I’m one of those people who gets carried away in stationery shops, surrounded by all kinds and colors of pens, pencils and notebooks. It’s like heaven for me. So you can imagine how I felt during calligraphy lessons while I was learning Chinese. Those were times of joy, fun and meditation. Yes, trying to write something with the specialized brush, ink and paper is like meditation to me. I have to admit that calligraphy is not as easy it seems. Not at all! But still, I enjoy every moment of it. So, my enthusiasm for research and the art of writing compelled me to write this article about Chinese Calligraphy.
Calligraphy means ‘good writing’ which can’t be simplified and referred to as just ‘writing’ or described as a way of making Chinese characters look ‘beautiful’. Calligraphy, the art of writing, is the most appreciated visual art form in traditional Chinese, and has been an important part of the Chinese Culture for the past 4000 years. The status of calligraphy reflects the importance of the word in China as its culture is devoted to the power of the word. It’s said that the emperors, from the beginning, asserted their authority by engraving their own pronouncements on mountain sides and on stone steles at outdoor sites for posterity as well as for the present.
Also known as brush calligraphy, Chinese calligraphy (Shu) is one of the four basic skills and disciplines of the Chinese literati along with the other three skills which include painting (Hua), playing on a stringed musical instrument (Qin) and the strategic board game (Qi).
Characteristics of Chinese Calligraphy
Seal, official, semi-cursive, cursive and regular are some examples of the different writing styles which have their unique features and purposes. These writing styles also depend on other factors like ink concentration, paint brush flexibility, and paper thickness.
Before we continue on the features of calligraphy, I want to give you a little information about the Chinese characters and strokes. Chinese written script is made up of thousands of individual graphs. Each graph consists of strokes executed in an order. There are seven basic strokes; a dot, a horizontal line, a vertical line, a sweeping downword stroke, a sharp curve and a downward stroke. These strokes are helpful for the viewer to be able to retrace the exact steps of the work, stroke by stroke and to see whether the brush was put to the paper with a great force or with great delicacy.
All strokes are permanent and incorrigible in calligraphy. Thus, each stroke requires careful planning, a steady hand and a confident execution. ‘Sublime and abstract’ can define this art form, thus, in the imperial era, it’s assumed that calligraphy revealed a person’s character. In the Imperial Court, it was an important criteria in selecting the executives.
Tools Used in Calligraphy
Chinese calligraphy is different from the other calligraphy techniques as it is painted on a special, absorbent paper called Xuan paper using a special brush and special ink. The ink is usually made from lampblack, a sooty residue, created by burning pine resin. After the collection, the lampblack is mixed with glue and pressed into molds which results in sticks. Then, these sticks are grounded on a stone (ink stone) and mixed with water. This process allows the calligrapher to control the thickness of the ink. The calligrapher should know the exact amount needed to finish the work, otherwise grinding the ink for the second time might result in change of colour.
The special brushes used in calligraphy contain a bundle of animal hairs pushed inside a tube of bamboo or wood. The hair lengths differ. Inner core consists of shorter hairs while the outer layer consists of longer hairs. For every type of calligraphy, there is a special type of brush.
Paper is made of various fibers like mulberry, hemp and bamboo. It provided an inexpensive alternative to silk as the ground material for calligraphy and painting. The inkstone, water-brush, ink and paper are known as the Four Treasures of Study (wenfang sibao) in China.
History of Chinese Calligraphy
The history of Chinese Calligraphy is thought to be 4000 years old and it started to be accepted as an art during Han Dynasty (206 B.C – 220 A.D). Even though many calligraphers didn’t autograph their work during this period and remained unknown, there are some scripts produced by known calligraphers like Li Shu, Cao Shu, Xing Shu and Kai Shu.
In previous paragraphs we said that calligraphy was used to select executives to the Imperial Palace as it revealed a person’s character. One of the earliest recorded examples is about the first century emperor Ming of the Han. When Emperor Ming found out that his cousin was on his deathbed, he sent a messenger to get a piece of his writing before he passed away. By doing so, Emperor Ming thought he would be able to commune with his cousin, even after his death, by the traces of his personality embodied by his calligraphy.
Calligraphy in the West
The status of Chinese Calligraphy in China is different from the West, as expected. In Europe, painting is considered as a high art while in China, calligraphy is a high art, just like painting. The reason for that is the materials used for calligraphy and painting in China are the same, while in Europe they are not.
The calligrapher, the artist, is free to produce an infinite variety of styles and forms by controlling the concentration of ink, the thickness of the paper and the flexibility of the brush. In contrast to western calligraphy, diffusing ink blots and dry brsuh strokes are viewed as a natural impromptu expression, while western calligraphy pursue font-like uniformity, homogeneity of characters.
Calligraphy is the most relaxing but also highly disciplined exercise for one’s physical and spiritual wellness. There are many calligraphers well known for their longevity in history.
Picasso and Matisse are two prominent Western artists whose works were influenced by Chinese Calligraphy. Picasso once said that if he would start over, he would choose calligraphy over painting.