they were willing to spend the time to improve their skills,” he said.
Since the 1990s, he added, China’s calligraphy associations at various levels had begun to degenerate under the temptation of money. Many people competed with each other for leadership at the associations because of the money-making opportunities. After joining the CCA, some crooked officials even disguised their scrawlings as valuable masterpieces and sold them as masters of the difficult cursive script, Liu said.
According to the CCA website, it has 15,000 individual members and more than 40 sub-organizations including the academic committee, creation assessment committee, seal cutting committee and the calligraphy education committee.
“Even a lecture given by a deputy secretary-general at the CCA could cost up to 100,000 yuan (US$14,200),” Liu told NewsChina. Some leaders ran expensive classes to train calligraphers. An insider at the CCA told our reporter that one retired leader in the organization once made an inscription for a museum in Fujian Province and the six characters cost 80,000 yuan (US$11,380) each.
Li Dalun, a disgraced former Party chief of Chenzhou, Hunan Province, published a
collection of his calligraphy works when he was in office, pocketing more than 30 million yuan (US$4.3m) in sales. Li was investigated for corruption committed while in office and later jailed. After his fall, nobody cared about his works anymore.
In 2013, the Shaanxi Provincial Calligraphers Association held general elections, voting in more than 60 leaders, including 11 honorary chairmen, 18 deputy chairmen and 10 deputy secretary-generals.
In November 2014, an inspection team from China’s top disciplinary watchdog concluded that top leaders in Shaanxi had attended too many events hosted by the provincial calligraphy association. In the same month, a joint conference by several government departments in the province was organized and senior officials were asked to quit calligraphy associations.
A member of a provincial calligraphy association told the reporter on condition of anonymity that calligraphers associations are eager to invite senior officials to join the associations in order to promote their influence, expand networks and raise funds. In addition, some people joined
calligraphy associations in order to gain closer contacts with high-ranking officials.
“Nowadays, many people in calligraphy circles seek fame and wealth unscrupulously,” Liu Youju said. Calligraphy associations are currently both academic institutions and official agencies, he noted. “It’s high time to reform calligraphy associations and cutting the ties with administrations is the way forward,” he said.