An introduction to the art of Chinese calligraphy

Written by Tom | 7th August 2020

A looping blend of painting and writing, Chinese calligraphy is unparalleled in its appearance. For those interested, the task to learn and understand it can be daunting. And while it's not easy, having all the necessary tools and a basic understanding of its principles can make a world of difference, as Asian art expert, Ye Hua, explains. 

Calligraphy in China has played a pivotal role in the nation's psyche for generations. It has served as both a means of communication as well as a medium of self-expression and power. While contemporary society outside of China primarily views Chinese calligraphy as a gorgeous, swirling art form, its history is a crucial component for anyone truly interested in learning the craft. 

A short history of Chinese writing

Calligraphy is woven into China's culture. “Calligraphy in China has around a 2000-year-old history, starting from the time of the Han dynasty,” explains Ye. "Its value is intricately tied to the way the Chinese have long viewed literature and the written word". Early examples of writing were first found on what are known as oracle bones (animal bones) during the Shang dynasty. In this period, inscriptions on bones were said to have been used by the Shang kings in divination rituals, which experts in the field have speculated to be one reason literacy in China is considered to be such an esteemed quality among individuals. 

Writing was and still is prized in Chinese culture

Calligraphy first appeared in the fourth century and the prestige associated with mastering it and the written word swiftly became a route to power. Emperors had their names engraved into stela (ancient slabs of stone and wood used as monuments) and onto mountainsides as a way of ensuring they remained known in the present and future. Equally, scholars and individuals who had mastered writing took up many of the most prestigious roles in government and society. 

“It's important to know that in Chinese, (书法) literally means“ method of writing “, but calligraphy art does not only focus on how you write but who you are when you write”, Ye explains. “In Japanese, they call it (书 道), which means; the spirit of writing. They believe that a calligrapher needs to have a good character to be able to write beautifully. In fact, to this day in China, children are encouraged to take extra calligraphy lessons to train their patience and way of working and thinking, as well as to build up a good personal character. There's a saying in China that you can know a person through his way of writing ”.

Types of calligraphy

It was during the Han dynasty, that the manufacturing of basic calligraphy tools began, such as that of paper, ink, inkstone and brushes, which helped popularize writing and calligraphy. 

“Calligraphy developed as a result of the structure of Chinese characters, which rely on multiple combinations of strokes to be formed”, says Ye. “Chinese characters are not based on a-b-c but on the form/figure of objects developed from ancient Chinese (甲骨文) dating back to 14th-11th BCE”. Readers can discern the calligrapher’s personality from their flourishes and strokes, while the visual aspect of calligraphy helps convey the meaning, like a reverse onomatopoeia.

There are five types of script styles in Chinese calligraphy

“There are five script styles which are commonly used in Chinese calligraphy”, Ye continues. “Regular, Semi-cursive, Cursive, Clerical, and Seal script. The regular script is easier to learn, as these more closely resemble recognizable characters. The semi-cursive and cursive scripts, however, might look different according to the handwriting of the calligrapher. The clerical and seal scripts are the most complicated to learn, requiring years of study ”. 

Materials you need

Having the right tools is essential when beginning calligraphy. “To practice Chinese calligraphy, you need to have a brush, ink, inkstone and some rice paper (known as Wen Fang Si Bao in Chinese) to be able to practice. The brush holds the most important role in writing. Brushes are made with animal hair bound into a bamboo or porcelain even a horn casing. The hair should be soft but needs to be flexible enough so you can turn and push it very easily during writing. Rabbit hair, goat hair and weasel hair are quite popular”.

Having a good brush is arguably the most important tool in successful calligraphy

Calligraphy is bound to the quality of its tools because it allows a calligrapher to adequately express themselves in their writing. The way a brush holds ink and the way one chooses to wield this in thick or thin strokes is all part of illustrating a character and oneself.

And nowadays it’s easy to find resources to learn too. “There are printed square sheets available on the market which have pre-printed strokes. These are very simple and easy to use when practicing. A small course in learning Chinese for beginners is recommended when starting out”. 


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