Chinese Calligraphy — Development, Scripts, Aesthetics, and Appreciation of the Supreme Art of Ancient China

Chinese Calligraphy or Shufa includes all the methods of writing Chinese Characters or Han Zi throughout history.

 

It has been considered the most supreme visual art in ancient China and is still a popular art form that is practiced by many people today. 

 

Tens of thousands of square Hanzi (Chinese Characters), thanks to calligraphy art, became expressive images that carry stories and emotions, and rhythms that dance with beautiful music and poems.

Chinese Characters for Eternal Happiness
Chinese Calligraphy Artwork by Zhao Mengfu

Calligraphy Artwork by Zhao Mengfu (1254 — 1322) — Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

 

Why Is Chinese Calligraphy the Supreme Art in History?

 

Today, there are over 100,000 Chinese Characters throughout history, and around 3500 are commonly used, which can cover 99% of today's reading materials.

 

Shape, thickness, and position of each stroke, outlines, sizes, and structure of each character, rhythm, composition, and layout of a whole article, all include tens of thousands of changes and possibilities for writers to be creative, which make the Chinese Calligraphy a beautiful visual art. 

One of the Greatest Chinese Calligraphy Art "Lanting Jixu" Written by Great Calligrapher Wang Xizhi

One of the Greatest Calligraphy Art "Lanting Jixu", Written by Great Chinese Calligrapher Wang Xizhi (303 — 361). This Facsimile Version was Copied by Callihraphor Feng Chengsu (617 — 672) and Preserved in Palace Museum.

What made calligraphy the supreme art is the group that wrote and appreciate it in ancient imperial China, the nobles and scholars. 

 

Aristocrats and scholar-officials, the ruling class of ancient imperial China, could get good educations to read and write, afford calligraphy sets, and have enough leisure time to practice. 

 

Meanwhile, handwriting had been considered an important representative that conveys one's personality, temperament, educational level, elegance, morals, and wisdom. 

 

Therefore, calligraphy, the means and laws of writing, was the most important and popular art form of the ruling class in ancient times. 

Stele in Jinci Temple of Taiyuan City, Written by Emperor Tang Tai Zong
Calligraphy Work Written by Emperor Taizong of Tang

Calligraphy Work Written by Emperor Taizong of Tang in the Year 646, to Memorize Their Rise in Rebellion Here and to Pray for Blessing to the Tang Empire — Stele in Jinci Temple of Taiyuan City

 

Utilizations of Chinese Calligraphy.

Oracle, Bronze, and Stone Inscriptions — To record history, and to eulogize epic achievements, great reign, ambitious decrees, or beautiful sceneries. 

Oracle Bone Inscription or Jiagu Wen During the Reign Period of King Wu Ding (? — 1192 BC)

Oracle Bone Inscription or Jiagu Wen During the Reign Period of King Wu Ding (? — 1192 BC),  the Extant Earliest Chinese Writing — National Museum of China

Letters, Articles, and Poems on Bamboo Slips, Silk, and Paper — To communicate, write, record, and convey, as the written language.

 

Plaques or Paibian — To note locations, commemorate events, or convey belief and culture.

Plaques or Paibian Hanging on Pagoda of Fogong Temple (Ying Xian Mu Ta)

Plaques or Paibian Hanging on Pagoda of Fogong Temple (Ying Xian Mu Ta), the Most Ancient (Built in 1056) and Tallest Wooden Tower (67.31 meters) in the World. The Top One was Written by Yongle Emperor (1360 — 1424), the Second Was Written by Zhengde Emperor  (1491 — 1521).

Screens, Fans, and Scrolls — To decorate, and to express one's elegance, ambition, talent, and social status.  

 

Seals — To show status as signatures, from emperors to civilians, from governments to personal studios. 

Unearthed Jade Seal of Prime Minister Wang Xijue (1534 — 1611) of the Ming Dynasty

Jade Seal of Prime Minister Wang Xijue (1534 — 1611) of the Ming Dynasty — Suzhou Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Epitaphs — To memorize and record life experience and achievement of decedents. 

Unearthed Epitaph from mausoleum of Yuan Gongyu, Wrote by Remarkable Prime Minister Di Renjie of the Tang Dynasty

Epitaph from the Mausoleum of Yuan Gongyu, Wrote by Remarkable Prime Minister Di Renjie (630 — 704) — Qian Tang Zhi Zhai Museum in Luoyang City (Photo by Dongmaiying)

 

History, Developments, and Scripts of Chinese Calligraphy. 

 

From the utilization of Oracle Bone Inscription during the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC — 1046 BC) till today, there are five main script styles in Chinese Calligraphy art. 

Seal Script or Zhuan Shu

 

Seal Script includes two types: the Large Seal Script (Da Zhuan) and the Small Seal Script (Xiao Zhuan).  

 

Large Seal Script or Da Zhuan refers to writing systems before Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC), mainly including Oracle Bone Inscriptions (Jiagu Wen) of the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC — 1046 BC), and Bronze Inscriptions (Jin Wen) that popularized from the late Western Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 771 BC) to the Warring State Period (403 BC — 221 BC).

Bronze Inscriptions on Ding of Duke Mao (Mao Gong Ding)

Bronze Inscriptions on Ding of Duke Mao (Mao Gong Ding) — Taipei Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Small Seal Script evolved from and simplified the Large Seal Script, and was promoted as the official writing system of the unified Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC), under the command of Qin Shi Huang (259 BC — 210 BC), the first emperor of China. 

 

It stopped being the official writing system in the late Western Han Dynasty (220 BC — 8 AD); however, because of its ancient style and beautiful structure, Small Seal Script characters have been widely used in calligraphy, seal carving, and stone inscriptions.

Small Seal Script Characters in Rubbing of Yishan Stele That Records and Praises Accomplishems of Qin Empire,  Written by Chancellor Li Si (284 BC — 208 BC) the Creator of Small Seal Script

Small Seal Script Characters in Rubbing of Yishan Stele That Records and Praises Accomplishems of Qin Empire,  Written by Chancellor Li Si (284 BC — 208 BC) the Creator of Small Seal Script — Beilin Museum of Xi'an

Clerical Script or Li Shu

 

Evolved from the Seal Script by clericals, the Clerical Script or Li Shu with straight strokes is easier and faster to write.  

 

It originated in the Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC), thrived in Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), and was popularized until the end of the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420 — 589). 

In calligraphy history, artworks of the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD) are believed the peak of the Clerical Script or Li Shu.

Clerical Script or Li Shu Characters on Debris (Xi Ping Shi Jing) of Official Confucianism Classics Carved on Stone (175 — 183)

Clerical Script or Li Shu Characters on Debris (Xi Ping Shi Jing) of Official Confucianism Classics Carved on Stone (175 — 183) — National Museum of China (Photo by Ayelie)

Regular Script or Kai Shu

 

Regular Script or Kai Shu evolved from the Clerical Script and has been the most popular and common script style, from having been invented in the late Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD) till today. 

 

In traditional Chinese Calligraphy aesthetics, works of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) are believed the most eminent and valuable of Regular Script or Kai Shu art.

Regular Script or Kai Shu Characters in  Rubbing of the Duobaota Stele Written by Great Calligrapher Yan Zhenqing in the Year 752

Regular Script or Kai Shu Characters in  Rubbing of the Duobaota Stele Written by Great Calligrapher Yan Zhenqing in the Year 752 — Beilin Museum of Xi'an

Cursive Script or Cao Shu

Appeared in the early Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD) and based on Clerical Script, the Cursive Script or Cao Shu is the fastest calligraphy style to write, which is relatively simple but hard to recognize. 

Cursive Script or Cao Shu Characters in Part of Calligraphy Work "Thousand Character Classic", Written by Emperor Huizong of Song (1082 — 1135)

Cursive Script or Cao Shu Characters in Part of Calligraphy Work "Thousand Character Classic", Written by Emperor Huizong of Song (1082 — 1135) — Liaoning Museum

Semi-cursive Script or Xing Shu

Semi-cursive Script or Running Script, in Chinese Xing Shu, appeared in the late Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), and evolved from the Clerical Script. 

 

It could be written faster and smoother than the straight Regular Script style and is easier to recognize than the Cursive Script. 

Semi-cursive Script or Xing Shu Characters in Calligraphy Work "Hanshi Tie", Written by Eminent Scholar Su Shi (1037 — 1101)

Semi-cursive Script or Xing Shu Characters in Calligraphy Work "Hanshi Tie", Written by Eminent Scholar Su Shi (1037 — 1101) of the Song Dynasty — Taipei Palace Museum

 

Basic Rules and Appreciation of Chinese Calligraphy.

 

Strokes

Strokes, the most fundamental elements of a Chinese character, should follow the basic order to write: from top to bottom, left to right, inside to outside, horizontal to vertical. 

 

The shape, thickness, position, and flow of each stroke differ in each script style and writer, such as neat and decorous for Regular Script, creative and smooth for Cursive Script, etc. 

Structure

 

Strokes constitute Chinese characters following certain structures, which in writing, are required to be stable and delicate, balanced but with rhythm, with focused yet contrasting elements.

Part of Calligraphy Work "Semi-cursive Script or Xing Shu Thousand Character Classic", Written by Ouyang Xun (557 — 641)

Part of Calligraphy Work "Semi-cursive Script or Xing Shu Thousand Character Classic", Written by Ouyang Xun (557 — 641) — Liaoning Museum

Composition Art

 

Including the arrangement of all characters, lines, and blank, sign, and seal design, which should be composed as an artwork in harmony while keeping their brilliant features, like the dynamic, dancing rhythms in the balanced and smooth flows. 

 

Use of Calligraphy Brush

 

Because of the flexibility of the calligraphy brush, the writer's wielding speed, exerting pressure, and characters' fluidity together form the flow of the artwork and convey the story and emotion behind the artwork. 

Part of Calligraphy Work "Luoshen Fu", Written by Zhao Mengfu (1254 — 1322)

Part of Calligraphy Work "Luoshen Fu", Written by Zhao Mengfu (1254 — 1322) — Palace Museum

Use of Ink and Water

The concentration of ink, and the ratio of ink and water, are important factors that influence a calligraphy artwork's thickness of colors and dryness of brush strokes. 

 

Based on the written content and emotion, each calligrapher has different arrangements in regard to the use of ink and water, to make dynamic and harmonious changes between dry and wet, heavy and light.

Excellent Use of Ink in Calligraphy Work "Kusun Tie", Written by Huai Su (737 — 799)

Excellent Use of Ink in Calligraphy Work "Kusun Tie", Written by Huai Su (737 — 799) — Shanghai Museum

 

Four Treasures of the Study and Other Chinese Calligraphy Supplies. 

 

To write calligraphy works, Four Treasures of the Study (Wen Fang Si Bao) are the necessary supplies, including brush, ink, paper, and inkstone.  

 

Other tools could help to practice calligraphy as well, such as paperweights, brush hangers, brush holders, brush washers, seal, and ink paste.  

Chinese Calligraphy Supplies

Chinese Calligraphy Supplies, Picture from Zou Feng.

 

Main Steps to Practice Chinese Calligraphy.

 

In general, calligraphy practice includes four procedures.

 

  • To learn the right posture to hold the brush, get familiar with the thickness and absorbency of paper, practice the use of ink and water, and experience the movement and pressure of the brush on different strokes.

  • To copy different calligraphy scripts, usually model on artworks of the most famous Chinese calligraphers of each style. 

 

Generally, Regular Script or Kai Shu is the most recommended style for beginners, but people can start from Clerical Script or Li Shu or other styles that they favor. 

 

Cursive Script or Cao Shu is accepted as the most difficult style to write well, so it is usually for people with proficient calligraphy skills to practice. 

 

In this step, from copying those masterpieces, one can learn the use of brushstrokes, structure, and composition of characters, and the means of how they express emotion, faith, and story through written characters. 

Regular Script or Kai Shu Characters in Rubbing of the Shen Ce Jun Stele Written by Great Calligrapher Liu Gongquan (778 — 865)

Regular Script or Kai Shu Characters in Rubbing of the Shen Ce Jun Stele Written by Great Calligrapher Liu Gongquan (778 — 865) — National Library of China

  • To write independently, by imitating the styles of calligraphers that one achieved proficiency from the last step, to see if one gained the spirit of calligraphy from established masters. 

 

  • To create and form your own calligraphy style, based on knowledge and rules that one learned from ancient masterpieces. 

Copper Writing Brush Holder (Bi Shan) of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644)

Copper Writing Brush Holder (Bi Shan) of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) — Wuzhong Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

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