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21 February 2024

Character building: Taiwan's presidential calligraphers


Deep in the high-ceilinged corridors of Taiwan's presidential office, calligraphers craft messages on behalf of the island's leaders as they seek to keep the traditional art alive.

Both the president and vice president appoint a personal scribe who creates everything from small notes to large scrolls, delivering congratulations and condolences to residents.

Yang Shu-wan is President Tsai Ing-wen's calligrapher, selected after applying for the position in 2016 when Tsai came to power.

Her workshop is hung with large swathes of red or white sheets, freshly decorated with traditional Chinese ink strokes and drying over metal racks.

"The style of characters should mirror the personality and I want to show the frank and unpretentious side of the president," Yang, 59, told AFP.

She explained that she had met the president a number of times and spoken with her shortly after the leader took office, when she praised how beautifully Yang wrote her name.

"I also think she is personable and I want to show that other side of her through the calligraphy, using a script that is spirited and vivacious," Yang said.

Yang's brush set varies from thick to fine tips, enabling her to make bold or delicate marks on paper spread across a large wooden table, working with unwavering concentration.

Members of the public apply for the messages to mark birthdays from 80 and above, wedding anniversaries from 50 years as well as deaths of loved ones aged 70 or older.

Temples and schools also ask for the calligraphy tributes from the president, which are all sent out free of charge, to commemorate anniversaries and achievements.

More than 11,000 such messages were issued by the presidential office last year.
- Inner calm -
Like most Taiwanese students, Yang practised calligraphy when she was at school but did not take it up seriously until 20 years ago, when she was a stay-at-home mother.

Through practising rigorously for hours a day she began to win competitions and teach the art.

Yang says one of her most memorable messages on behalf of the president, who is an animal lover, was a tribute to a golden retriever named Cherry that toured schools to promote animal protection before dying of an illness.

She describes how her work gives her inner calm and balance, and helps accumulate good karma.
"I write condolences for a person who passed away at 112 years old and congratulate a couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary," she told AFP.

"I have come to realise that there is no constant in life and we should cherish every moment."
Yang sees calligraphy as one of the island's most important cultural assets and teaches the art to students as young as five.

Her views are echoed by Susan Huang, official calligrapher of Vice President Chen Chien-jen, who says the art helps cultivate patience and persistence in children.

The retired maths teacher, now 72, met Chen at the Catholic church they both attend.

She says her characters are "balanced and calm" to reflect what she describes as Chen's gentle nature and that she writes them as if they were for her own family, seeing herself as a bridge between the government and the people.

"It gives me a great sense of accomplishment," she told AFP.

"I hope when people receive the messages I write, they will feel pleased or comforted."