A brush with Chinese calligraphy greats


As a young boy in Taiwan, Jerry Yang was forced to study calligraphy — writing Chinese characters with a brush. The practice is thought to mold character as well as to reflect it, but Yang found it a tedious chore.

In 1998, when he was turning 30 and had already co-founded Yahoo, he heeded the call to look back to his heritage and bought two Chinese calligraphies at auction. It was the beginning, he has written, of “a journey of discovery, inspiration, and fulfillment.” Today, his collection numbers 250 works, including some by the greatest calligraphers of the Ming and Qing eras, and 40 of them have been selected for “Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy,” a new exhibition at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (through Jan. 13). (The exhibition is scheduled to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2014.)

“Jerry Yang is a very serious collector of calligraphy,” says Michael Knight, the museum’s senior curator of Chinese art and co-curator of the exhibition along with Joseph Chang. He notes that the first piece Yang purchased was by Dong Qichang (1555-1636), a superstar of calligraphy, and is probably his earliest work held outside China. “He’s bought well; he’s had good advice.”


Knight acknowledges the challenge of making Chinese calligraphy alluring to visitors — the museum cites this as the first major American museum show on calligraphy in more than a decade. “We’re trying to make this exhibition as appealing to as wide an audience as possible,” he says. To this end, the curators decided to focus on 15 works from Yang’s collection, with an additional 25 included to illustrate certain themes.

The first gallery introduces the basics — the various formats, the five scripts and a video demonstrating the writing of the various scripts. This gallery is dominated by a long handscroll of the Lotus Sutra by Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322), who was, as Knight says, “a very pivotal calligrapher, whose style became used for imperial books in the early Ming.” The scroll is a tour de force of 15,000 rigorously limned characters; about half of its 270-inch-length will be on display.

The second gallery addresses training; poetry; the relationships among friends, teacher and students, and others; and times of crisis in the art form. Close ties between artists are illustrated by “Pieces on a Houseboat,” a handscroll that 13 calligraphy masters of the Ming dynasty wrote on successively. Yang, interviewed by phone, jokingly calls it “the original social network.” Mounted on a curved wall will be 85 leaves of the “Thousand Character Essay” by Wen Peng (1498-1573), in the blocky clerical script style. “It serves two purposes,” says Knight. “It’s a training tool with moral content. Not one character is repeated.”

Gallery 3 continues the theme of crisis in calligraphy and introduces the relationship between calligraphy and painting as well as the influence of Chinese calligraphy on such Western artists as Franz Kline, Mark Tobey and Brice Marden. Contemporary Chinese artist Xu Bing, famous for making “wrong characters” in his early opus, was commissioned to do a work; he has made an animation with calligraphic themes being shown in the North Court.

These days, Yang willingly sits down and practices calligraphy at home, and he enjoys trying to copy the masters. “I certainly feel there is a sense of calm and almost a meditation that’s involved,” he says. “And if you understand the language, there’s a sense of ingraining the words in your head.” He feels so strongly about the benefits of calligraphy that, he admits, “Now I’m trying to force my kids to do it.”