Man on the Street: Street Calligraphy Artist

By Ziyi Yuan, February 18, 2016

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Man on the Street is a regular series where we talk to someone doing an everyday job, in order to gain insight into the lives of normal Chinese people.

It’s cold, it’s raining, it’s early. As commuters rush into the subway in hopes of snatching a seat, shaking off their umbrellas as they go, a thin man in dark clothing still manages to gather a small crowd. Quite a peculiar sight for a wet Wednesday morning, he’s doing calligraphy. The classic skill is impressive in itself, but doing it with arms amputated above the elbows seems almost impossible. Yet, there he is.

Yang Yonghong is a street artist, specializing in Li calligraphy – an ancient form from the Han dynasty. Having lost his forearms at the age of 7, his first job was selling newspapers on the street. However, ever since Yang discovered the art of calligraphy over eight years ago, he has been devoted to it. 

“Now, I cannot stop doing this. If people find a job they really love, they never get bored with it,” he tells us.

Two Chinese brushes, a couple sheaves of xuan paper and a bottle of ink – these are all the tools Yang needs to create his art. He brings several of his completed works to his stand as well – sometimes he can sell them to customers directly. Other times, he will need to paint a “fresh” one. 

As Yang shows us his process, speckles of black settle on his arms and face. “With so much ink around, this happens all the time,” he remarks. “This is why I wear dark grey clothes. Otherwise I would look dirty every day.”

Yang opens a bottle of ink with his mouth and pours it into a small box. He picks up a brush. We ask him to write down anything he wants. He draws a complicated Chinese character meaning ‘insist’ – a symbol quite fitting for the young man pushing through disability for his art. 

Despite the fact that Yang has lots of regular customers, he admits that working on the street is dangerous

He remembers how he first picked up the brush and the people – teachers – who inspired and encouraged him to improve his skills and carry on. 

“Everyone has a big dream, he says, “but once people take the first step, that’s all it takes for it to come true”.

Despite the fact that Yang has lots of regular customers, he admits that working on the street is dangerous. He recalls a day when all of his implements were seized by the chengguan in Baishizhou and his works torn to pieces. Since that incident, he prefers to do most of his painting at home – especially during holidays and times when there may be extra patrols on the street. 

When he does set up outside, he makes sure to move around frequently to avoid trouble. As tiresome as that may be, Yang prefers to stay on the safe side. He lives far from all of his painting spots, but is quite happy with how much he pays in rent. “It’s only 600 yuan – quite fair for a single man,” he proudly tells us. 

Yang finishes up another piece and stamps it with his name. The characters are barely visible on the paper, but Yang doesn’t seem to mind. It’s all about the calligraphy. 

As we get ready to head back, the rain picks up again. More people pour down the subway entrance, rushing past Yang’s stand. Some steal a quick glance, while others simply hurry by. 

It’s getting dark, and Yang’s spot is starting to get lost in the pre-sunset mist. He picks up his few tools and barrow, and heads into the rain, his artwork and his dreams perfectly intact.

READ MORE: Man on the Street: Street Barbecue Sellers


Monthly salary: RMB1,000-6,000

Days per week: Typically every day (depending on the weather)

Hours per day: 10 (longer in the summer)

To read more Man on the Street click here.

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