Chinese Calligraphy, an introduction

Zhao Mengfu Four Anecdotes from the Life of Wang Xizhi 1310

The History and The Art

Oracle boneThe earliest examples of Chinese writing still extant today are the inscriptions on the famous oracle bones (both animal bones and turtle shells) and on bronze vessels from the Shang dynasty, circa 1,600 BCE. Perhaps the connection, even this early, between writing and important rituals gave literacy the special status it has had in China. Incised or cut into the surface of the bone or bronze, these early forms of writing were by necessity relatively stiff. During the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) the basic materials of calligraphy – brush, ink, ink stone, and paper – had became commonplace and the writing styles more varied and flexible.

Calligraphic skill was once an important part of the Chinese Imperial Examination for the government jobs that were such an important part of one’s career aspirations. It was thought that the permanence of calligraphy strokes required careful planning and decisive execution, exactly the sorts of skills one looked for in a government administrator. Calligraphy was an important part of one’s education, and was regarded as one of the four basic skills of the Chinese literati: Shu (calligraphy), Hua (painting), Qin (a seven-string musical instrument like a lute), and Qi (a strategic board game). Painting and calligraphy evolved side-by-side, although the latter was appreciated as an art much earlier.

My first book of Chinese CalligraphyThe usual course of study for calligraphy involved making copies – sometimes dozens, or even hundreds – of famous works of the past, often under the tutelage of a master. Those earlier works were carved onto stone blocks and preserved in copy books (fatie) printed from those blocks. One standard text for copying was the Thousand-Character Classic, an essay on ethics, history and nature from around 500 CE in a thousand non-repeating characters.

To execute calligraphy, typically the brush is held between the thumb and the middle finger. The index finger stabilizes its position at the upper part of the shaft, and the ring and little fingers are tucked at the bottom of the shaft. Occasionally the brush is gripped between the thumb and index finger as a pen or pencil might be held.

Seals and CalligraphyAll manner of considerations enter into the creation of calligraphy: the nature of the brush and ink and paper, the amount of ink on the brush, variations in the thickness of the ink, the strength and direction of the stroke, and the amount of the brush that is used and its angle. Not just the right sort of stroke, but the stroke order, the size of the characters, and the amount of space around the characters are essential. For a long time the choice of script (the five basic scripts are described below) depended largely on the function of the text being written. Eventually this became more of an aesthetic choice by calligraphers. Works also often feature inscriptions, signatures by the artist, seals that identify the artist and/or collector (small squares printed in red and found at the end of calligraphic works), and colophons, writings added after the work is complete by the artist, owner, collector, or viewer.

Execution of calligraphyWhile appreciation of calligraphy is, as with any art form, up to the individual viewer, there are a few non-negotiable qualities that great works of calligraphy must have. The Chinese characters must, for instance, be correct, done with the proper stroke order, and legible. When the calligrapher hesitates with a stroke, a blotch is left on the paper. So speed and agility are required.

Around 50,000 Chinese characters exist; but most are never used; well-educated people might be familiar with 5,000 or more, and a typical person more like 3,000. Not only do the characters have specific meanings, but in the context of calligraphy, the form they take are said to be reflective of the energies of nature and the personality, even morality, of the individual artist. As one Tang dynasty writer said, the character should be “balanced on all four sides … leaning or standing upright like a proper gentleman, the upper half sits comfortably, while the bottom half supports it.”

Because of the regularity with which Chinese characters are created, the viewer of calligraphy can actually follow exactly how the work was created, stroke by stroke, appreciating small variations in texture or tone. Early admirers of calligraphy likened the nature of its expression to aspects of the natural world, and to parts of the human body – lines are often described by their “bones,” “muscles,” and “flesh.” Such poetic descriptions of the strokes of calligraphy became commonplace – for instance, a line that stretches steadily from a point and ends with a flourish has come to be known as “silkworm’s head and swallow’s tail.”

Franz Kline Painting Number 2 1954China’s tradition of calligraphy eventually extended to Japan, Vietnam, Korea, and Taiwan. In the west, twentieth century American Abstract Expressionist painters, artists like Jackson Pollack, Robert Motherwell and Franz Kline, famously felt a kinship to Chinese calligraphers. Picasso and Matisse, too, said that they had been influenced by Chinese calligraphy – in fact, Picasso once declared that, had he been born in China, he would have preferred to be a calligrapher rather than a painter.

The Four Treasures

Four TreasuresThe essentials for calligraphy are known as the Four Treasures of the Study.

The Brush – The calligraphy brush can feature hair taken from a number of different animals – rabbit, weasel, tiger, wolf, and deer are just a few – that is held by a body made of bamboo, wood, or something more expensive like ivory, jade, silver or gold. Pens are sometimes used for calligraphy, but they are less valued than brushes. Examples of calligraphy brushes exist from over 2,000 years ago.

The Ink – Sticks of ink are traditionally made from lampblack, a residue formed by burning pine resin or oil under a hood, and some kind of binder. Then the sticks are ground and combined with water to create the proper consistency. One of the most valued of ink slabs is the Duanyan, produced in Guangdong Province. It has a slight purple hue, and carries the nickname “purple clouds.”

The Ink Stone – Ink stones have become an art form in their own right. They are generally made of stone, but can be made of ceramic or other materials.

The Paper – The most valued paper is made of mulberry, hemp, bamboo, or rice, all of which are much less expensive than silk, which is used only for very special works.

The Scripts

Five basic script types evolved over the centuries and are still in use today.
Chinese Calligraphy Scripts
Seal script – This style was probably the first to come into being, derived from the writing found on the oracle bones and ancient bronzes, and used on personal seals. Seal script tends to be symmetrical and even in texture, with relatively thick lines and tall but constricted forms. Based as it was on incised characters, seal script allows only for a relatively small amount of variation in line and curvature.

Clerical script – Later in the second century CE, a simpler version of seal script became common among government administrators and clerks. It was around this same time, too, that the hair brush became common; the effects available with a brush were quite different than those found in carved characters. Now the stroke could be thick or thin, strong or delicate. In clerical script, sometimes known as Official Style, the strong, clear characters are both shorter and wider than those in Seal script.

Regular script – Sometimes called Standard Style, Regular script is almost certainly the most commonly used style today, serving as the standard for signage, books, and even computers. The clean, even, and straightforward characters fit more or less into squares. The so-called Sage of Calligraphy, Wang Xizhi, has been acknowledged as its master. Regular script really took off in popularity during the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE).

Cursive script – The aesthetic potential of calligraphic writing became clear in the evolution of both Regular script and Cursive script. Sometimes referred to as Grass Style, Cursive script introduces even more flexibility, with characters sometimes linked together, written with a single flourish of the brush. This is the most personal and expressive of the five scripts, especially in its wildest kuang cao or “Crazy” Grass Style.

Semi-cursive script – This style is colloquially known as Walking Style, and is more or less equivalent to the English version of cursive. Some shorter versions of characters are employed, and strokes are sometimes connected, but far less often than is found in Cursive script.

Sobriquets of Calligraphic Masters

As is related in the exhibition catalog Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy (a review of which will appear here tomorrow), calligraphic artists often, along with their given names, took on artist or poetic names of an evocative nature, as did collectors and other intellectuals. Here are a few fine examples:

Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322) – Zhao of the Academy of Scholarly Worthies, Daoist of the Snow on the Pines, Daoist of the Crystal Palace, Zhao of the Academy of Scholarly Worthies
Xiang Kui (1623-1702) – Recluse from East of the Wall
Wang Hongxu (1645-1723) – Master of Gifted Gold Garden, Mountain Man of the Recumbent Clouds
Lian Quan (1868-1931) – Master of Little Ten Thousand Willows Hall
Fang Shizan (early eighteenth century) – Recluse of the Western Fields
Chen Daofu (1484-1544) – Mountain Man of the White Sun


7 thoughts on “Chinese Calligraphy, an introduction

  1. Pingback: Sunday Salon 7-13-14 | Thirty-Two Minutes

  2. I came across this post whilst researching the Kuangcao style of calligraphy. My attention was drawn to the final section of your post where you discussed the different Chinese scripts, it was very thorough and I found it very interesting! Thank you for sharing your knowledge and findings. I also have a blog and it is dedicated to Chinese language and culture and I would be grateful if you could take a look. Thank you again 欣妍。

    • Thank you for the nice comment! It means a lot coming from someone whose knowledge of this subject is so much greater than mine. I like your blog very much, and am now following you!

      • Oh thank you very much! I’m sure we may be on the same level on knowledge in this area. And I’m so sorry for the delayed response, I only came across the format of messages on WordPress not too long ago. But thank you very much and hopefully we can both learn more together in the future 🙂

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