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 Chinese calligraphy art, became expressive images that carry stories and emotions, and rhythms that dance with beautiful music and poems.
Chinese Calligraphy Artwork by Zhao Mengfu (1254 — 1322) — Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Why Chinese Calligraphy is the Supreme Art in History?
Till 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 (303 — 361). This Facsimile Version was Copied by Callihraphor Feng Chengsu (617 — 672) and Preserved in Palace Museum.
What made Chinese 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, the handwriting had been considered as 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.
Utilizations of Chinese Calligraphy.
Oracle, Bronze, and Stone Inscriptions — To record history, and to eulogize epic achievements, great reign, ambitious decrees, or beautiful sceneries.
Plaques or Paibian — To note locations, commemorate events, or convey belief and culture.
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.
Epitaphs — To memorize and record life experience and achievement of decedents.
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, Development, 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) — 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 — 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.
In Chinese Calligraphy history, artworks of the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD) are believed the peak of the Clerical Script or Li Shu.
Regular Script or Kai Shu
Regular Script or Kai Shu evolved from the Clerical Script, has been the most popular and common script styles, from having been invented in the late Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD) till today.
In Chinese Calligraphy aesthetics, works of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) are believed the most eminent and valuable of Regular Script or Kai Shu art.
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.
Semi-cursive Script or Xing Shu
Semi-cursive Script or Xing Shu appeared in the late Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), 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) — Taipei Palace Museum
Basic Rules and Appreciation of Chinese Calligraphy.
Chinese Calligraphy 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.
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.
Strokes constitute Chinese characters following certain structures, which in writing, are required to be stable and delicate, balanced but with rhythm, with focused yet contrast elements.
Part of Calligraphy Work "Semi-cursive Script or Xing Shu Thousand Character Classic", Written by Ouyang Xun (557 — 641) — Liaoning Museum
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 Chinese 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 artworks.
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) — Shanghai Museum
Four Treasures of the Study and Other Chinese Calligraphy Supplies.
To write Chinese 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 Chinese calligraphy as well, such as paperweights, brush hangers, brush holders, brush washers, seal, and ink paste.
Chinese Calligraphy Supplies, Picture from Zou Feng.
Main Steps to Practice Chinese Calligraphy.
In general, Chinese 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 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) — 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 Chinese calligraphy from established masters.
To create and form your own calligraphy style, based on knowledge and rules that one learned from ancient masterpieces.
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