Born in 1976; native of Zhucheng, Shandong, member of the China Calligraphers Association, Vice-President of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) Standing Committee and the China Disabled Persons’ Federation of Weifang, an award-winning calligrapher with works selected into more than 50 national and provincial calligraphy exhibitions, and a “National Model of Virtue” as awarded by the General Office of the Central Commission for Guiding Cultural and Ethical Progress.
“No matter how fast-paced and pressing life is, I feel calm and at ease whenever I pick up a writing brush.” – Liu Xiaoqing
A faint scent of ink in the air, a flat piece of rice paper on the desk, a writing brush in hand, Liu Xiaoqing is drawing poetic beauty as if to strike a chord with scholars in ancient times. Her favorite works are of Su Shi and Tao Qian—distinguished Chinese poets who lived during the Song and Eastern Jin Dynasties. Of all their respective lines, “turning my head, I see the dreary beaten track / let me go back! / Impervious to wind, rain or shine, I’ll have my will” and “what revelation at this view? / words fail if I try to tell you” best illustrate their imperturbable and broad-minded personalities which Xiaoqing greatly admires.
Xiaoqing is a native of Zhucheng City, Shandong Province. In 1981, when she was just five years old she was involved in a terrible accident—a tractor rolled over her, leaving her paralyzed from the chest down. Her family brought her to every doctor they could find all over the country hoping to reverse the injury, however their efforts were to no avail and they had to take her home.
At an otherwise innocent age, Xiaoqing suffered the cruelty of fate. “In the following four or five years, I often had nightmares about that accident. My legs couldn’t feel a thing, but my heart was aching so badly.”
In those darkest of days, calligraphy became her salvation. Because of her physical condition, she only studied for one and a half years in school. Her parents had to leave her home alone when they went to work. Xiaoqing endured endlessly long hours alone during the daytime, forlorn and helpless.
Never will she forget the day when she officially picked up a Chinese writing brush. It was September 12, 1992 and her parents had hired a calligraphy tutor for her. “Beginning then I saw hope. I found my best friend for life: Calligraphy.”
To practice calligraphy, the young Xiaoqing used a special wooden board, with one end placed on the bedhead and the other end propped up against the floor. Supporting her weight on the makeshift desk with her left hand, she would raise her right hand into a position conducive to writing. Every day before work, her mother would help her adjust her position and place the stationery within her reach. She practiced calligraphy crouching for hours on end. When her shoulders and elbows were tired, she would lower her head to rest a little. Her off-hours began when her mother returned from work, for it was only during this time could she turn over and change position. In summer she could not use air-conditioning due to health concerns, and fans were impractical because they would blow around the rice paper. Every time she practiced during this season, she would sweat like a leaky bucket and get insect bites all over. Her mother addressed this problem by tucking tissue paper under her neck and armpits to absorb excessive sweat.
After two full years of practice, Xiaoqing was admitted to the Calligraphy and Painting Exhibition for Teachers and Learners in Zhucheng, winning first prize in both art forms. Though small awards in retrospect, they were nevertheless a profoundly inspiring commendation for Xiaoqing.
Following was practice, practice, and more practice. She studied all kinds of techniques, established a mental link with virtuosos in history by imitating their styles and studying their brush movements, working away the lonely years of her youth.
Xiaoqing began with the regular script of the Tang Dynasty, going from Yan Zhenqing’s style—which possesses a solemn and majestic look—to the difficult and robust style of Liu Gongquan. When she reached a certain level of skill, she started to practice the semi-cursive or “running” script and was immediately attracted to Mi Fu’s style from the Song Dynasty for his boldness and speed. As Huang Tingjian, a prominent scholar of the Northern Song Dynasty, once lauded, “Mi moves his brush as fast as a thrashing sword, with strength equal to that of a long-range crossbow. Such style marks the work of a true master hand.”
After a while, Xiaoqing felt that Mi had too unrestrained a style. She turned to Su Shi, whose fine calligraphy works for mail correspondence soon became her favorite copybooks. She agreed with what Liu Yong, an eminent figure of the Qing Dynasty said about Su’s calligraphy: “Su’s innocent nature lends purity to his style, characterized by gentle movement and an abundance of ink where a fresh touch is expected.” Xiaoqing also looked through a wealth of Su Shi’s theoretical works on calligraphy itself and was inspired by several lines in particular including “In my creative ways I write unconcerned with techniques, freely I draw and dot, unhindered by manipulation and calculation,” and “I’m the one who understands, yet is not skilled in, calligraphy” as well as “with a thorough comprehension of meaning, techniques need not be learnt.”
She came to understand that “unconcerned with techniques” and “a thorough comprehension of meaning” refer not so much to an erratic and unconstrained fashion of writing so much as an ultimate state of attainment, in which not only the techniques but also the true essence of art itself can be grasped. “I hope to forge my own style after I’ve gone deeper with the foundational principles and become adept at all kinds of master scripts. A calligrapher I admire once warned that we need to take it easy on our journey to style and avoid being special for the sake of being special, because we need more commonality than individualism in this new era. I agree.”
To get membership in the China Calligraphers Association, one must have works admitted into at least two calligraphy exhibitions. Xiaoqing’s admissions happened at a seven year interval. In those seven years, numerous rejections didn’t defeat her—she kept on practicing. “Those seven years were difficult, but now looking back, they were precious. It was during this time that I gained much understanding of calligraphy.” Finally, Xiaoqing’s works became more widely recognized and appreciated.
“I’m lucky to have met two mentors on my journey of calligraphy. One is Gu Yalong, the president of the Shandong Calligraphers Association, who didn’t lower his standards for my works because he sympathized with me. He taught me to treat calligraphy as my best friend, and I didn’t let him down. And the other one is Mr. Zhang Rongqing. He’s 80 years old now. He cares about me very much and always shows great patience when I ask him questions.”
It’s been over 20 years since Xiaoqing started to practice calligraphy. She has been admitted to more than 50 provincial and national exhibitions and has held six solo shows in Beijing, Jinan, Weifang, and Zhucheng as “The Most Beautiful Sister in a Wheelchair.”
Apart from calligraphy, Xiaoqing is very involved in charity. For the past few years she’s donated her prizes to earthquake relief efforts in Wenchuan and has provided support to local girls with leukemia. Since 2013, with the help of many fellow enthusiasts she has held several exhibitions on themes in Chinese which translate as “Dream of China, Ideal of Virtue” and “Purity in Heart” and many others with a similar sentiment. In these events, hundreds of her works were auctioned for charity. One particular exhibition in August 2015 generated 250,000 yuan in revenue, all of which she donated to causes for people with disabilities. In 2017, Xiaoqing founded an NGO called “Sunshine Xiaoqing Culture and Art Center for People with Disabilities” and started to teach calligraphy and share her life story in schools for hearing and sight-impaired children.
“Calligraphy is an art form which led me to the outside world, and through that I have made my dream come true—that I can help other people with what I’ve learned. I feel truly happy to see how calligraphy brings beauty and warmth to people! The art of calligraphy has such a profundity and abundance that I need to continue to learn it for all of my life.”
This story is part of a series of articles published as an exclusive editorial exchange between China Press for People with Disabilities & Spring Breeze and ABILITY Magazine