Calligrapher scripts success with Arabic styles

By Erling Hoh


     BEIJING  In this age of colliding cultures, Chen

Jinhui melds two of the more ancient ones simply by

using a wolf-hair brush and some finely ground Tie

Zhai Ong ink.

     He is a Chinese calligrapher writing Arabic

script, which in his sanguine, rotund person brings

together two of the world's greatest traditions of

beautiful writing.

     Chinese as well as Islamic culture may revere

calligraphy as the highest form of art, but in many

ways, the similarity ends there. Where Chinese

calligraphy is spontaneous and intuitive, Arabic

calligraphy appears intellectual and infinitely


     While Chinese calligraphy can strike the eye with

the liberating effect of a tempest, Arabic calligraphy

exudes the cool elegance of an intricate mathematical

equation. To fuse them is no mean feat, and by having

done so for the past 40 years, Mr. Chen is sparking

new synapses and garnering accolades all the way from

Beijing to Istanbul.

     Seated in his spartan office at the Institute of

Islamic Theology in the southern part of Beijing, Mr.

Chen, the institute's retired librarian, is not one to

dwell on aesthetic dialectics of Chinese and Arabic

calligraphy. He will, however, relate the story of his

hero, the famous Arabic calligrapher Ibn Mukla, a

vizier in Baghdad during the Abbasid dynasty, which

ruled from A.D. 750 to 1258.

     "His influence was greater than the caliph's,

because of his calligraphy," Mr. Chen said. Out of

jealousy, Mr. Chen said, the caliph persecuted the

Arabic calligrapher. But when the ruler ordered that

the artist's hand be cut off, he simply tied the pen

to the remaining stump and continued writing.

     "That is why they consider him a god. He was

attacked so many times, but he never forgot his

calligraphy," Mr. Chen said.

     When Islam spread to China 1,000 years ago,

Chinese Muslims began using the traditional brush and

ink to copy the Koran. The oldest handwritten copy of

the Koran in China dates to 1318. In time, an original

form of Arabic calligraphy with distinct Chinese

characteristics, known as Sini, evolved.

     Following in the footstep of such famous Chinese

Arabic calligraphers as Huababa, a Qing dynasty

scholar from the province of Henan, Mr. Chen took up

Arabic calligraphy as a student at Institute of

Islamic Theology in the 1950s.

     During Mao Tse-tung's Great Proletarian Cultural

Revolution, however, Islam was virtually forbidden and

Arabic calligraphy was denounced as part of the "four


     After China reopened its doors in the late 1970s,

the country's Muslims were allowed to practice their

religion and re-establish ties with the Islamic world.

Mr. Chen made his first hajj to Mecca in 1989.

     A year earlier, he had received an honorable

mention at the first Iraqi International Festival of

Arabic Calligraphy and Islamic Decorative Art, and in

1995, he was placed ninth in Kufic script at the Third

International Arabic Calligraphy Competition in

Turkey. His biggest triumph came when he won first

prize at the Second International Calligraphy

Competition in Pakistan in 1999.

     In a selection of his works, published last year

by China's Nationalities Photographic Art Publishing

House, Mr. Chen demonstrated his mastery of all the

major Arabic styles  Thulethi, Kufic, Persian,

Diwani, Diwani-jili, as well as the Sinicized Arabic


     With his success in international competitions,

his calligraphy has been attracting patrons from

around the Islamic world.

     "They didn't know anything about Chinese Muslims.

'You can read the Koran too,' they exclaimed. They

were very surprised," Mr. Chen said about his trips to

various competitions in the Middle East.

     A major difference between Chinese and Arabic

calligraphy is that when the art form began to evolve

on the Arabian Peninsula in the sixth and seventh

centuries, calligraphers there had to make do with

goat skin, bark and cloth. The roughness and low

absorbency of these materials might have channeled

Arabic calligraphers into developing an aesthetic

centered on pattern and intricacy.

     In China, where paper was invented in A.D. 105,

calligraphers focused their search for beauty on the

rich expressive possibilities of the brush-ink-paper

medium: texture and immediateness.

     In A.D. 751, Arab and Chinese armies clashed in a

battle on the Talas River in present-day Kyrgyzstan.

The Chinese were defeated, and among the prisoners

taken by the Arabs were Chinese paper makers. Having

learned the art of paper making from Chinese, the

Arabs transmitted the craft to Europe several

centuries later.

Chen Jinhui is now busy investigating a cultural

diffusion in the other direction: the history of

Arabic calligraphy in China.

"It is very difficult research. I want to fill in

all the blanks," Mr. Chen said. For encouragement, he

has only to recall a saying of the prophet Muhammad:

"Seek wisdom, even if it be in China."


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