Calligrapher grandpa was a true character builder

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 July, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 July, 2005, 12:00am

A NEW EXHIBITION at Chinese University of Hong Kong's Art Museum is paying tribute to one of the most influential Chinese calligraphers of the past century, Yu Youren.

But aside from giving a glimpse into the scholar, revolutionary, pioneering journalist, poet and politician's fascinating life, it also offers a rare insight of the formative years of one of Hong Kong's leading academics.

Yu was also Chinese University vice-chancellor Lawrence Lau Juen-yee's adoptive grandfather.

Officiating over the opening of the exhibition, Professor Lau said calligraphy would be Yu's lasting legacy. 'I think that 100 years from now he will be remembered for his calligraphy,' he said.

Professor Lau's mother was adopted by Yu when she was still very young following the early death of her father, Yu's cousin.

The professor said Yu treated his mother like his own daughter. 'My siblings and I had been calling Mr Yu 'grandpa' since we were children,' Professor Lau said.

He said he had fond memories of long family holidays at Yu's large home in Taiwan 'almost every year'. 'While I was studying in primary and secondary school in Hong Kong, we would go to Taipei to visit my grandfather during the summer holidays,' Professor Lau said.

Despite his relative fame and political position, Yu lived a simple life, he said. 'He was a person who was from the people. Even though he achieved considerable status, he actually still led a very simple life. I think that's a very good legacy for us [the family].'

Born in Sanyuan county, Shaanxi province, in 1879, Yu rose from humble beginnings to become the first president of the Control Yuan, the Nationalist government's regulatory body. He held the post for 34 years until his death in 1964.

Yu, a younger contemporary of Sun Yat-sen, was a veteran of the 1911 revolution who played a number of diverse roles during his career - educator, activist, artist and statesman, among others. He played a key role in the founding of Shanghai's Fudan College in 1905, which would later become Fudan University.

But it was calligraphy that remained his passion throughout his life.

This exhibition is the first showing of Yu's work to be held in Hong Kong and consists of about 90 pieces spanning his entire career.

Many of the scrolls come from the private collections of Yu's descendants, including Professor Lau. These were personal gifts, often dedicated to the person for whom they were intended.

Professor Lau said his grandfather had been active in shaping his descendants' personal development and tried to instil in them a sense of civic responsibility.

'He would often write to us about how to be a good person,' he said. These writings included inspirational quotes and words of encouragement.

One piece in particular, which he said Yu wrote 'many thousands of times', called on the reader to set their heart for Heaven and Earth, their life for the people, to strive for the lost arts of sages past and build peace for 10,000 generations.

A copy of the poem, which was given to Professor Lau, is included in the exhibition.

Professor Lau said that as he matured he came to regret not spending more time with Yu. 'Unfortunately I had no interest in calligraphy or art at the time, like most teenagers,' he said. The generation gap had also made it difficult to get close to his grandfather.

'By the time he was in his 80s I was still just a teenager, so it was sometimes hard for us to find very much to talk about,' he said.

But it is clear those long holidays in Taiwan had their effect on the future economics professor's blossoming intellect. 'He was always reading,' Professor Lau said. 'I remember his study was completely filled with books.'

He said 'it came really as a shock' when Yu passed away in 1964. 'I was in the States by that time. I was just 20,' Professor Lau said.

'I think my appreciation for him increased over the years. You know how you gradually find out more and more about what happened, what your relatives or your ancestors have done, and you get to learn to know them more.'

Professor Lau completed his bachelor's degree at Stanford University in 1964, and was at University of California, Berkeley, at the time of his grandfather's death. He remained in the US, mostly at Stanford, until he came to CUHK in 2004.

When the exhibition wraps up in early September, the works will move to Shanghai, where they will be displayed at Fudan University. Many of the scrolls will then be returned to their owners, but those from Yu's descendants will remain at the university as a permanent gallery of Yu's calligraphy.

Professor Lau said many overseas family members felt their calligraphy collection deserved to be seen by a larger audience.

'It would be a shame for these pieces to remain in the west where few people can appreciate Chinese calligraphy. We have been trying to find a suitable place for these pieces to be displayed for some time.'

Fudan University had been chosen as it was celebrating its centenary this year, and due to Yu's long association with it.

Yu helped found Fudan College in 1905, and he was also instrumental in securing special government funding for it in 1912, when it was struggling to reopen following the revolution.

As a young calligrapher, Yu used the clear, regulated Kaishu and then Northern Wei scripts. But it was his exploration of cursive script, which he took up later in his life, for which he is best known.

Cursive script - known as 'grass' script in Chinese - is the most abstract of Chinese calligraphy styles. Characters are written in one single, fluid motion with the brush never losing contact with the paper. The resulting writing can be a challenge to decipher, even for the initiated.

Yu, however, wanted to make it more accessible, by creating the 'standardised cursive script' in 1936. The style aimed to be 'legible, easy to write, accurate and elegant'.

Calligraphy was a dying art among younger generations, Professor Lau said, and this was partly because it was not being passed down to students in schools.

'These days we are gradually teaching brushwork less and less in primary and secondary schools,' he said. 'It is no longer a required thing - it has become more of a hobby.'

However, the professor admitted he had not inherited any of his grandfather's skill with brush and ink.

'I haven't written any Chinese [by hand] for a long time,' he said. 'My characters are very bad.'

'Master of Cursive Calligraphy: Yu Youren 1879-1964' is showing at the Art Museum, Institute of Chinese Studies, Chinese University of Hong Kong, until September 4.