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Introduction to Chinese Calligraphy

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Introduction to Chinese Calligraphy
Evolution and Different Styles
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Chinese calligraphy can be seen as the backbone of China's artistic tradition. This branch of art was, and still is, the most dominant vehicle through which the Chinese express their emotions in the world of visual art.

To begin with, it is crucial to differentiate Western and Chinese Calligraphy. In the west, calligraphy, literally meaning beautiful or good writing is a minor art which tends to embellish letters in a rather preconceived and rigid manner.

Western calligraphy is more often than not executed by well practiced artisans (in the past mainly monks), than real artists. This is not to say that the more casual and expressive forms of calligraphy did not exist, however, people involved in this practice were never looked upon as established artists.

The story of Chinese calligraphy is dramatically different. In China, from days of old like at present, calligraphy was considered to be one of the highest forms of art. Chinese calligraphy has a great range of different techniques and artistic trends, it can be manifested in square-like and rigid forms all the way to highly abstract and highly expressionist styles that are unreadable even to the native Chinese.

This comes to show that words and meaning are not absolutely essential for the appreciation of Chinese calligraphy. On the other hand the meaning of the characters is definitely an advantage when readable. One of the most unique features of Chinese calligraphy is the fact that verbal and visual merge into one entity. Chinese characters have a set stroke order, which means everybody will write characters in the same order of strokes. There is a certain logic to the way the characters are written and this logic is coherent in all characters.

When a Chinese looks at calligraphy he or she can naturally detect any peculiarities in the form and in the stroke order. It is not rare to see viewers tracing the artists' characters in order to better understand his or her 'flow'. By tracing the character physically or by imagination one can understand how the artist improvises and interprets a certain character. This phenomenon represents an objective standard through which a viewer can understand art. Through familiarity with the shapes and stroke order of the characters, ordinary people can approach art equipped with means to better analyze what they see.

Another interesting aspect of calligraphy is its cultural significance and its close bond with painting. The 'Four Treasures of the Study', brush, ink, ink slab and paper had an almost sacred cultural position in traditional China. Unlike the Western brush, paint and canvas which are merely tools or means to an end, in China these so-called 'tools' have a spiritual significance that stresses the importance of the means and the process involved in creating a work of art.

This, in a way, elevated the importance of artistic creation to an exceptionally prestigious cultural position. The Chinese brush, not necessarily a tool to depict reality, is more of an instrument through which the artist expresses his or her inner mood and emotions. In painting, this led to the concept of 'writing the idea' or meaning (Xie Yi, 写意) where the basic techniques of calligraphy became a major influence. The special characteristics of the Chinese brush enable it to create a diverse range of different strokes, therefore the calligrapher does not need to change tools for different effects. Instead, he relays on his skill and mastery of one brush.

This also enables him to engage in a continuous process that is not interfered in the middle. Thanks to the unique features of the brush, ink and paper the artist can enter a continuous meditative state of mind. This intimate relationship between calligraphy and painting is further intensified by the development of a tradition of incorporating calligraphy into painting. Here, again, calligraphy plays a unique role in the appreciation of art. The Chinese artist can use calligraphy as an additional way to express and explain his or her feelings.

This can be in the form of a poem,  a description of the occasion and circumstances in which a particular piece of art was made, a dedication to the receiver of the work or just  a seemingly random remark about life or a certain event. The common denominator being the fact that the artist can better clarify his/her intentions as wellas use it as an additional element in the composition. The Chinese painter uses "art within art". This is not to say that Chinese calligraphy is a form of expression that accommodated more dominant forms of art, on the contrary, masterpieces of calligraphy have always been considered to be extremely precious. Some of these masterpieces became corner stones in the development of the Chinese system of writing.


Evolution and Different Styles

The story of the development of Chinese characters is not a very simple and coherent one. Different types of characters and styles were accepted at different places, under different rules and at different times. The history of Chinese characters is simultaneously a long process of standardization and a search for alternative ways to express feelings through different styles. The intriguing thing is that some masterpieces that introduced a new revolutionary style were so admired that they were established as the new standard and form to be copied and studied by later generations.

In general Chinese calligraphy can be divided into five major styles: Zhuan Shu (篆书) today mostly confined to seal carving, Li Shu (隶书), the traditional official style (mainly dominant during the Han Dynasty 206 B.C.-220 A.D), Kai Shu (楷书), the most common form for printing which is also considered to be the standard form of writing Chinese, Xing Shu (行书), the most commonly used form of hand writing also known as 'running style' and finally Cao Shu (草书), the Chinese cursive style, mostly used by calligraphers for highly abstract works but also seen in everyday use.

All these major forms of calligraphy contain sub categories, the general division into five main styles is a simplification of a very diverse system of writing. There are also two earlier styles which are no more in common use and were not originally executed by brush, namely, the Jia Guwen ( 甲骨文) or "oracle bone script" and the Jin Wen (金文) which were characters engraved on bones, shells and bronze, sometimes categorized under Zhuan Shu.Finally, Calligraphy is a revered symbol of tradition, excellence and self cultivation in the cultures of China, Japan, korea and to a certain extent Vietnam. It was commonly believed that ones hand writing reflects ones spiritual and moral integrity, therefore candidates taking the exams for the imperial court were required to display  solid calligraphic technique and deep understanding of this form of art. The theory that it is guided by is complex and demanding and the actual act of creation, not necessarily the outcome, elevates one to new heights of spirituality. Calligraphy has introduced the idea of visual abstraction and spontaneous expression to the world of Chinese art in a very early stage of development. Therefore accepted traditional elements in Chinese art were seen as revolutionary in West, therefore attracting the attention of many great modern Western artists who came under its influence and charm.


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Last Updated on Monday, 14 March 2011 17:02