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Calligraphy, Then and Now


The calligrapher is a humble man, yet as he elaborates on the intricacies of creating a perfectly proportioned Chinese character – if, as he says, there is such a thing – the pride he takes in work shines through. In the world of Chinese calligraphy, Deng Zhiyuan is in a class of his own.

Those who have tried to etch out even the simplest of Chinese characters know the difficulty of the task. Indeed, a chance glance at China town signage anywhere in the world is usually enough to provoke a “wow, that looks complicated” from people unfamiliar with the script. So imagine Deng Zhiyuan’s task: eschewing the traditional inkstick and brush – the standard material and instrument of Chinese calligraphy for thousands of years, Deng uses something a lot, lot harder to work with – iron.

Created in a small, unassuming workshop-residence in Anhui Province’s Changfeng County, an hour’s drive from the provincial capital of Hefei, Deng Zhiyuan’s iconic artworks have gained national and international fame as the leading contemporary examples of the Wushan Iron Script.

Iron pictures first appeared in the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The metal was first used for calligraphy in Wuhu, Anhui Province, during the reign of the Qing Emperor Kangxi, roughly 350 years ago. It went dormant for three centuries before being revived in the 1980s by a group of artists, including Deng Zhiyuan from nearby Wushan Town. Now known as the Wushan Iron Script, it has evolved in the last few decades from primitively chipped iron block characters to the fantastically elaborate designs that Deng fashions today.

Appreciated from a distance, it’s almost impossible to discern that Deng’s creations are made of iron; such is his worked iron’s resemblance to the traditional brushstrokes of Chinese calligraphy. Only as one moves in for closer inspection do the firm contours and full three dimensions of his metallic medium reveal themselves. The iron, colored jet black, flows in effortless contortions on a plain white background to perfectly replicate the delicate dashes that characterize ink-and-brush calligraphy. The iron bulges out at strategic points and pivots to mimic the jagged motion of a real brush changing direction on paper.

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