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Visual Arts

Pan Shou

A calligrapher and poet who flourished post-retirement


Published: 12 Oct 2016

Time taken : >15mins

I don't consciously go out and look for things to write about. I don't go in search of poetry—it comes looking for me!

The Straits Times, 29 Jan 1984

Born on 26 January 1911, in Fujian, China, calligrapher, poet and all-round modern Renaissance man, Pan Shou moved to Singapore when he was 19 years old. Then, already a student of the well-known scholar, Zhen Qiu, Pan Shou was a young man well-versed in the Chinese classics. In the early part of his life, Pan made important contributions towards the field of education in Singapore, notably, as a founding member of the Nanyang University (Nantah) in 1955. It was, however, only after retirement that his second career as a poet and calligrapher flourished; eventually earning him recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion in 1987 and the Meritorious Service Medal in 1994. Pan’s contribution to the cultural landscape of Singapore is indelible, and his collective oeuvre can be seen as a critical, literary and artistic commentary of the clash of cultures as the native Chinese and Chinese Diaspora faced up to the changes brought on by the decades.

It was a turbulent year in Chinese history when Pan Shou was born in Fujian, China, in 1911. On the cusp of Sun Yat Sen’s overthrow of the Qing Dynasty, Pan—the son of a Qing scholar himself—continued to receive a rigorous education in Chinese literary classics and in the art of calligraphy. Recognised since young for his talents in these two fields by other eminent scholars, Pan’s first professional forays were, however, in the field of educational journalism.

On arrival in Singapore at the tender age of 19, Pan landed a post as the deputy editor of Lat Pau, Singapore’s earliest Chinese daily. Less than a year later, though, he had embarked on a turn as a very young principal of Chung Cheng School, where he met one of Singapore’s other philanthropic pioneers, Lee Kong Chian. A subsequent stint as principal of Tao Nan School laid the foundation for Pan’s involvement in the co-founding of Nantah (Nanyang University) with other luminary proponents of Chinese culture, such as Tan Lark Sye, in 1955. As its acting vice-chancellor for five years, Pan laid the foundation for Nantah’s strong Chinese cultural identity.

However, grapevine whispers of Pan’s and Nantah’s involvement with communists eventually led to Pan resigning from education, to turn towards his own pursuits of art and literature. It was from this turn of events that Pan’s reputation as an acclaimed poet and calligrapher came to the fore. With time to devote to his craft, Pan turned his hobby into an award-winning passion. His works of poetry, Poems from Overseas (1970), Poems from Yunnan Garden (1984) and An Anthology of Poems (1997) are hailed as important publications in modern Chinese poetry. Made up of more than 1,300 verses of lyrical literary allusions, they serve as a reflection over 60 years or China’s turbulent changes in the 20th century.

Lending a unique voice to his calligraphic works, Pan also wrote some of his most insightful and beautiful verses in his strong, xingshu script calligraphy. Influenced by He Shaoji, a noted Qing dynasty scholar, and calligrapher Qi Gong, Pan's masterful movement of the brush are heightened further with the writing of his own original works into the script.

Like his poetry, Pan’s oeuvre of calligraphic works span a range of themes from his observations of politics and society, ideologies, to those inspired by archaic Qin and Han manuscripts. His works are easily found in Singapore. Pan Shou's calligraphic works can be viewed at the entrance of the Singapore Art Museum, where a single character shi (lion) announces the lion in the city, and more pervasively, the master’s words are the masthead of Chinese daily, Lianhe Zaobao. Outside of Singapore, Pan Shou’s works also grace the Confucius Temple in Qu Fu; in the Forest of Steles in Xi’an; on the honorific arch marking the beginning of the ancient Silk Road by the Sea in Quan Zhou; on Huang He Lou in Wuhan; and in the museum of the Great Wall of China.

In recognition of his contributions to art and culture, Pan Shou received the Cultural Medallion in 1986 and the Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious Service Medal) in 1994. He was also conferred the title of Officier des Art et des Lettres by the French government in 1991 and received the Asean Cultural Medal in 1997 for his contributions to art and culture in Southeast Asia.

While his professional life was rewarding, Pan Shou’s personal life was beset with tragedy early on. He married his childhood sweetheart despite parental objection in 1933, but his young wife, Chen Er Fen, succumbed to cancer four years after their marriage, passing away at 24 years of age. At her behest prior to her death, she convinced Pan Shou to marry her older sister, teacher Chen Boon Hwee, so that their two children would be ensured continued, good care.

Pan died in 1999 shortly after his 88th birthday. He is survived by his second wife, two children and grandchildren. In 2011, to honour the centennial of Pan Shou, the university he helped co-found—now known as Nanyang Technological University—organised a conference and exhibition to honour his legacy.


26 Jan 1911

Born in Fujian, China.


Received first prize in the National Essay Competition for his entry On the Campaign for Anti-drug Use Movement.

Tutor, Westminster School (later renamed Pei Yuan Junior Middle School), Quanzhou, China.


Moved to Singapore.

1929 to 1930

Features editor, Lat Pau (Singapore’s earliest Chinese-language newspaper).


Principal, Chung Cheng Primary School, Singapore.


Teacher, The Chinese High School, Singapore.

1935 to 1940

Principal, Tao Nan Primary School, Singapore.

1940 to 1942

Principal, Zhong Hua Secondary School, Muar, Malaysia.


Moved to Bombay, India and then to China.

Bank manager, Chongqing, Sichuan Province.


Moved to Hong Kong.


Returned to Singapore..

1955 to 1960

Secretary-general, Nanyang University (Nantah). Later became Cive-Chancellor.


Citizenship revoked on account of his alleged communist links. Pan later resigns from Nantah, beginning extensive calligraphy and poetry career in his retirement.


Received Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star).

Published Poems from Overseas.

Published four-volume collection Pavilion Beyond The Ocean.

1977 to 1999

Honorary advisor, Chinese Calligraphy Society of Singapore.


Published three-volume collection Calligraphy by Pan Shou.


Published Poems from Yunnan Garden.

Published Pan Shou Nanyuan Poetry Collection.

Held exhibition Pan Shou Guxi Shuji at National Museum of Singapore.


Received Gold Medal, Salon Artists Francais by the French government.


Received Cultural Medallion for contributions to art.


Participated in exhibition at Singapore Art Fair.


Conferred Officier des Art et des Lettres by the French government.

Held solo exhibition Pan Shou 80 at National Museum of Singapore.

Participated in exhibition at Singapore Art Fair


Received Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious Service Medal).


Published An Anthology of Poems.

Received ASEAN Cultural Medal in recognition of his contribution and service in promoting art and culture in Southeast Asia.


Received Honorary Doctorate of Letters by Nanyang Technological Institute.

Published An Anthology of Poems.

23 Feb 1999

Passed away in Singapore at age 88.


TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.

In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.

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