Li Lida Biography

Li Lida was a Chinese calligrapher, abstract expressionistic painter, “graffiti-calligraphy” artist, and Tai Chi master.  Growing up in Shanghai, he loved drawing and art and attended Fudan University.  In his early twenties, he studied Tai Chi and immersed himself in rigorous daily training.  Art and Tai Chi provided an outlet to counter the hardships of wartime living and became the passions that he pursued for the rest of his life.


In 1949 when Shanghai fell to the Communist government, Lida moved to then British colony, Hong Kong.  Excited to be in a city straddling the East and the West, he studied ballroom dancing, opened a dance studio, and earned the nickname “Chinese Fred Astaire.”  He also began studying Western style painting under Kuang Yaoding ( 鄺 耀 鼎), a renowned artist.  In 1963, Lida’s impressionistic and evocative oil paintings of Hong Kong were well-received in a solo exhibition at Hong Kong’s City Hall.

After the successful exhibition of his impressionist paintings, Lida decided to take a break from western art and focused on his interest in Chinese Art.  He studied with a famous calligrapher, Feng Kanghou (馮康侯).  By the late 1960’s, Lida’s powerful and lyrical mastery of classical calligraphy garnered attention from the art world.  His calligraphy was showcased in a Hong Kong Art Festival Exhibition.  Between 1967 and 1968, he held solo calligraphy exhibitions at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, the Tokyo National Museum, and the Museo Nazionale d’Arte Orientale in Rome.  Lida also gave a series of lectures on Chinese calligraphy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

In 1968, when he was 46, Lida emigrated to San Francisco with his family.   He was introduced to American art, music and modern dance which inspired him to create original calligraphy composed of single Chinese characters and short evocative poems by Tang Dynasty poets.  The calligraphy that Lida experimented with during this period captured the expression of freedom and boldness of the 1960’s through masterful execution of classical brushwork techniques in a multitude of traditional calligraphic styles.

A year after Lida arrived in San Francisco, the brilliance of his calligraphy began to be recognized.  In 1971 the de Young Museum in San Francisco showcased 117 pieces of Lida’s calligraphy, both classical and original works, in a major solo exhibition.  Alfred Frankenstein, art critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, said in his review of the de Young exhibition, “Their value must lie in their powerful abstraction, which will be instantly meaningful to anyone who has spent ten minutes with such American artists as Jackson Pollock, Mark Tobey, Bradley Walker Tomlin, or Franz Kline.”


The success of Lida’s de Young exhibition paved the way to a series of solo exhibitions at many major art museums and institutions.  With renewed confidence that his art was being positively reviewed and recognized, he was determined to transform Chinese Calligraphy into an abstract art.  He said that “Chinese calligraphy should absorb Western influence, experiment with new methods, create a new form or forms and eventually contribute to the mainstream of world art.” 

In the late 70’s, Lida went on a trip to Mexico.  He remembered how he loved painting scenery and people which led him to create sketches and drawings of Mexican landscape, architecture, and people he met. These became a new basis for integrating his western art training with Chinese calligraphy to create modern abstract calligraphic art focusing on his dynamic brushwork with unconstrained self-expression.   

From his art studio in Berkeley, California, he painted large abstract works, utilizing big, bold expressionistic calligraphic brushstrokes layered with acrylic paints.  He dove into reading books and magazines on Modern Art to see what was happening in the contemporaneous western art world.

Inspired and excited by the burgeoning graffiti painting movement, he began applying his Chinese calligraphic style with western expressionistic techniques to paint English words.  He said in an interview with The Montclarion news, “The word is very powerful.  You can’t paint China (the place – in one picture).  China is government, land.  But I paint China (the word) and you know.  That’s why I paint words.”


In the first phase of his graffiti-calligraphy works, he painted words with colorful acrylics on large canvases, integrating western expressionistic style with a mixture of freestyle calligraphy.  In this series you will decipher words such as “Love,” “China,” “California,” “Fantastic,” “Sweet,” and “Beautiful” along with tributes to foods from his favorite Berkeley diner: “Cappuccino,” “Cole Slaw,” and “Sunny Side-Up.”

In the second phase, he painted his watercolor graffiti “America” series with works such as “America,” “Boston,” “Minneapolis,” “New York,” “Albuquerque,” “Chicago,” “Utah,” and “New Mexico.”

In the third phase, he combined Chinese characters and English words into his unique form of graffiti-calligraphy.  The result is a modern style of Chinese-English integration, imbued with masterful brushstrokes along with the colorful, bold energy and avant-garde spirit of graffiti art.

Lida’s art of the “painted word” represented the unceasing evolution of his art, from Western representational painting, traditional Chinese calligraphy, expressionistic original calligraphy, abstract paintings, large acrylic graffiti writing, to Chinese-English graffiti-calligraphy watercolors.  Lida once said “When I paint, it’s like fighting.  Very fast…My whole body moves.  And in that several seconds, all my movements are recorded on the paper.”  Drawing on the meditative zone and dynamic body movements from his tai chi practice, he integrated his unique styles of painting and calligraphy into a form of art which remains unduplicated to this day.

Lida’s spirit of rebellion had always been the driving force in his search for the bold and new, pushing his art beyond the boundaries of tradition.  During his 14 years of residency in San Francisco and Berkeley, besides creating art, he taught Tai Chi to more than a thousand students and performed his unique hybrid style of Tai Chi and modern dance throughout the Bay Area.


At the final stage of the evolution of his art, his vision was to create a new kind of calligraphy by synthesizing the ancient Chinese art form with the spirit and spontaneity of his Tai Chi dance.  He called his new art “Calligraphy in Motion.”  Unfortunately, his restless spirit led to a mental breakdown, and he was unable to fulfill his dream.  In 1982, at age 60, Lida died by suicide ­­­in Berkeley, California.