Chinese Calligraphy

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By Wang Zheng
2 London


Chinese calligraphy is an art of writing Chinese characters. Because of the historical influence of the Chinese culture, especially the written language, this art exists not only in China but also in other east Asian countries such Japan, Korea, and Vietnam where their written language used to be Chinese wenyan – a literate language for the educated, east Asian equivalent of Latin.

The history of Chinese calligraphy dates back to as early as the time when people in China started to carve symbols or scripts on animal bones and potteries. The earliest known Chinese calligraphy which some people still try to learn and practice as an art today is Jiaguwen, meaning inscriptions on oracle bones. The inscriptions themselves are the earliest form of Chinese characters discovered so far and have strong influence over the evolution of the characters developed later. With the development of technology as well as the political unification of China, the inscriptions began to be formalised, standardised, and simplified. Finally, the first official written language was defined when Qinshihuang, the first emperor of China, defeated regional powers and unified China in 200s BC. The form of this written language was named Xiaozhuan by historians.

The evolution of Chinese characters was a process of simplification as a result of the needs of daily use and education. During Tang Dynasty, circa 600-900 AD, the writing of the characters got even more matured stylistically, and the Kaishu style, meaning model or regular style, began to be used universally by people of all classes for all purposes. Kaishu has since been adopted as the standard way of writing and printing Chinese characters to this day.

One of the important reasons why the writing of characters has become an elegant and sophisticated art, alongside its practical functions, is due to the structure of Chinese characters.  Different from the European languages, Chinese characters were originally developed from graphical and symbolic inscriptions which can still be seen in the modern day version characters. Each character has a well-defined original meaning and can serve as a word itself. Thus, a typical Chinese character would usually carry both a graphical original meaning and a more abstract meaning attached to it later, making it a concise way to express some complicated philosophical notions. In addition, a character is typically formed by a combination of strokes following certain rules. However, how one precisely place the strokes and treat the relations between the strokes can never be exactly specified. This gives great room for art – in theory there are numerous distinguishable ways to write a complicated character.

Chinese calligraphy is most commonly practiced using a set of tools – brush, ink, and rice paper. Because the brush is also used for Chinese paintings, the use of it for writing Chinese characters creates even further possibilities of exploring subtle differences in strokes. The differences in brushes, ink, and paper would add differences to the looks of the calligraphy as well.  

How do we then understand and appreciate a piece of Chinese calligraphy? The key is in the traditional Chinese philosophy, at the core of which is a constant pursuit of balance and harmony in the universe. For Kaishu style, every character should be well balanced with a consistent way of treating different parts of strokes and the structure of the character as well. For Caoshu style, which is a free style way of writing characters, strokes can be linked, omitted, or deformed in forms. However, whichever style one follows, a good piece of calligraphy is always expected to have a distinctive and consistent personality. Overall, it is like dance on paper – every tiny detail and the overall impression are both important to make it a great piece of art. 


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