Chinese writing on the wall

Another mode of reading that crossed the border between a private reading space and a public one was the phenomenon I call “reading from the wall.” The notorious practice of dàzìbào (literally, Big Character Poster) during the Cultural Revolution (1967-1977) was not unprecedented and possibly had its precursor in this practice of reading.²⁶ During the imperial period, there would be a wall called shībì (literally, poetry wall) erected in most temples and monasteries, on which people could write poems and couplets, compose in reply to others’ works, or just show off their calligraphy. Sometimes, poems were written on a piece of paper and pasted onto the wall. Travelers could stop by and enjoy reading off the wall. In restaurants, tea shops, and inns, a wall would be reserved for this purpose (see Fig 3.1²⁷). More often than not, guests wrote freely on whichever wall they pleased, sometimes even against the will of the proprietors.

In an anecdote recorded by Zhang Qixian (943–1014), there was a young man named Yang Ningshi who was good at calligraphy and had a haughty personality. When he stayed in Luoyang, he visited all the Daoist and Buddhist temples. Whenever he saw water, rocks, pines, bamboo, and secluded scenery, he would compose poems and inscribed them on the wall. The monks treasured his calligraphy and preserved his works well. They even went out of their way to whiten the walls that Yang had not written on and cleaned the place nearby. When Yang came and found the clean wall, he would stare at it as if crazy, then compose on it until it was covered with his characters. Bystanders would wait around to appreciate his poems. Yang’s actions was endorsed in two poems also inscribed on the walls by one An Hongjian, a jìnshì degree holder, and a Feng Shaochang, son of a prince.²⁸

Li Yu, A History of Reading in Late Imperial China (PDF), p. 98. Lots more anecdotes inside.

When I hold a brush in calligraphy practice I have some urge of graffiting characters on all available surfaces. I totally dig how Yang Ningshi must have felt.

Morris on why Heian aristocrats weren’t snobs

The basis of snobbery may be defined¹ as the choice of irrelevant criteria from among various possible scales of value, as, for example, in judging the beauty of a painting by its age, or a person’s wit by his wealth; in Murasaki’s world, on the other hand, there was a single overriding criterion by which people were judged: that of birth. Under exceptional circumstances a social group may acquire a ‘monolithic’ hierarchy of values and such groups are relatively free of snobbery, because there is no other scale of values to interfere with judgement. It is precisely such a hierarchy that we find in the aristocracy of Heian Kyō. Their attitude to provincials and to members of their own class was the natural consequence of an accepted scale of values in which a member of the Third Rank, for instance, automatically took precedence over a provincial governor of the Fifth, and a person without rank (tadabito—‘mere person’) was in every respect inferior to one whose birth qualified him for appointment (yoki hito—‘good person’). To call this snobbery is to underestimate its scope.

—Ivan Morris, The World of the Shining Prince.

He actually has a citation for the definition of “snobbery”; here’s the footnote:

1. I am indebted to Arthur Koestler for his definition and analysis of snobbery (The Trail of the Dinosaur and Other Essays, London, 1955, pp. 69–94). Ancient Greece provides an interesting analogy in its use of the terms, kalokagathoi and kakoi, which correspond closey to yoki and waroki hito.