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The death of a master: Chinese media on Qi Gong's passing

"Study to teach others; act as an example to the world"

Calligrapher and classical scholar Qi Gong passed away last week. His death was front page news (see this post on Danwei for a cover image), and many newspapers ran several pages looking at his life and work. Memorial activities over the next few days included a candlelight ceremony at Beijing Normal University.

China Daily calls him "the best-known calligrapher in the public's eye." Qi Gong's unique style of calligraphy is immediately recognizable, and, the papers say, he hardly ever refused a request, so examples of his work can be found all over.

At Beijing Normal University, where he had worked since 1952, he came up with and wrote out the school motto (pictured). Practically every building on the BNU campus has a sign in his wiry hand as well — the joke goes that he even did the "Men's" and "Women's" signs for the restrooms. In cities around the country, one can glance at certain buildings and know immediately that Qi Gong did the sign. His running style was encoded into a font that is available for download online (see the links at the end of the post).

Unfortunately, he had been unable to write for six or seven years prior to his death, a fact that most articles mentioned, but he was still able to dictate books. Fewer articles provided the information that he had been unable to speak for the last half-year.

At 93 years old, Qi Gong's passing was seen by many as the end of an era. Workers' Daily asks, "Can we still produce great masters?" Hangzhou Daily, in an editorial entitled "His death is the close of an era," says, "There will no longer be anyone like Qi Gong, who cultivated himself through culture to become a great scholar. The type of accomplished master seen in the past no longer exists." The Beijing News takes the long view, noting that historical circumstances may make it impossible for great scholars to be born out of contemporary society, but we have other tasks to accomplish:

Our present goal is to construct a society based on the rule of law. As a democratic legal system becomes sturdier, the domain of culture and education will change in reaction to it...Perhaps the cultural arena in the next decade or two won't produce a great master, accomplished in both East and West, both ancient and modern. But what about later on? We should be optimistic.

Obituaries also described Qi Gong's easygoing personality and sense of humor, remarking on his jokes and his collection of stuffed animals. Practically every article printed a self-deprecating poem Qi Gong wrote for his epitaph when he was 66.

Qi Gong writing in his studio in 1998

Qi Gong was an ethnic Manchu, and a member of the Aisin Gioro clan, three generations removed from Pu Yi. Most obituaries mentioned his imperial clan connections, but not all of them noted that he rejected the surname and was perturbed by the recent rise of imperial chic. In an essay he wrote several years ago explaining his views, he told of receiving letters addressed to "Aisin Gioro Qigong" and sending them back marked "No Such Person".

Perhaps the most interesting reaction to Qi Gong's death appeared in Oriental Outlook. The magazine printed "A lament for my teacher," by Zhao Rengui, one of Qi Gong's disciples. This would be nothing out of the ordinary, except for the fact that Zhao wrote the eulogy in classical literary language that is rarely, if ever, found in the pages of a news magazine.

Finally, in an interesting coincidence that confirms Qi Gong's status among the public at large, a strange bit on news ran in the Mirror on the day of his death. A "No Parking" sign in a Beijing hutong was inscribed with Qi Gong's name; a resident of the hutong thought that people would be more likely to heed the sign if they though it had been written by a famous person.

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