Jul 16

Mark of a gentleman – the calligraphy of Chinese leaders

Written by Buxi on Wednesday, July 16th, 2008 at 7:18 am
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Although some aspects of Chinese culture has been severely neglected and abused over the 20th century, other aspects remain eternal in Chinese society. One enduring trait is appreciation for traditional calligraphy.

While no Chinese political leader can point to penmanship as being the source of power, it’s no exaggeration to say cultivated writing attracts attention and admiration, while poor writing form invites suspicion and scorn. Here is a collection of calligraphy from notable Chinese leaders of the 20th (and now 21st) century, in chronological order:

Sun Zhongshan, founder of the Chinese republic (here with his earlier name, Sun Wen). “Everything for the public.”

Another from Sun Zhongshan: “World trends, enormous and powerful. Those who follow them will thrive. Those who resist them will die.”

Mao Zedong, founder of the People’s Republic of China: A poem to an old classmate, written in 1955 (毛泽东图书馆)

Another from Mao Zedong: A poem written in 1936, as Mao Zedong led the Red Army into Shanxi. (沁园春•雪)

Jiang Jieshi, former President of the Republic of China: A quote used to describe the Huangpu Military Academy during the Republican Revolution years, “The blood of past martyrs allows idealism to flower”.

Deng Xiaoping, credited with ending three decades of isolation for the PRC, and beginning China’s “opening up and reform” period: remarks confirming support for the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, in 1984 (邓小平深圳题词)

Another from Deng Xiaoping: Encouraging workers working on the Tibet/Sichuan expressway. (Updated: 连接)

Ma Yingjiu, current President of the Republic of China: “Spread Chinese culture, advance world peace”

Hu Jintao, current President of the PRC, and General Secretary of the Communist Party: An idiom meaning, “rise high and look far”. (高瞻远瞩)

Wen Jiabao, current Premier of the PRC: Written to a volunteer at the Beijing Olympics (连接)

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34 Responses to “Mark of a gentleman – the calligraphy of Chinese leaders”

  1. Charles Liu Says:

    Here are few more calligraphy examples from Taiwanese leaders Lien, Soong, Chen:


  2. werew Says:

    “Encouraging workers working on the Tibet/Sichuan expressway”.
    I am confused. How does 国防 fit in there? I think it actually means work hard at securing the national defense of (western?) borders, possibly as in Aksai Chin or Trans-Karakoram Tract disputed with India.

  3. BMY Says:

    I like Jiang’s. I never be able to read Mao’s well.

    I’m too confused with Deng’s. The calligraphy dose not say anything about Sichuan/Tibet or India. This would stir up comments from people who are allergy of some words. If there was a story behind that I don’t know please don’t explain to me. Let’s just focus on the calligraphy.

  4. deltaeco Says:

    How is calligraphy related to orthography and semantics in Chinese writing system?

    In alphabetic based writing systems and languages not so much attention is given to calligraphy. More attention is given to sentence construction.

    Being Chinese system more ideographic than phonetic, it seems it does have a more direct interdependency between selected writing symbol, its meaning and its design (calligraphy)

  5. fall Says:

    Mao once had a vivid self-description. He said he was a monk under an umbrella with neither hair nor law. His penmanship is a very good presentation of his characteristic which did not bring any benefit to China and its people.

  6. bianxiangbianqiao Says:

    Mao’s calligraphy is by far the best among the images above.

  7. FOARP Says:

    Here’s the calligraphy of the former President of the Republic of China, Chairman of the KMT, and spiritual leader of the Taiwan Solidarity Union, Lee Tenghui (the inscription reads “The people’s wishes remain in my heart”).

    The rest of the ROC leader’s calligraphy can be found here:


    Anyone know where Hua Guofeng’s calligraphy can be found?

  8. ilikerice Says:

    Nothing from Jiang Zemin? Outrageous.


  9. zuiweng Says:

    Thanks for the nice examples (in the post and comments).

    For those with access to libraries, there is a good discussion of the subject in:

    Richard C. Kraus: Brushes with Power: Modern Politics and the Chinese Art of Calligraphy.- UCalPresss, 1991

  10. Buxi Says:

    On the Deng Xiaoping piece… I’ve updated the link (obviously hit the wrong copy/paste while writing the entry). Here’s what it claims:


    No time frame was given for this, but I assume it was written decades ago. Didn’t mean it to be political, just thought it was well done.

    I have no hope of reading Mao’s, either. I could barely guess at a few characters, and used them to Google out the actual text. 🙂 I just found a translation of his poem from above:

    Snow Poem by: Mao Zedong

    North country scene:
    A hundred leagues locked in ice,
    A thousand leagues of whirling snow.
    Both sides of the Great Wall
    One single white immensity.

    The Yellow River’s swift current
    Is stilled from end to end.
    The mountains dance silver snakes
    And the highland charge like wax-hued elephants.
    Vying with heaven in stature.
    On a fine day, the land,
    Clad in white, adorned in red,
    Grows more enchanting.

    This land so rich in beauty
    Has made countless heroes bow in homage.
    But alas! Qin Shihuang and Han Wudi
    Were lacking in literary grace,
    And Tang Taizong and Song Taizu
    Had little poetry in their souls;
    That proud son of Heaven,
    Genghis Khan,
    Knew only shooting eagles, bow outstretched.
    All are past and gone!
    For truly great men
    Look to this age alone.

  11. Buxi Says:


    Interesting theory. Europeans of course also had calligraphy became the printing press became widespread:

    I suspect it’s more a cultural difference then the nature of the characters themselves. Chinese gentlemen have always been expected to master the four arts. It’s like learning how to properly tie a tie. 🙂

  12. chorasmian Says:

    translation by Buxi – complaints/comments, let me know… this one is hard, chorasmian 🙂


    Because Chinese (and especially Chinese poetry) is often expressed in a way that can only be understood and difficult to describe in words, and the format of Han characters themselves carry meaning… with traditional scholars, you can easily see the writer’s unique personality in their poetry and calligraphy. And the more sophisticated the work, the more difficult it is to get by with pretention. Calligraphy isn’t just meant to be aesthetically pleasing, what’s more important is what the author is attempting to express.

    Looking at the works from these modern figures, Mao Zedong is a true literary man. His calligraphy and poetry are far superior to the others, and makes obvious his nature of fiercely disdaining social rules. This is in stark contrast to the works of Jiang Jieshi, who’s written characters are straight and regular, as befitting his name “Zhongzheng” (central, regular). As far as the others who come after them, their works are no better than that of novices copying previous work, not worth mentioning.


    Now serious talk aside, relax for a second and take a look at the writings of Mao Zedong’s grandson Mao Xinyu


  13. deltaeco Says:


    It could be that the difficulties to implement movable types had as result that calligraphy maintained its importance. But I still think there calligraphy is more important for Chinese characters. It seems to have a deeper influence on the meaning, not than merely decorative.

    About the difficulties about adapting CH characters to new technologies. I hear a story, not sure if its an Urban Legend ( Chinese character legend in this case).
    To transmit CH text by Morse with a telegraph two persons were needed at each end of the line. One to translate each character to a number and another to transmit that number by Morse.
    Same setup at the other end of the line, but in reverse way.
    Hope new technologies make things now much easier.

    And I hate ties…. 😛

  14. Buxi Says:


    I hope my translation does some justice to what you wrote. 🙂

    You are clearly very informed on this topic, so thank you for being our teacher here. Are Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao’s works really that amateurish? They looked “impressive”, but I am one of the uneducated… easily fooled on this.

  15. FOARP Says:

    @Zuiweng – Saw the excerpts from that book, and the references to Hua Guofeng’s failed attempt to emulate Mao’s successes as a calligrapher, but no actual examples of the calligraphy of the leader everyone loves to forget.

  16. FOARP Says:

    @ilikerice – “Study Leifeng”!?! But what do expect from the man who created the ‘three represents’.

  17. Buxi Says:


    Jiang Zemin is actually very well-known for his calligraphy, mostly because he did so much of it. His writings grace newspapers, buildings from coast to coast in China… in the opinion of many though, he should be more humble, as his writing isn’t really that good. But definitely oversight on my part for leaving it out.

    The most famous writing of all when it comes to Lei Feng:

    Lei Feng – Mao

  18. Spelunker Says:

    My guess is that Deng Xiaoping simply wanted to avoid trying to write the complicated Chinese character for Tibet ( 西藏) in traditional calligraphy. It’s much easier to write 西陲!

  19. AC Says:

    I completely agree with chorasmian’s comment. One’s calligraphy definitely reflects one’s personality. Mao’s calligraphy is one of a kind (i.e. original), just like the person himself. This is one of my favorite Mao’s poems. In this poem, Mao clearly sees himself above all those great historical figures. Mao is not only a great literary man, but also a great thinker and a military genius. Too bad he wasn’t very good at running a country, otherwise I would have agreed with him. But I have no doubt that if we give it some time, maybe 50 or 100 years from now, history will judge him as peer of Qin Shihuang, Tang Taizu, Song Taizu and Genghis Khan. A hero of his caliber is hard to come by even in China’s long history, after all, he unified a country and founded a new dynasty.

  20. Wahaha Says:


    I think we own westerners an explanation why lot of people in China still admire Mao.

  21. Buxi Says:

    There is an overheated debate on MITBBS right now about Mao… both supporters and critics.


    I would love to do an article on it. Can you guys help me select a good example to translate?

  22. Opersai Says:

    Wow! Very interesting! Too bad I’m uneducated like Buxi on Calligraphy. I heard people of my parents generation, now about 50-60 still studied and practiced writing Calligraphy when they were young. It’s too bad we dropped it now. I hope in future, they will reintroduce it back into education system. It’s such a valuable part of our culture, it would be a shame to see it became elite thing for a few.

  23. Opersai Says:

    On regards of Mao, I understand AC’s statement about him. Of each famous figure in history, they all have some admirable aspects about them, whether or not their doing in the history was good or bad, or a mix. Mao, despite the disaster he cost the country, was a genius in many areas. His poems are greatly admired by the literary field, not because his doings, but the genius of the poems. I have little respect for what he did in later part of his life – Great Leap, Culture Revolution etc, but to judge fairly, there is no denying that he was talented in many fields.

  24. Buxi Says:

    Have you guys watched the popular TV show about Mao Zedong and his classmates in their youth, when he was a college student at the teacher’s college in Hunan? Its called 恰同学少年.

    It’s only a TV show produced by the state media, so I’m sure it’s not completely accurate. It’s also been used as limited propaganda (which the script writer doesn’t approve of). But regardless, it’s a very interesting/cute look at contemporary China in Mao’s early years. Gives me another perspective on Mao.

  25. chorasmian Says:


    Thanks for your great translation. I think the comment “amateurish” is a bit too harsh on Hu and Wen’s works. Frankly, they are quite good by nowadays standard, but still far from can be proud of according to traditional standard. The level of 收放自如 (the pen becomes part of your body and you dong even feel it) is not easy to achieve. Perhaps because I like the style full of passion like Mao’s works, they are under marked in my eyes.

    Regarding the Deng’s work, I guess it was written in early 1950s, when he was the head of military force in south west China, and in charge of the building of Sichuan-Tibet expressway. But don’t be misled by the word “expressway”, it cost thousands of military engineers’ lives to build it, and even more gave their lives to maintain it. Its situation is barely better than off road racing field in western countries. When I hitchhiked there 8 years ago, after nearly 50 years construction, fresh and old ruins of truck still could be spotted down below all along. Sounds incredible to people from industrialized countries, none of the local drivers have driver license. Their answer is “we don’t need that because the incompetent drivers are already dead.”

  26. hotshotdebut Says:

    My colleague’s insignia was handwritten Jiang Zeming, maybe because her wife graduated there too.

  27. opersai Says:


    I’d agree, “amateurish” isn’t quiet the word. It’s just, the writing isn’t alive. They haven’t owned and created their own style, installed their spirit and personality in their writing, but merely following the rules of the greatest before them. Would this be a better explanation?

  28. chorasmian Says:


    Hu ‘s writing is alive and has its own style, otherwise I will score it as amateurish. The problem is it doesn’t have enough confidence or energy to overcome the rules set by the greatest. Consequently, the diversity of strokes is compromised. This is a barrier preventing him from being a Calligraphy master. To be fair, given enough time and his pressure waived, especially from his current job, he may make it.

  29. opersai Says:


    Lol, thanks for correcting me! I actually have little understanding of Chinese calligraphy beyond it’s shapes. Too much of my knowledge of it comes from KungFu novel (武侠小说), which gives no expertise or authorities in this subject whatsoever. XD

  30. FOARP Says:

    @hotshotdebut – I wonder if Song Zuying has one.

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