Interview with calligraphy educator Ouyang Zhongshi

Ouyang Zhongshi: “Of the numerous and valuable epitomes of Chinese culture, Chinese characters are most significant. The promotion of Chinese culture should begin with Chinese characters.”

Ouyang Zhongshi


Profile of Ouyang Zhongshi

  • 1954 Graduated from the philosophy department of Peking University
  • 1985 Created the discipline of calligraphy at Capital Normal University
  • 1993 Became as the first Ph D tutor in calligraphy
  • 1998 Co-tutor of the first post-doctor in calligraphy
  • 2002 Winner of the First Lanting Calligraphy Award for Special Contribution
  • 2006 Winner of the Second Lanting Calligraphy Award for Lifetime Achievement
  • 2007 Winner of the Teacher Trainer Award from the Ministry of Education

Contributing Reporters
Liu Chang,
Zhou Xinhua
In early 2009, we were looking forward to Mr. Ouyang Zhongshi’s lecture when he was invited to the “Grand Forum” of the Confucius Institute Headquarters. A great master in calligraphy whose work is hardly available, Mr. Ouyang has never stinted on his support for the Confucius Institute. Generously, he laid his brush to paper, offering his personal inscription for the Confucius Institute Headquarters. Initially I thought that Mr. Ouyang would talk about calligraphy, he, however, began with the Culture of Chinese Characters, expounding vividly on the evolution and implications of Chinese characters. His ingenious interpretation adds to the dynamics of each character, 本期人物 while somewhat unraveling the secret of his exceptional calligraphy.

At the end of the lecture, our interest didn’t terminate in Mr. Ouyang. I, like everyone present, developed a sudden impulse to interview Mr. Ouyang. Already in his eighties, Mr. Ouyang is always busy with teaching and research. So I was afraid that it would be difficult to make an appointment with him. To my surprise, he readily consented to our request, even inviting us to his home for the interview.

His house was another surprise to us. The living-room, less than 20 square meters, also served as his study, was jammed with books. Absent from here were gorgeous ornaments, exquisitely-framed calligraphy or paintings. The talk with him further gave evidence to his simplicity, modesty, amiability, ingenuity, and wide interests. It reminded me of one of his calligraphic works: Integrity allows the greatest freedom, both mental and physical. This might shed some light on his personal life and teaching career.

Mr. Ouyang joked about himself: “I lacked ambition in my childhood, strayed way from my profession, and belonged nowhere in the world. I’m no master calligrapher and I have never expected so. I only wanted to be a competent teacher.” However, it was the child without ambition who became a veteran calligrapher by modeling himself after artists of successive dynasties and developed his distinctive style by drawing on the past diligently and critically. It was the guy straying away from his profession who became the teacher with the greatest kinds of students by contributing his lifelong enthusiasm and energy to education. His academic pursuit ranged widely and achieved profoundly: logic, traditional Chinese studies, phonetics, painting, theater, literature, and calligraphy. Yet he said he belonged nowhere. But obviously his erudition and accomplishments all fall under traditional Chinese culture.

Ouyang Zhongshi


Modern technology has quickened the pace of life. When the computer replaces handwriting, more and more people have become reluctant or are unable to write with hand. But Mr. Ouyang believes that of the numerous and valuable epitomes of Chinese culture, Chinese characters are most significant. The promotion of Chinese culture should begin with Chinese characters.

As is the case in every nation, writing transcends time and space, said Mr Ouyang. Chinese language differs from foreign ones in that the latter can be easily understood through pronunciation. China is such a vast country with poor accessibility that dialects often fail to get across regions. Hence Chinese have to turn to another method of communication: drawing. A piece of drawing is static, but when two are put together, it will appear vivid. Hence the invention of associative compounds whose form gives hints to the meaning rather than the pronunciation. This is a breakthrough in the history of cognition.

Mr. Ouyang pointed out that Chinese characters are the crystallizat ion of Chinese wisdom and they are a t rea sure Chine se culture contributes to the world. Through pictographs and association, Chinese characters convey abstract meanings. They allow full rein of imagination, thereby facilitating interpersonal communication. It is the easiest way to communicate. Thus it is a historic mission of mankind to promote Chinese characters among peoples of the world.

Approached inappropriately, Chinese characters can appear very “frightening”, leading to the misunderstanding that Chinese is difficult. This misconception happens due to our insufficient introduction. “We have to properly analyze Chinese characters to find a way to explain them so that they make sense to foreigners,” Mr Ouyang said. He expounded on his idea with the character 涉. With the two feet in their normal positions, a person is standing. With one foot in front of the other, the person walks ( 步). With water added to one side, the person wades ( 涉). This is a wonderful way to explain Chinese characters. Thus addressed, Chinese characters would never fail to make sense to anyone in the world.

Mr. Ouyang was amazed by Chinese characters: “The associative compounds are marvelous, so are the radicals. Attached to each character are such radicals as 山 (mountain) on the top, 土 (earth) on one side, or 三点水(three drops of water) on the left. They are the elements of nature and parts of the world. In this way Chinese characters reflect the world.” Through calligraphy, people can feel the most direct and profound expression of the charm of Chinese culture most directly. The development of calligraphic studies plays an exclusive role in the promotion of traditional Chinese culture.

Ouyang Zhongshi
Mr. Ouyang (right) is a student of Mr. Xi Xiaobo, the founder of Xi School of Peking Opera. This photo shows his performance of Peking Opera.


Mr. Ouyang believes in the importance of learning rather than excessive practice. Practice is simply repeating oneself; whereas learning is taking from others. He broke up the character 學, expounding on its meaning: the youngsters are striving or snatching for knowledge, with the two hands catching tightly. This is the real sense of learning.

Mr. Ouyang has his own idea about calligraphy: while characters are for writings which are to convey truth; calligraphy is for embellishment, enlivening the writings. Later on he changed the last phrase into: meeting the needs of the times. “The previous phrase ‘enlivening the writings’ meant to emphasize how to write beautifully. In recent years, I’ve been thinking about the realm of time because nothing exists without time.”

In Yingtai of Zhongnanhai, Emperor Qianlong had a piece of calligraphy: Cultivation involves perfect timing. Though timing there meant seasons, it may also mean eras in a broad sense. Calligraphy is not for the mere display of personal ideas; it is to meet the needs of the times.

In modern times, the function of composing articles to convey truth is no long exclusive to calligraphy. It is also performed by printed books and computer technology. However, calligraphy adds to the brilliance of both the article and the truth. To appear solemn and dignified, the handwriting should be tidy. To appear dynamic and rhythmic, the handwriting should be cursive. This is the essence of perfect timing: to meet the needs of both our times and our daily life.

Ouyang Zhongshi


Mr. Ouyang broke up the character 德 (integrity) . At the top is the character 十 (ten). Then comes the character 且 (additional),which lies horizontally. Together the two form the character 直 (vertical), indicating that people, things, and flora are to grow upwards towards abundance. This is the same for our thoughts. The character 心 (heart) below implies that thoughts should erupt from the bottom of our heart and externalize in our behavior. To avoid too many horizontal strokes, the vertical character 直 is set horizontally. These adjustments make the final character 德. Mr. Ouyang once created a famous calligraphic work: Aroma arises from integrity alone. Evidently he holds integrity in great admiration.

In 1985, Mr. Ouyang founded the first calligraphy college class in the Capital Normal University, recruiting students from across China. The class ran in poor conditions. Sometimes a classroom was available and sometimes it wasn’t. In the latter case, they had to borrow a work shed. Many students joked that theirs was a roaming college. But the class was a success. The first graduates, over 100 in number, attracted wide attention from the society. Over the last few decades, under the guidance of Mr. Ouyang, the discipline of calligraphy has evolved into an entire education system of its own covering junior college students, university students, postgraduates, doctors, and post doctors.

Mr. Ouyang said, “The idea of establishing a calligraphy educational system was not initiated by me. Mr. Shen Yinmo, for example, devised it as early as the 1930s, though the time was not ripe then. But it is the time for it now. There is an international trend for this discipline. Obviously nature has taken its own course.” Under the auspices of the society, governments at all levels, and veterans in the cultural circles, the discipline is established. In their opinion, calligraphy draws upon different elements of Chinese culture, thereby showcasing traditional Chinese culture.

Dedicating his life to education, Mr. Ouyang professed to be an out-andout teacher. Upon his graduation from secondary school in 1948, he taught in a primary school. When he graduated from Peking University in 1954, he taught Chinese, mathematics, history, physical education, and chemistry in a secondary school. When he was involved in the basics of education, Mr. Ouyang’s discerning insights and clear logic helped him devise a scheme for reforming Chinese teaching, an attractive achievement then.

Believing that education discriminates nobody, Mr. Ouyang delivered a lecture on calligraphy to convicts in Yunhe Prison of Shandong province in 2007. He popularized Chinese culture and preached traditional virtues by teaching the prisoners recite poems.

Mr. Ouyang boasted students across China. They included primary pupils, secondary school students, post-doctors and even prisoners. Most probably, his students varied the greatest in types.

Integrity allows the greatest freedom, both mental and physical. Ouyang Zhongshi does not only preach Chinese culture but also practices traditional Chinese virtues. He made three demands with himself: not to write any biography, not to build any memorial, and not to praise or censure. Exuding the charm of traditional Chinese culture, Mr. Ouyang Zhongshi is an epitome of master artists.

Confucius Institute Magazine 4

pdfPublished in Confucius Institute Magazine
Number 4. Volume IV. September 2009.
View/Download the print issue in PDF


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