Past Exhibitions

Grand Tour and Long Ballad: Mo Yan and Wang Zhen: "Two Bricks and Ink Insights" Foreword


Chief Producer Liu Yiqian
Cutaror Xie Xiaodong
Artist Mo Yan, Wang Zhen

It was about three and a half years ago that Wang Zhen co-launched “Two Bricks and Ink Insights”, an Wechat public account, together with Mo Yan, renowned Chinese writer who won the Nobel prize for literature in 2012. At that time, it didn’t occur to him that this new social media platform would manage to publish a new post every week. Neither would he expect that he’d learn to compose classical poems and proses. The intensity of content creation and complexity of the rhymes and metres of poetry all made him “panic at first and happily fulfilled now”.

One aspect of such fulfillment lies in the fact that he now is able to write in calligraphy the poems and proses he composes – a double creation. When indulging himself in the magnificent natural scenery, instead of being completely overwhelmed he now feels he is driven by exuberant inspiration. He’d write the poems he composes in calligraphy. In this way, poetry and calligraphy are seamlessly integrated. According to Mo Yan, such “symbiosis of poetry and calligraphy” reflects the primitive state of Chinese calligraphy art.

As a matter of fact, “symbiosis of poetry and calligraphy” epitomizes the core mission of “Two Bricks and Ink Insights”, which was co-founded by Mo Yan and Wang Zhen, calligrapher, director of Shu Tong Research Association and Mo’s fellow countryman from Shandong Province. Among the over 150 posts on this platform, apart from a few quotes from ancient masters’ poems and proses, the majority of the calligraphic works feature classical-style Chinese poems and proses written by Mo Yan and Wang Zhen. In particular, over 500 pieces of poems and proses are written by Mo Yan.

Known as a prolific novelist, Mo Yan seems to have slowed his pace down in novel writing and put more efforts to the writing of poems and calligraphy, attempting to fulfill the transformation from a novelist to a literatus in the traditional sense. As far as he’s concerned, classical poetry builds a bridge to communicate with the great minds from the past, which facilitates him to gain more insights into the minds of the great masters of Chinese culture.

To Chinese literati, calligraphy is considered a way to express both their minds and moods. Great calligraphy embodies the harmonious symbiosis of contents and the art of ink. Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Gathering by Wang Xizhi (303-361) and Draft of a Requiem to My Nephew by Yan Zhenqing (709–785) are examples of that. What Mo Yan aspires to revive is exactly the tradition of creating splendid classical-style poetry and proses in the form of equally splendid calligraphy.

Looking back upon the history, we’d realize that a great number of timeless masterpieces drew inspirations from the travelings and gatherings of the poets and literati. It is under this context that Mo Yan and Wang Zhen embarked on their “grand tour”. Since the Qin and Han dynasties (BC 221 – AD 220), “grand tour” has remained a tradition of Chinese literati for further self-improvement and practice. Not simply a journey for fun, it implies “traveling far away with grand ambition”.

The value of such “grand tour” lies in broadening the vision and enhancing one’s ability for literature and art creation. Quite coincidentally, since the 17th century the upper-class young British men also initiated the tradition of “Grand Tour”, which mainly served as an educational rite of passage. Both in Chinese and western contexts, poetry and prose remained a prominent form of knowledge production. Exemplary figures included Li Bai, Du Fu and Su Shi from China and Byron, Shelley and Keats from the UK.

The journey to Japan in 2019 marked the beginning of Mo Yan and Wang Zhen’s “grand tour”. Throughout the next three years, they travelled through the northeast China, central China, Shandong Province and Beijing, and created quite a number of classical-style poems and calligraphic works, including Long Ballad of the Journey to Japan, Ballad of the Red Leaves on the Whale Sea, Song of Yellow River, As If Li Bai Is Coming, The Story of Gecko Pavilion, Sailing Boat at Night – Huanghe Tower and Walking on the Imperial Street – A Visit to Cang Jie’s Mausoleum.

It all began from a pilgrimage journey to Japan to take a close look at the Draft of a Requiem to My Nephew by Yan Zhenqing, renowned Chinese calligrapher of the Tang Dynasty. And gradually it evolved into multifaceted reflections on the culture of Golden Tang, value of traditional Chinese literati culture, the national spirit of the 20th century, local traditions, cultural resources, ecological changes and cross-cultural communication in the context of globalization as well as the relationship between Chinese calligraphy art and literature.

According to Mo Yan and Wang Zhen, to express contemporary life and perceptions through classical-style poems and proses is not merely “putting new wine into old wineskins”; on the contrary, it involves inventions and discoveries that are “new in nature despite its seemingly traditional appearance”. Through exercises, they write poems and proses following the traditional metrical rules and in the form of traditional Chinese calligraph. Not only do they want to improve their skills of poem writing and calligraphy, but more importantly they also endeavor to revive the once dynamic traditions of Chinese culture through the posts on “Ink Insights”.

Mo Yan repeatedly emphasizes that calligraphy has to be “useful”, meaning it needs to write about the life people are familiar with and must be integrated into the various scenes of life (i.e. trademarks, billboards, store signboards, couplets in study, living room decorations, monumental inscriptions, holiday celebrations and correspondence with friends). In other words, calligraphy has to go beyond the context of exhibition and collection and return to scenes of everyday life.

He has also laid an emphasis on “symbiosis of poetry and calligraphy”. Calligraphy has to be integrated into the daily practice of writers and knowledge producers. At the earlier stage, “Two Bricks and Ink Insights” published quite some quotes from masters of ancient times; but as their grand journey continued, they increasingly emphasized on presenting calligraphy works featuring original poems and proses written by themselves.

Wang Zhen witnessed more than once what it means to be “inspiration running like a bubbling spring”. Throughout their journeys, there were many times Mo Yan started to write poems one after another – including five-character or seven-character poems and classical long ballads – right after he went back to the hotels and took a brief break. He wouldn’t stop until all the rice paper prepared by Wang Zhen was run out and covered every bit of the hotel room. He truly acted like a literatus from ancient times, creating poems and writing them in the form of calligraphy, following the tradition established by Wang Xizhi when he was writing the Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Gathering.

During the process, Wang Zhen also becomes more and more proficient at composing proses in classical styles, which in turn helps to further refine his skills and perceptions of calligraphy art. At several occasions, Mo Yan wrote poems and Wang Zhen composed proses; and the two of them would sing to each other, which added a lot of new fun to their friendship.

Entitled Grand Tour and Long Ballad - Mo Yan and Wang Zhen: “Two Bricks and Ink Insights”, the exhibition could be deemed as a summary and review of their grand tour during the past four years. The 76 pieces/groups of works selected from the poems and proses published on “Two Bricks and Ink Insights” are presented in various scripts and in a variety of forms including hand scroll, mirror heart, album leaf and couplet.

“Long ballad” refers to both long poems and the act of singing the poems loudly and passionately. As a matter of fact, since the launch of “Ink Insights”, it has become not only a platform for Mo Yan and Wang Zhen to publish poems and calligraphy works, but also an increasingly influential promotion channel for cultural and historical attractions across China. Also, its growing influence has contributed to the implementation of a charity project initiated by Mo Yan (which aims to help children with congenital heart defects in western China).

In this sense, Grand Tour and Long Ballad is more than an exhibition of Chinese calligraphy and classical literature. It raises a question that points directly into the essence of meaning, pushing people to reflect upon how life is supposed to look like and what it truly means. For instance, with algorithms, AI and various new technologies making fundamental changes to our life, do we still need “grand tour”? What’s the value of poetry, art and tradition to our life? And fundamentally, how to live our life better? 

Mr. Mo Yan 

Mo Yan, a renowned contemporary Chinese writer, is currently the professor of Beijing Normal University and director of the International Writing Centre. He is the first Chinese national to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2012. Born in 1956 in Shandong ProvinceMo Yan left school at the age of 11. In 1976, Mo Yan joined the army and assumed a teaching role. During this period, he started writing and it was then that his literary talent was first discovered. He left the army in 1997 to work in Procuratorate Daily and then in the Chinese National Academy of Arts. 

 release of Red Sorghum (1987) launched his career as a nationally recognized novelist. Mo Yans major works include not only novels, such as The Garlic Ballads (1988), The Republic of Wine (1993), Big Breasts and Wide Hips (1995), Sandalwood Death (2001), Pow (2003), Life and Death are Wearing Me Out (2005), Frog (2009) and A Late Bloomer (2020), but also plays, such as Farewell My Concubine (1997) and Our Jingke (2004).Hhis works have been translated into more than 50 languages and over 200 editions.

Mo Yan is the recipient of numerous awards including Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (the French Arts and Literature Knight Medal), Italys Nonino Prize, the Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize of Japan, the Newman Prize for Chinese Literature, the Mao Dun Literature Prize, Koreas Manhae Literary Prize and Algerian National Order of Merit Medal. He is now an Honorary Fellow of Regent’s Park College in University of Oxford, a fellow of the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts and an Honorary Member of the Modern Language Association of America.

Mo Yan has also been awarded Honorary Doctorates from The Open University of Hong Kong (China), Fo Guang University of Taiwan (China), Aix-Marseille University of France, Sofia University of Bulgaria, The City University of New York, The Chinese University of Hong Kong (China), University of Macau (China), Hong Kong Baptist University (China), Pontifical Catholic University of Peru and Diego Portales University.  

Mr. Wang Zhen 

Born in 1970, Wang Zhen is a native of Zouping City, Shandong. He is a member of the Chinese Calligraphers Association, president of the Beijing Shutong Cultural and Art Research Association (BSCAA), vice president of the Enlightened Painting Institute of the Central Committee of the Democratic Progressive Party, editor-in-chief of Classical Recitation and Writing, co-founder of the "Two Bricks and Ink Insights", representative of the 11th National Literature and Arts Congress, and executive director of “Mo Yan Tong Xin Project” of the China Charity Federation. 

In 2019, "Selected Manuscripts of Wang Zhen" was published. 

In 2022, "Good to See the Magpie Coming - Wang Zhen Calligraphy Exhibition" was held in Beijing.

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