In its simplest definition, Chinese calligraphy is the art of writing Chinese characters in a beautiful manner. But like many art forms, calligraphy in Chinese culture is so much more than beautifully brushing ink on paper. Its history, traditions, and appreciation of human expression are the constants that unveil the complexities associated with Chinese calligraphy. It is thanks to the inherent depth of this art form that it has persisted to this day and remains as perhaps the zenith of Chinese art. Here’s what you need to know about Chinese calligraphy.
The Basics of Calligraphy
In order to create Chinese calligraphy, an artist needs a few tools. First is the brush, which is the immediate extension of an artist. The brush can vary in sizes and brush hairs, depending on what the artist wants to create. The next tool is an ink stick, which is made of soot and grounded into an ink stone. A few drops of water into the ink stone finishes the ink preparation. And finally, paper is needed. There are many different kinds of paper, but most calligraphy paper is designed to hold the ink well and not let it bleed through onto the table.
The great appeal of Chinese calligraphy lies not in the words it depicts but in the way it is written. Although Chinese characters are the subject of calligraphy, it is not about communication. Instead, Chinese characters are simply the medium for observers to perceive and appreciate the character of the artist. Calligraphy is a showcase of vivacity. The rhythm of how each character is created, the flow of the ink, the weight of each stroke–all of these and more are expressions from the artist. It is the demonstration of the artist’s soul, emotions, and inner workings. The meaning of the characters can be taken into consideration, but the message can be secondary to its manifestation.
Despite the abstract core of this art form, there are particular rules that must first be followed to create great, expressive calligraphy. Like the fundamentals of any style of dance, artists must learn the basic tenets and moves of writing Chinese characters. For example, holding the calligraphy brush upright and almost perpendicular to the paper is considered the best way to control the movement and weight of the brush. The other major aspect to writing characters is the order and direction of each stroke that makes up one character. Typically, strokes are performed from left to right and up to down because these are considered the natural way to start and end the creation of each character. And finally, each character must look balanced. Only after an artist achieves and knows the standard for how each character and stroke looks can the artist determine how to express themselves.
Chinese calligraphy is an art of expression and restraint, of widely accepted cultural standards and individuality, of what is written and what cannot exactly be put into words.
The History and Scripts of Calligraphy
The art form of Chinese calligraphy dates back almost two thousand years. Calligraphy, at the time, was a mark of being educated and influence. It was practiced mainly by those in the upper class and in civil service, but it was only around the 3rd century when Chinese characters became standardized across the country. There are five different scripts, or “standardized writing forms,” that can be found throughout history.
Seal script is the most ancient type and looks more like pictographs rather than written word. It was found mostly on tortoise shells, bones, and jade, so it’s not as dynamic as other scripts because brush and ink weren’t used to write it. Nowadays it is used on seals, hence its name.
Clerical script is the next oldest script type and ushered in the use of brush and ink on paper. The weight of the strokes are overall more even and the characters are a little wider than what is practiced today. But clerical script is the first instance in which strokes start to have more movement from the slight flick of a brush.
The next two script styles are closely related to one another. Cursive script and running (or semi-cursive) script are the types that fully utilize the fluidity that comes with brush and ink. Both involve the artist hardly lifting the brush off the paper but controlling how much ink there can be in one stroke. In modern times, running script is used in everyday life when people write with a pen and paper.
The final type is regular script or “standard script.” It is the most used script throughout all of Chinese history. It combines the basics of clerical script and the flow of cursive script. Every stroke is typically defined from one another, but there’s weight and motion with each stroke. Regular script is used in printed media and is the easiest to read.
Chinese calligraphy is such a historic, nuanced art form. We hope that you too can have a great appreciation of Chinese calligraphy!