Revealing Characters

What can we learn from Chinese President Hu Jintao’s calligraphy?

Wang-Dan-305.jpg Wang Dan attending a press conference in Taipei, May 24, 2009.

By Wang Dan

After the Yushu earthquake, President Hu Jintao broke off his overseas trip and raced to the stricken site. At a school for orphans, he impulsively took up a piece of chalk and wrote in large characters on the blackboard, “There will be new schools! There will be new homes!”

We now hear that this blackboard was immediately transported to a museum in Xining to become part of its collection. Because of this, I think this situation is worthy of analysis.

A person’s calligraphy or handwriting expresses many elements of his or her personality. Mao Zedong’s dominant behavior, for example, was evident in the unrestrained and expansive quality of his calligraphy. It truly evoked his character.

So what can we learn about his self-styled successor, Hu Jintao, from his calligraphy?

First, I would imagine that even the most ardent fans of the President would have to admit that these characters are pretty poorly written. We have already seen the famous wobbly “calligraphy” of Mao Zedong’s grandson, Mao Xinyu. Hu Jintao’s characters are only a little bit better than that aesthetically speaking, but they have exactly the same childish quality.

So we can infer that Hu Jintao is someone who doesn’t take much interest in a cultural life. Any cultivated person would spend some time improving his handwriting. Chinese leaders love to leave examples of their calligraphy all over the place, so it’s sort of a tradition for them to cultivate their calligraphic skills.

Their skill level has varied greatly from Mao Zedong right down to [former president] Jiang Zemin and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, but nonetheless, their calligraphy is generally presentable.

Hu Jintao is a great follower of Party tradition, so for his calligraphy to be so bad shows us that he leads a very arid existence outside of politics. The strokes in his characters don’t join up, and they’re too rigidly horizontal and vertical—suggesting a flat and rigid character.


Second, most leaders will have a secretary make the necessary preparations before they leave an inscription. It seems that from the way Hu Jintao just picked up the chalk, this inscription was made purely on impulse.

But it is precisely such unscripted instances of calligraphic inscriptions that give us a clue about the person’s train of thought.

Everyone who has lived through the 1950s will find his inscription somewhat familiar, because it echoes a famous line from the film “Lenin in 1918,” which says, “There will be bread. There will be milk.”

Apart from their obvious lack of any literary merit, we can see how deep-rooted Hu Jintao’s thought is in the Soviet-influenced education of the era, such that this is what emanates from his unconscious mind when he picks up a piece of chalk and scribbles an inscription on the fly.

Further evidence of this line of association comes from the fact that once, when he was asked what works of world literature he had read, Hu Jintao mentioned a Soviet ideological propaganda work, the story of Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya.

Of course, we don’t expect our world leaders to be literary stars, nor to produce accomplished works of art. Jiang Zemin was keen to try his hand at traditional music, Go, painting and calligraphy, and his efforts were largely greeted with ridicule.

But it isn’t hard to spot Hu Jintao’s ideological lineage from his calligraphy, and that is the old school of the Chinese Communist Party. It’s also possible to see that he is rigid and detail-oriented, so it’s not hard to imagine what his style of running the country is, either.

In fact, we could advance the theory that expecting such a character to play a part in bringing about major historical change is a bit like climbing a tree to catch a fish.

So here is my own inscription for Hu Jintao:
“There will be democracy. There will be freedom”

Original essay for RFA’s Mandarin Service by Wang Dan, a leader of the 1989 Chinese pro-democracy movement who now lives in exile. He holds a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated from the Chinese by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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