Arts and Culture
This paper explores how the Qing literati built their cultural identity and academic community through their day-to-day handwriting. By investigating the late Qing Scholar Yu Yue (1821-1907) and his peers’ exclusive devotion to the seal and clerical scripts, it proves that the ancient scripts as an insignia of orthodoxy and authenticity of Chinese characters had played a crucial role in defining elites and their cultural superiority. They were fond of using the two ancient scripts, despite their difficulty in reading, in book covers, painting colophons, letters, name cards and even prescriptions, thus forming an interesting cultural phenomenon. This bears a striking resemblance to the applications of Latin in Europe during the same period.
Among Qing literati, the scholar Yu Yue makes an emblematic case. Yu always felt ashamed of his ignorance of calligraphic knowledge. Yet, although not rich in calligraphic techniques, his handwriting and calligraphy of ancient scripts were still widely valued for their embodiment of Yu Yue’s scholarship in Confucian classics and philology. In the eyes of many Qing critics, “erudition” is the greatest value of seal- and clerical-script works, and this is why Yu Yue’s works, no matter whether they are ordinary handwriting or calligraphy, were highly regarded by his contemporaries. From this point of view, it also proves that it was not the aesthetic taste or style but the script-form itself that distinguished a social group from another.