July 14, 2017 / Laura Vermeeren

Evaporating Ennui — Water Calligraphy in Beijing

Principal investigator: Laura Vermeeren

The practice of water calligraphy started after the Reform and Opening-up policy at the beginning of the 1980s and spread from the capital of Beijing to public parks all over China. Water calligraphy, or ground writing in Chinese (dishu 地书) takes up a significant part of the everyday lives of a growing number of older people in China. This article offers an ethnographic account of the distinctive characteristics of water calligraphy, arguing that this practice has been made possible by the productive affordance of boredom.

Key terms:
water calligraphy, China, public space, everyday life

‘This is just for fun! You have to do something when you get old, right?’ A 79-year-old man told me in a public park in Beijing while he had just covered twenty meters of the park’s surface with running script-style calligraphy written in water. His statement struck me with its common-sense simplicity. As I soon found out, he was not the only one holding this view. It was one of the most common responses I received from water calligraphers about their drive to practice water calligraphy in the park, where the majority of them spends almost every morning until noon writing on the floors.

A feeling of curiosity and astonishment drove the fieldwork I conducted on this practice: the first time I went to the public parks Taoranting and Ditan in Beijing in the winter of 2015 and spring of 2016, I stumbled upon a group of older men, doing something with what looked like oddly shaped broomsticks in their hands. On closer inspection, I saw that they were writing with these tools, which turned out to be home-made brushes. The sight of a group of water calligraphers at work in the park is fascinating: seemingly effortless movements of the body and brush create beautiful characters glistening in the morning sun, vanishing again within minutes. In doing so, the empty tiles transform into slates of paper, while park visitors and calligraphers discuss the slowly evaporating brush strokes, the calligraphic styles and their content. The park transforms into a temporary place of literacy before your eyes. Further observing the other park activities in the morning, I felt like witnessing a celebration of some kind, not only of social life but also a celebration of the body. As early as seven o’clock, groups of retired or middle- aged men and women flock in to the park to dance, work out, talk, sing, laugh and meditate. You will find many gatherings of singers, dancers, walkers, kite-flyers, chess-players and taijiquan practitioners all over the space of the park. Most of them are retired. Among them are those ground-writers, men and women using hand-cut brushes made from sponges and broomsticks or umbrella sticks to letter the floors of the public park with calligraphy in all shapes and sizes using water instead of ink.

This research on water calligraphy is part of my dissertation on various practices of calligraphy and their societal significance in contemporary China. I had set out to, in an ethnographic mode, answer the questions that puzzled me about the water calligraphy phenomenon. First of all about the people I found there: Who are they? Why are they here? Why do I see mostly older men? Then the practice itself: What are the constituent parts of water calligraphy, what seem to be the purposes and where are the practices of water calligraphy located? What national, political and personal narratives underpin the construction of this new kind of calligraphy?

In what follows I will offer a brief account of what these water calligraphers create, and what that in turn might create for the public space of the park. These accounts should be taken as scrapbook notes from the field, and its purpose is to offer a small peek into the doings of water calligraphers of the public park as I encountered them in the mornings of these months of 2015 and 2016 in Ditan and Taoranting Park just outside the second ring road in Beijing and Taoranting Park in the south-western corner within the second ring of Beijing.

Context Both parks are frequented by a loosely formed group of around fifteen water calligraphers. The larger part of this group is male, and all of them are retired, ranging from the ages 55 to 81. Most of them come every morning for a couple of hours, some of them at least a few times a week.

This particularly public type of calligraphy started earlier than that, after the Reform and Opening-up policy at the beginning of the 1980s. It rapidly spread from the capital of Beijing to public parks all over China and groups of water calligraphers can be found in almost every public park in every Chinese city. It is called water calligraphy, or ground writing in Chinese (dishu 地书). Chastanet (2013) has estimated that probably several millions of people are now writing water calligraphy in the park. Xue Fengli, the Vice-President of the Water Calligraphy Association of Beijing in Taoranting Park (陶然亭地书协会Taoranting Dishu Xiehui) estimates that there are about ten thousand water calligraphers registered at various local water calligraphy associations nationwide. These associations convene annually for the water calligraphy competition in Taoranting Park in October in Beijing, with pre-selections in 26 different cities nationwide. Then there are many more water calligraphers that are not part of any organization, which makes an accurate estimation difficult.


At first glance we seem to be looking at what can be tentatively described as a curious hybrid between hobby-like physical exercise and a kind of calligraphic practice. Many of the people I spoke to have explained that seeing friends, practicing a skill and moving the body is a good way to escape the ennui of retired life. I have heard often that it ‘is boring to stay at home’, and being outside and active is preferred. The water calligraphers are mostly retired. The relatively young retirement age in China, 50-55 for women and 55-60 for men attribute to the free time the ‘elderly’ have on their hands. With an average life expectancy of 75 years, there is roughly speaking 20 years of unemployed life to enjoy. Chen argues in her article on public dancing in Beijing (2011:39) that public exercise became popular as an unexpected result of the One Child Policy instituted in 1978. As aging Chinese now often have only one child, there are less children and grandchildren to look after, and more free time to spent. Water calligraphy seems to under scribe the notion that creativity holds the promise of an escape out of boredom: elderly people who would otherwise be at home, or possibly be bored, are now clustering together in the park to create something together. At the same time, boredom may also be an important constitutive condition for creativity: would these people have fabricated their own brushes and have spent morning after morning creating evaporative calligraphic characters if there was not a surplus of time? Supplementing to this boredom thesis may be habit, in the sense that the every day lives of these retired Chinese have been structured through a collectivist Maoist narrative, thus their preference for collective rather than solitary recreation.

Content It is noteworthy that the public park is the space of choice for water calligraphers. Life inside the gates of the public park and outside on the streets are strikingly different, and spatial and social rules appear to be rewritten according to a different set of desires and needs. The water calligraphers will occupy ten to a hundred square meters of park surface depending on the size of their characters. They will chat with each other when they remoisten their brush and discuss each other’s work and talk to passers-by about their written characters. The characters are less of a physical boundary to the space they occupy than one would expect– dancers and park strollers freely walk and dance over them, and the calligraphers do not seem to mind. The public park with its free entrance – retirees do not need to pay the small admission fee of 2 yuan – seems to suit the needs of the water calligraphers particularly well. There are many vast spaces with big grey tiles to write on, there is no shortage of attention and admiring looks of passers-by, and because they go to the same spot every day, it becomes a convenient meeting point.

The water calligraphers write in all calligraphic styles, but running script ( xingshu 行书) and grass script (caoshu 草书) seem to be favoured because the flowing style in which it is written resonates with the flow of the water. Although ink is exchanged for water and expensive brushes and paper for trash-brushes and tiles, I observed that the stylistic rules of Chinese calligraphy are seldom negotiated. They write in traditional characters and most of the writers stick to writing in one style. Although in the Chinese mainland simplified characters are in use since the 1950’s, in calligraphy discourse one writes in traditional characters. This shows that the people in the park are not just writing down characters – the deliberate use of traditional characters places them in the category of calligraphers. The content of their writing is congruent to ‘ normal’ calligraphers’ subjects of choice. Maoist poetry, Tang poetry and Chinese proverbs ( chengyu) are favourite subjects.

The ephemeral nature of water calligraphy adds to its lure. It contradicts traditional calligraphic practice, which has as one of its main qualities that it resists time. Chinese calligraphy is a time-honoured traditional art; using, copying, imitating and interpreting characters continuously for over three thousand years. Using bronze, stone, ink and paper, Chinese calligraphy has managed to defy the ‘disappearance’ that is taking place with the characters written down in water. The main purpose of calligraphy has been communication, which quite obviously favors an endurable method of writing. That this type of calligraphy is ephemeral, one water calligrapher commented, is something new and not in line with how he, and in general, people would treat written characters in the past. He commented:

Writing on the floor with water and sponge, ha. In Chinese tradition we have an old saying: ‘Treasure the paper with characters on it’. You cannot just casually use a piece of paper that already had characters on it. Anything with characters on it is regarded ‘ old culture’. That’s the way we thought before. You wouldn’t write on the floor in case people would step on it.

Often people have commented on the sociable and classless quality of water calligraphy. One interviewee noted:

Here we are all equal. Some of us are from the countryside, some of us used to be professors. Here we are each other’s classmate and teacher at the same time.

Another calligrapher has been going to the park to write for two years. On strolling in the park she was struck by the beauty of the characters and wanted to learn to do so as well:

I did not finish high school, but now I can recite the Lanting Xu. Whenever I get the chance, I go. First they taught me how to write, and now we are all learning from each other. I feel so proud when people are passing by and compliment me on my writing

On several occasions the economic reasons for practicing in the park were stressed. One interviewee mentioned that there is really no need for ink, paper or even ‘expensive lessons’:

Just buy a calligraphy book of Wang Xizhi to copy from for twenty yuan, and that is all you need. As long as you practice and persist, everybody can do it!

I think that exactly this, practice and persist, is what makes this practice significant for not only the study on (newly emerging) calligraphic practices, but also for further investigations on the productive affordances of boredom. While boredom seems to provide the time and space for this type of leisurely activity, the content has been provided by the normative institution of calligraphy. Water calligraphy does not resist violently what they have grown out of, but creates for itself the space to celebrate a calligraphy that can be practiced by anybody who does not want to be bored at home, and has the time, space and persistence to imagine a new kind of calligraphy.

We wrote characters on oracle bones – the immortal oracle script
We wrote characters on magnificent bronzes
We wrote on glorious paper
Today we boldly dip our brushes in clear water for our leisure reside with poetic exuberance on the earth

I will conclude with a poem written by water calligrapher Huang Songbai who wrote a poem in the Taoran water calligraphy Newspaper of January 2016:

  1. Chastanet, F. (2013). Dishu: ground calligraphy in China. Stockholm: Document Press.
  2. Tong, C. Square Dancing in the Streets, Xuanhua, China (Doctoral dissertation, The Ohio State University, 2013).
  1. Lanting Xu refers to 兰亭集序, Lantingjixu, and is regarded an exemplary calligraphic work written by the famous calligrapher, often referred to as the Sage of Calligraphy, Wang Xizhi (303-361). The piece, literally ‘Preface to the Poems Collected from the Orchid Pavilion’ is commonly perceived as a perfect example of calligraphy.

Laura Vermeeren

PhD Researcher

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