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Philosophy About Chinese Calligraphy

Article Index
Philosophy About Chinese Calligraphy
P2: Search for Beauty
P3: Mission of Art
P4: Oneness & Duality
P5: Perfection Is Relative, Not Absolute
P6: Methodologies of Chinese Calligraphy
P7: Ergonomics & Physiology of Chinese Calligraphy
P8: The Picture of Soul
P9: If You Practice the Wrong Way, You Still Have to Practice
P10: Live With and Without Art
All Pages

P1: Perception of Art

One day I was talking to an art student and she told me, “art is all about perception.” That’s very true and direct. Art is communion of one soul to another, offered through a symbolic language of form and content.

According to the perennial philosophy (, the human beings possess at least three modes of knowing: 

  • The eye of flesh
  • The eye of mind
  • The eye of contemplation

The eye of flesh discloses the material, concrete, and sensual world; the eye of mind discloses the symbolic, conceptual, and linguistic world; and the eye of contemplation discloses the spiritual, transcendental, and transpersonal world. These are not three different worlds, but three different aspects of our one world disclosed by different modes of perception.

Art is psychological perception of reality and creation. It can be reduced to a perception of a subject of a constructed visual stimulus. It can also be predictable in regards to probable response of its intended target spectators. Art is an experience based upon interrelationship between people and their world. Art includes such relationships as between viewer and art object, artist and viewer, society and artist, and the unconscious and the conscious. Thus, as artists envision a sense of wholeness that the human mind provides to the static and isolated nature of real world stimuli, they recreate delicacy and beauty that capture this sense of unity among the apparently disparate things or events of our environment.

Art exists in the minds of its selected perceivers. Some of these psychological factors influencing the perception of art include culture, sex, age, individual perspective, and value systems. Besides these variables of aesthetic, perception are biological components like the way our consciousness functions, as an end product of evolution. Art thus includes the perceptual cognitive factors of the unconscious and psychophysical sensory mechanisms of the human body. The abstract beauty and depth within a good Chinese calligraphy work can be perceived universally regardless the differences in race, culture, languages, and time. Like the scientists, the artists search to discover a new reality through accomplished means of extending the limitation of today's reality. Science does this through advancing technology whereas artists use their “perception” to expand creative awareness of their contemporaries and predecessors. A good Chinese calligrapher bears a mission to explore new possibilities and reality to represent the intrinsic beauty of Chinese characters and the utmost beauty of one's inner heart transformation. If an artist lacks insight and perception, his practice will be in vain for life because there is no guidance and enlightenment.

P2: Search for Beauty

"Let us worry about beauty first, and truth will take care of itself."

What is beauty? Philosophers pondering the meaning of aesthetics have produced weighty tomes, but an absolute definition of aesthetic values remains elusive. Aesthetic perceptions differ from culture to culture. Different conventions govern landscape painting in the East and West. If there is no objective standard of beauty in the world of human creations, what system of aesthetics are we to use in speaking of the beauty of the Nature? How are we to judge the Nature's design to benefit an artist’s creation? Or how a non-Chinese speaking people perceive the abstract beauty within a Chinese calligraphy work?

It is “perception” of our basic senses that drive us to make things better, be it for delicious cooking, melodious music or beautiful painting. However, everyone’s perception is different. So artists as well as critics “set” criteria for appreciating art and traditional rules and norms to create good arts. Why criteria for arts? And why do we need to learn traditional rules and norms? If art does not impose some norms or standards, then everybody can have it in his own way without learning and practicing. Consequently, people won’t appreciate each other’s ways. Just as languages and music have their own grammars, Chinese calligraphy has numerous sets of strict rules, norms, and esthetics.

For example, a major rule of Tsao Shu is to simplify the left radical of a Chinese character and focus on the right radical (“Yi Zuo Yang Yu   抑左揚右,” literally simplify the left and focus on the right.) This rule makes writing the left part of a character faster by connecting it from the right part of the preceding character.

Thus a calligraphy work in Tsao Style will look more smooth, connecting, and faster with abrupt turning and dramatic effects. The following is a chart that lists each character in Kai Style and three ways of writing that character in Tsao Style. Like Zuan Style, a character can be written in many ways in Tsao Style.

 From the above examples, we may know “simplifying the left and focusing on the right” is the major rule for creating a Tsao Style character by different ancient calligraphers. The calligraphers obey the prototype more strictly on the left side while they have leeway for artistic design on the right side. If a laymen tries to coin his way of creating a Tsao Style character without learning, he may end up making mistakes. Adding or removing a single dot in one position can turn a Tsao Style character into another one. For example, “Wei #2” and “Zu #3” are just different in one dot in the beginning and another dot at the end.  There are innumerous examples in Tsao Shu of tiny differences like this example since the total number of Chinese characters is so large.

However, rules are not absolute. A rule that is not allowed in one Chinese calligraphy style may be a specialized feature in the other styles. For example, Emperor Huei Zong ( 宋徽宗 ) of the Sung Dynasty invented Skinny Gold Style “So Jin Tee   瘦金體” that adopted strokes with principles against traditional rules and theories. It was “that” calligrapher’s perception that made him not to adopt traditional rules of most Chinese calligraphy methodologies and that made him unique and different. 

The above left and middle Kai Style works were obeying the traditionally strict rules of Chinese calligraphy. However, the right one drastically deviate from the traditional rules of strokes. Those strokes look very speedy and sharp which are not seen in almost all other styles.

 “In my own development as an artist, it has been made evident to me, time and time again, that success comes from the careful observance of details.” ~ Ferruccio B.Busoni. The first step to practice art will be “observing” and "understanding" rather than mere practice or creation by our physical hands. Some artists used to say that onehas "to train one's eyes."  Before we start a piece for any forms of art, we must mentally “visualize” our design. This is very important in the Lin Mo ( 臨摹 )process of Chinese calligraphy. To be a Chinese calligraphy cognoscente both in skills and insight, one has to train his inner eyes to see the underlying principles guiding an ancient master’s design. He has to go beyond the extrinsic beauty as shown in the writing to the profound beauty embodied within. Then he may realize that the ancient Chinese calligraphy masters embodied cosmic harmony of structures and shapes within their masterpieces.

Physicists from Einstein on have been awed by the profound fact that, as we examine Nature on deeper and deeper levels, She appears even more beautiful. Why should that be? We could have found ourselves living in an intrinsically ugly universe, a “chaotic world," as Einstein put it, "in no way graspable through thinking."

Likewise when we look into the ancient Chinese calligraphy masterpieces on deeper and deeper levels, we will find the beauty of the calligraphers’ souls speaking in their own works. How did they do that? They simply observed and followed their inner heart. The more we dive in, the more we feel that the ancient wise men exceeded us in mental, physical, and spiritual levels. We are just living in a “chaotic world of deteriorating Chinese calligraphy bombarded with fame, shortsightedness, self-proclaim, politics, and lack of skills and consciousness.”

The essence of art is in the "eyes of the beholder" rather than permanently fixed, quantitatively and qualitatively, within the aesthetic object.  Art is a special human behavior towards aspects of one's world that are determined to best give one the experience of feelings and meaning of great intensity, relative to other objects or aspects of our environment. The qualities of these "aspects" of our world that conjure up the feelings and perception of art include the masterful ability of the artist to include, in his aesthetic stimuli formation for others, the qualities of "comprehensiveness" (the degree to which the work creates the feeling of integration and unity in the viewer), "consistency" (elements of the work form a compatible whole), "intensity" (the creation of emotional intensity through both the form and content of the work), and "originality" (the value of novelty through creativity which leads to new aesthetic experience for the beholder).

The artist facilitates in his creation aesthetic perception of the viewer. The viewer must take responsibility for the carryover of aesthetic appreciation, from that of the artist that created the stimulus, to his own feelings and internalized relationship with the art object.

P3: Mission of Art

“My soul is always longing. That’s why I need art.”

Generally speaking, people practice art for art’s sake, self interest or entertainment, moral and philosophy, or personal spiritual growth. Except for personal entertainment, the mission of art refers to the inner calling to creatively serve our physically and spiritually depleted world. The artist can be a spiritual emissary working in any medium in any part of culture or any forms of art. The artist’s mission is applied vision in that it connotes personal, passionate, and eternal commitment to art.

The will to make art is the will to affirm life, to express our unique beauty and truth by devotional labor. This is a simple message anyone can appreciate: the artists take delight in and care for their work, and we thereby are inspired to find delight in our own work. If the mission of art involves opening the eye of the heart so spirit can be seen and felt, this goal can only be reached when both artist and viewer observe art as a holy covenant.

Art that feeds the soul is a visionary covenant among spirit, artist, and audience. The artist is responsible for outwardly manifesting and inwardly perceived transcendental source. By contemplative absorption in the artist’s vision, viewers place themselves in the mind of the artist at the moment of inspiration. Viewers receive the same transmission and enter the covenant relationship. A viewer of a Chinese calligraphy work does not worship a two-dimensional image but the spiritual beauty the image mirrors.  In Chinese painting, one could find animals, birds, flowers, and humans that were not only accurately depicted in shape and manner. The object’s internal substance, emotion, ideas, and aspiration were also captured by the artists.




「智」者善調理安排,故所書之字組合自然得宜,所謂「善行無轍跡」,「善計不用籌策」, 而「常善救物,故無棄物」猶常善救筆,故無失筆。
「信」者不我欺,自信亦信人,故所寫之字線條肯定,字穩而有神,不做作,不求媚取寵, 卓然而獨立。


The five virtues of “benevolence, righteousness, politeness, wisdom, and honesty” mentioned by the Confusianism also are imbedded in Chinese calligraphy, and they complement and complete each other.
Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) was trying symbolically express through his art a spiritual ideal clothed in material form. He once said, “It’s not sufficient merely to be a great master in painting and very wise, but I think it’s necessary for the painter to be very moral in his mode of life, or even if such were possible, a saint, so that the Holy Spirit may inspire his intellect.”

Anton Rubinstein wrote in his autobiography, “… insight to realize the divine, spiritual, and emotional message which music has to convey to those who understand –and care.“ This is the insight he sought to awaken in his own students. He was the greatest pianist after Franz Liszt, and Hans von Bulow called him “the Michelangelo on the piano.”

A good Chinese calligrapher enriches the soul of humanity. He delights viewers with nuances of shades of strokes and structure. He further reveals spiritual pureness and richness until then unknown, and gives people new reasons for loving life and new inner lights to guide them.


P4: Oneness & Duality

The 'concept' of the One is not a concept at all, yet it is nevertheless the foundation and grandest expression of many topics in philosophy. Some philosophers point out that no words can do justice to the power of the One; even the name, 'the One,' is inadequate, for naming already implies discursive knowledge, and since discursive knowledge divides or separates its objects in order to make them intelligible, the One cannot be known through the process of discursive reasoning.

Chinese characters are made up of strokes. The simplest stroke is a dot “Dian 點 ” or a horizontal stroke “Yi 一 ” which means “one.” As the number of strokes increased in each character, the possibilities began to expand and numerous characters were invented. It’s said the largest and most comprehensive Chinese dictionaries would contain about one or half million of Chinese characters while the ordinary dictionaries would contain 20,000 to 100,000 characters or so. (Some people estimate that the daily conversation and writing in Chinese only involve about 5,000 Chinese characters, with about 20,000 terms made up of combinations of those 5,000 characters.) And each character in each dynasty, style, or by different calligraphers would have so many derivatives of writing. It’s like that there are hundreds of dialects in China or there are innumerous ways to say a word by different people. The possibilities are endless; nevertheless, they all start from the Oneness. 

 Knowledge of the One is achieved through the experience of its 'power' and its nature, which is to provide a 'foundation' and location for all existents.  In Chinese calligraphy, as characters and styles were invented, the way each individual stroke is positioned, rendered, and perceived became distinctive. There are five major styles in Chinese scripts – Zuan, Li, Tsao, Hsin, and Kai. Among each major style and calligraphers, the derivatives and varieties are endless. It’s not feasible to start a statistical research and numbering. As the styles developed, the number of theories and methods also drastically increased. However, if one can grasp the very one and basic Theory of Center Tip ( 中鋒理論 ), all styles and methods will be self-explaining and contained within. The rest are just variations or the innumerous styles are just “illusions” – there is only One existing in the artist’s mind. The Chinese saying, “10,000 methods all come into one method ( 萬法歸一 ) ” can be applied in many fields besides arts.

The “power” of the One is not a power in the sense of physical or even mental action; the power of the One, is to be understood as the only adequate description of the “manifestation” of a supreme principle that, by its very nature, transcends all predication and discursive understanding. This “power,” then, is capable of being experienced or known only through contemplation or the purely intellectual “vision” of the source of all things.

“One” can be split into two different directions thus creating a “duality” effect. We usually separate the world into polarities: poor and wealthy, dark and light,female and male, self and other, beautiful and ugly, matter and spirit. Narrowly speaking, if a person renders a Chinese character stroke, the outcomes will be simply beautiful or ugly. In a broader sense, if many people render a stroke, the outcomes will be beautiful, ugly, and numerous possible so-so results falling in between the duality of “good” or “bad.” “Duality” is not an absolute concept. It has exceptions. It is based on how we define or judge. Thus determination, enthusiasm,patience, observation, and mental design are all decisive factors for our progress in practicing Chinese calligraphy. The more nuances we look into and apply, the higher level we will achieve and the more enjoyment we will experience.


P5: Perfection Is Relative, Not Absolute

"A general assertion is that a real artist needs to be very self-confident. I would claim the opposite: Only by casting doubts on your work till the point darkness disappears will lead to success!" ~ Elena Kuschnerova "You are quite perfect, Miss Fairfax! I hope I'm not that. It would leave no room for developments, and I intend to develop in many directions!" ~ Oscar Wilde

The ideology of “perfection” is never “perfectly” defined due to the limited human senses and logic. Perfection exists in relative terms. What is perfect to each person depends on one's self-perception in relation to others. What is perfect to one person may not be perfect if time and circumstances should change later.

Almost all of the people who practice Chinese calligraphy that I have met told me that the ancient masterpieces can never be surpassed - some of them are perfect -even if you have practiced very diligently throughout your lifetime you will never exceed them! My teacher used to tell me it’s almost impossible to invent a new

Chinese calligraphy style because almost all possibilities had been exhausted throughout the Chinese history. He meant a new style to be worthily recognized and highly regarded. I agreed with him. However, I do not believe that it is absolutely absolute – there must be a “niche” in the “matrix” remained unexplored and undiscovered. The “matrix” refers to the position, route, force, and ending of strokes of a character. Suppose if we are to bounce a ball inside a room and let it stop naturally, is there a finite number of possibilities and ways a ball should bounce and stop?

After studying other arts, I realize there are endless possibilities in the man-made concept of “perfection.” Perfection as set by Zhong Yao ( 鐘繇 ), Wang Hsi-Chih( 王羲之 ) and their predecessors are not absolute. Perfection is just a phenomenon of human perception. It relies on our basic five senses. If we can raise our well-being to a higher level than we have now, more possibilities will be attainable. For hundreds of years after Wang Hsi-Chih passed away, people regarded him as the Calligrapher-Sage ( 書聖 ) and there would not be anyone better than him. (Of course, there were many great calligraphers before and after Wang that were not inferior to him!) One critic in the later dynasty ranked Wang Hsi-Chih’s Tsao Shu as number eight in history up to his time. In Wang’s time, no one could predict that in the

Tang Dynasty there would be great Tsao Shu stylists like Zhang Shui ( 張旭 ) and Huai Su ( 懷素 ). Both of them created brand new looks of Tsao Shu that were far beyond the imagination of their predecessors. They mastered and surpassed previous methodologies and opened up new possibilities.


As If Not Done By Oneself ( 非己所為 )

I believe most people have some kind of experience in that they do not quite believe in themselves. So do I. For example, you are an excellent singer so you were chosen to represent your school. Then you went to a national contest where many good singers competed. During the contest, you heard other singers singing pretty well and receiving a big round of applause. You felt nervous because you worried that you might not be good as they were. And some of them at the same time had the same worry as you did! Illusions, worries, anticipations... now come to our mind.

Then you went onto the stage and sang as you had practiced enough to be ready. You finished and received the “biggest” applause! And you won! But you still could not believe you were also good or maybe better than the other singers or simply yourself when you were just a “bystander.”

My uncle was a bus driver for thirty years. Before I learned to drive, once he took me near the highway where cars were running fast. He told me, “Those cars are really running fast – fast enough to make you nervous and afraid when you are watching them. But when you are one of them driving at that speed, you don’t feel it’s very fast and you won’t be afraid at all. Even though I have been driving for three decades, those cars still look horrible to me!”

Sometimes when I practiced emulation (Lin Mo 臨摹) of ancient masterpieces before going to sleep, I thought I just did lousily. Then I blamed myself and admired the depth of ancient masters. After I woke up, it did not look that bad because I just over-blamed myself. Sometimes, I did a better Lin Mo practice almost beyond my own realized level. I thought I was not that good as the singer did likewise. However, “that” Lin Mo work I just did was the best of my recent practice during a certain period. I just “retrieved” one of the very highest levels of my well being. And there is not only “one” of them. They can be produced, replicated or enhanced if I am improving; or there can be mere retrogression if I don’t deploy my optimal physical level and mental intensity. All of these are “recurring patterns.” I call the ones that I over-blamed myself but in reality exceeded my expectation and observable level “once in a while” “not done by myself ( 非己所為 ).” It seemed that those were done by a portion or fraction of the higher part of “me” or "someone else." Now you probably understand what I am talking about here. 

 Pianist Josef Hofmann believed that every composer of talent (not to speak of genius) in his moments of creative fever has given birth to thoughts, ideas, and designs that lay together beyond the reach of his conscious will and control. We say that the composer “has surpassed himself.” In saying this, we recognize that the act of surpassing one’s self precludes the control of the self.

My points are: (1) how can I make it happen more often so it won’t be just “once in a while?” and (2) how do I retrieve that level that seems “not done by myself”more often and consistently? Imagine that we have innumerous levels of consciousness with certain levels higher than some other levels. Within each level of consciousness there are innumerous smaller units of levels with some more clearer and higher than the other ones. Sometimes our body is not totally awake – some parts of our body are still asleep while some are overactive. If we can mentally and physically access that smaller and smaller units of consciousness that can raise our mind, body, and spirit as a whole and apply that to our practice, we can make progress in art indefinitely.

If I am now a master artist and that “once in a while” work seems perfect in the eyes of my audiences, they rate it “perfect.” But later “once in a while” work of mine or others seems to exceed this one, how do people rate it? Still “perfect?” Then how about the previous one? “Ah! It’s less perfect!”


Endless Progress

If we don’t want to believe in the notion of “endless progress,” then our progress will be surely limited! Perfection is not an end. It’s a man-made concept about levels or stages. With every repetition, an artist becomes more and more absorbed. If I train my mind, consciousness, physical and moral level higher so that I can retrieve the “higher part of me” while the other “lower part of me” keep growing higher, even if I do not get the “best of me” I still make progress compared with previous results. I am improving as a whole well-being constantly. Is there a limit that prevents us from growing this way? Yes, only if we want to stop or cannot overcome ego! If we are determined to make progress, our progress will be infinitely superior to that of the previous stages. Even if Chinese calligraphy is deteriorating in artistic levels after each dynasty, if there will be a group of calligraphers who are enlightened and skillful enough to cope with the ancient masters and then maybe surpass them, there will not be “absolute perfection” as most Chinese calligraphers assert.

We, as practitioners of Chinese calligraphy or other arts, should think outside no box because there is no inside or outside. What is inside is also outside. In a mathematical sense, if we draw a cone without a tangible roof and floor, the cone can extend upward and downward indefinitely. Anything inside the cone can never hit the roof or floor and a thing will not be “inside” or “outside” the cone because it’s not self-contained.

Similarly, if a reader might ask me, "Mr. Hough, are those mostly your personal opinions that you publish in your website? Or are they mostly adapted from other calligraphers' opinions? ... I find something very different or even contrary to what I have known about Chinese calligraphy?" In my humble opinion, I would suggest the reader to think into those terms: personal, public, and conglomerate. Any established methodology, principle, experience, or theory in arts were first talked about by earlier artists, which they were "personal," and then they became a "conglomerate" of seemingly acceptable "public facts" that were written into books. How many of us have thought of the validity and practicality of those "established" knowledge?


Once a pedantic practitioner of Chinese calligraphy told me that a certain ancient master wrote about the "exact distances in inches from the brush tip (or head)" that we should hold a writing brush? He stated that when we are writing "large, medium, or small" Chinese characters, our hands should be positioned at certain distances in inches from the brush head "according" to what he had read in the "books" and what that ancient master had published. He believes that the ancient and famous masters should be correct and be responsible for those statements. Well, first of all, how do we define the exact sizes of "large, medium, or small" Chinese characters. And how can we make conclusions without considering the different specifications of brushes between our modern time and that ancient master's era and the fact that people have different hand sizes and shapes... and many other factors.

If we were to follow the "established" or some of the widely and prevalently misleading knowledge without considering other relevant factors or to believe the man-made "perfection," then we will never be walking on the path toward perfection.


P6: Methodologies of Chinese Calligraphy

Chinese people deeply emphasize their methodologies in many fields. Methodologies can get pretty complicated as history and styles develop. The methodologies related to Chinese calligraphy can be explained as two interrelated parts: the holding and operation of brush and the mental creation. The brushwork is just an extension of the mind. The mind won’t work well if the brush fails and vise versa. Before we get to build up a more serious attitude about Chinese calligraphy, we have to realize that we have a free will to choose how deep we want to go. It’s our artistic life or activity that no one can impose on us. The deeper and detailed we probe, the better results we get.

I read that a Bagwazhang ( 八卦掌 ) master saying that a system of Eight Trigram Palms can be divided into 64 diagrams and then 360 degrees. We can roughly imagine a circle divided into 8 trigrams and we will get a little bit more tired to divide the circle into 64 diagrams. Then a truly secret and authentic Bagwazhang system further divides the circle into 360 degrees as accurate as a compass. Each trigram ( 卦 ) or diagram has its own application in fighting. Furthermore, each of the 360 divisions of degrees have its own techniques! Sounds pretty complicated and lots to memorize? The master who said this had never lost a fight and he usually ended a challenge within seconds with the fewest movements!

Like the above-mentioned 360 degrees of different techniques, a good Chinese calligrapher should also be accurate down to the smallest nuances too. Even a one-degree difference of each stroke can result in totally different outcomes (destiny) and spirit of a character. If we miss the tree, we will miss the whole forest. The outcome of each character does not only come from the tiny physical appearances, it also comes from an iota of mental vibration at that moment. This is one of the reasons that Chinese calligraphy is known as the “Heart Painting” or Mind Image ( 字即心畫 ).

Just like a pianist’s tone production on the piano, the nuances of each calligraphy unit down to the smallest detail determine the artist’s level. Larger mental use and smaller muscular motions will bring intensity and nuances to the soul of an artwork.

As we are mentally and technically ready to learn Chinese calligraphy methods, we may review the Center Tip Theory and A4: How to Develop Mind Power in Calligraphy.

After one has trained well with Center Tip Theory and mind concentration, most technical issues such as structure, shading, posture, and strokes will be self- explaining as one has opened his or her spiritual eyes artistically.

“If you love anything enough, it will speak to you.” ~ George Washington Carver

Please do not worry if you cannot understand all of the theories and philosophy at once. The most important thing is applying the knowledge, not the knowledge itself.

There were even more theories of Chinese calligraphy in the ancient times written in Classical Chinese Style in metaphysical tones beyond our modern comprehension. It’s impractical to read, understand and be enslaved by them all. We may choose whatever is adaptable and feasible to our styles and paths.

P7: Ergonomics & Physiology of Chinese Calligraphy

 “la mano che obbedisce all’ intelletto” (the hand which obeys the intellect) ~ Michelangelo

Understanding physiology is important in practicing Chinese calligraphy as well as in other artistic activities. My teacher used to tell me an anecdote that when an English novelist went to see a doctor because of his shoulder pain, the doctor told him that he simply did not know how to write! The Canadian pianist Glenn Gould suffered severely from frozen shoulders by his early fifties. He was the most famous interpreter of Bach of his time. He played a few pieces with stunningly fast tempo quite well. However, he showed a lot of mannerisms at the piano in his posture, movement, and position that might have caused him pain for his arms and fingers.  He was in great fear of not being able to play again. He simply did not want to follow the conventional way of sitting at the piano with the appropriate height of arms'level. In terms of musical interpretation, taste, and structure, people in his time seemed to forget Gould’s predecessors like Eugene d’Albert, Ferruccio Busoni, Wilhelm Backhaus, and etc.

Some Chinese internal martial artists emphasize both internal and external postures. The idea of “internal postures ( 內形 )” can be used to develop more ergonomically correct physiology in practicing Chinese calligraphy in relation to posture, execution, and mind focus. The so-called internal postures are minor or tiny adjustment of angles in certain areas of the body. The adjustment is tiny but the effect in generating strength for martial arts or a calligraphy work can be huge!

More articles about postures can be found at

A simple experiment of internal postures is to stand on one leg and try the following alternatives:

Stand on one leg for more than 20 seconds in good balance.

Keep the same posture but with the eyes closed for more than 20 seconds.

Repeat. Keep the same posture with the eyes open for more than 20 seconds.

Repeat. Keep the same posture with the eyes closed for more than 20 seconds, but put a thought at the bottom of the standing foot. Add a thought on top of the skull,or any other parts of the body. Feel the different levels of balance.

If the tiny muscles of eyelids can create differences, imagine the other parts of the body can create different results to our daily activities.

 The following is a list of “restated” guidelines for practicing Chinese calligraphy with more details for optimal ergonomics. Please note that no method is absolute and these guidelines only serve as references or self-check points. By adhering to these guidelines combined with some of your experiences or knowledge of practicing meditation, internal martial arts or Qigong, or other methods like Pilates and Alexander Techniques, the practitioner will enter a higher stage of consciousness and self-realization and may enjoy longevity due to better physical and spiritual well-being. The guidelines are not “religions” or “mysticisms.” They simply follow many of the most natural ways our postures can be in practicing Chinese calligraphy. 


The Hanging Arm Technique is
recommended for more advanced levels.
 The Resting Wrist Method is
recommended for beginners.

 Keep head straight. Keep head and neck in a naturally bent curve but not too forward, otherwise the back of the neck will be strained. Observe each stroke through the nose down to the center of chest. Use the nose as an imaginary centerline for separating each Chinese character into left and right spheres but do not stare at the nose, chest or brush tip or anywhere.

  Relax shoulders. Rest left palm near the center of the torso to stabilize and flatten the paper whether we are resting the right elbow on the desk or hanging the right arm while holding a brush. Now, it’s okay to tilt the head a little bit leftward if you are right-handed. This is normal for most people. But please be aware that tilting too much (say, more than 10 degrees from the base of our neck) will eventually make our Chinese characters crooked and our spine not in a proper position.

 Keep torso straight. Sit only on one half of the chair. Never lean back on a chair. Sitting on full area of the chair may distract our attention. Sitting on only one half or 1/3 of the chair can help keep us alert and relax our groins and keep our toes solid onto the ground. 

 Keep feet on the ground. Never cross legs and feet. Keep legs parallel and relaxed. The distance between the outer rims of the feet may not be less than the shoulder width. The legs' postures and positions are as important as those of hands. Once the mind, body, and spirit are coordinated, one may feel energy or heat flowing at Bubble Wells “Yung Chuan Shei  湧泉穴 ” at the bottom of the feet. This will bring the mind to a higher level of awareness and artistic creativity. Mentally imagine (but not physically exert) that the toes are grabbing the ground lightly with the sole of feet hollow. Both heels and knees are forming two lines that are perpendicular to the ground. If our knees and toes are forming lines that are perpendicular to the ground, the energy flow through the knees is less and the ergonomics will be somewhat less optimal. We have to make all necessary postures natural even if they are “unnatural” to us at first. Remember to make both “natural” and “unnatural” natural and our progress will be promising.

 Keep (not hold) the breath and concentrate during execution of each stroke. Breathing during writing each Chinese calligraphy stroke will interrupt our concentration.

Unnecessary talking is a taboo. Then breath naturally between strokes or characters. Do not force breathing. When we reach a higher level, we will realize that like turning brush tips to tiny directions in each stroke, the breath can be controlled to synchronize the turning of brush tips. Hence, the mind, brush motion, and breath (energy) movement inside our body are coordinated in a way that they are working together in the same intention. This is somewhat an imaginary or metaphysical sense since it's in microscopic levels and nuances. Please don’t pretend it. This stage will come naturally and will be self-explaining only after we have practiced long enough. Remember it will come naturally.






 Do not keep our buttocks outward. Keep torso straight and relax groins.

 Coordinated movement flows from the center of the body outward. When swimmers kick, they generate power from their hips, not their toes. In piano playing, a pianist goes from the shoulder girdle to the fingertips. In most Chinese martial arts, the forces come from the hips and groins, not from the upper arms. Likewise, the principles are the same in practicing Chinese calligraphy.

(Additional note: When we are writing Chinese calligraphy with our wrist resting on the desk, it will require more muscular strength from our wrist, palm, and fingers as most traditional Chinese calligraphers and textbooks assert. If we are using the Hanging Arm Technique, then it will require more strength from our shoulders and arms instead of only fingers and wrists. Furthermore, if we are utilizing our whole body and mind with the Hanging Arm Technique, metaphysically and ergonomically, our whole body is now the palm and wrist, our arms are the fingers... and the brush becomes a fine needle...)

Physiology does not only deal with our physical body. It is necessary to keep good moral habits to “mentally” keep our nerve system functioning at the optimal level.

It need hardly be emphasized that immorality of any sort will in time undermine the strongest nerve system. It is the surest, quickest, and deadliest enemy of good nerves. A master artist must have fine nerves. An artist’s inspiration depends on his / her functionality of nerves and level of consciousness.

Just as machines need maintenance and cleansing, so do our body and mind. Practicing Chinese calligraphy properly with the right attitude and physiology can mentally and physically calm our mind, body, and spirit and lead to longevity.


P8: The Picture of Soul

如何知「字如其人」?How to read a person through his calligraphy?


If the mind and brush are united, the writing is calligraphy. If the Ying and Yang are combined, it's called the Tao. Thus, those who talk about the Tao of Chinese Calligraphy emit a self-image naturally from their hearts. If the person is not in accordance with this natural law, what he writes is not what his heart desires to communicate. The mouth (or writing) does not follow the heart. So we say Chinese calligraphy is the self-image of one's heart.




Liu Shi-Zai in his “The Concept of Art” said, “Chinese calligraphy resembles one’s personality, talent, and will. It resembles oneself.” He also said, “The calligraphy of the sages look warm and pure; the calligraphy of the handsome and masculine people look calm and willful; the calligraphy of the skillful hermits look sharp and direct; the calligraphy of the talented look elegant and wise.” He further said, “The way to elevate one’s spirit starts from the holding the brush; the mind will be enlightened if the operation of the brush is correct. If one’s heart is upright, his calligraphy will inherit the personalities and spirits of the ancient masters and sages. If he practices calligraphy diligently, the spirits of ancient calligraphers will be in the core of the brush with beautiful writings flowing underneath. Then his calligraphy will be remembered.”



Thus, Chinese calligraphy is not just inheritance of “skills with black strokes and white spaces.” It’s an inheritance of spirit and legacy of human being.

 Not only Chinese calligraphy requires an artist to open his inner spiritual ears and eyes. Many forms of arts such as painting or music also require deep observation of inner images or listening to the inner voice. The following are sayings of masters regarding the observing and listening to one self:

 “It’s better to learn from the Nature than ancient masters. And it’s even better to learn from the source of heart than the Nature.” ~ Fan Kuan (  范 寬 )



致,就和「道」達到高度的一致,這就叫做「四大一心」。「四大」其實就是「一大」 -- 「道大」,因為「天」、「地」、「人」都統一於「道」了,都統一於「法」了。

 “The nature of the mind is like a mirror which has the natural and inherent capacity to reflect whatever is set before it, whether beautiful or ugly; but these reflections in no way affect or modify the nature of the mirror. It is the same with the state of contemplation: There is nothing to correct or alter or modify. What the practitioner does when entering into contemplation is simply to discover himself in the condition of the mirror” ~ Namkhai Norbu

 “Just as we cannot talk of visual beauty if we are blind, so we cannot discuss inner spiritual beauty if we have never received it.” ~ Plotinus “Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the arts that have influenced us. To look at a thing is very different from seeing a thing. One does not see anything until one sees its beauty. Then, and then only, does it come into existence.” ~ Oscar Wilde

“Rachmaninoff was made of steel and gold; steel in his arms, gold in his heart.” ~ Josef Hofmann

“Franz Liszt – ah, you see I bow when I mention the name – you never heard Franz Liszt? Ah, it was the great Liszt who listened – listened to his inner voice. They said he was inspired. He was simply listening to himself.” ~ Vladimir de Pachmann

P9: If You Practice the Wrong Way, You Still Have to Practice

Practice is very important to any artist. Sometimes I would read a lot because of my longing for knowledge and I eventually neglect my practice schedule. There are many, many good writers about Chinese calligraphy. They combine the art with various theories from Zen, mind, virtue, religions, literature, physics, esthetics, philosophy, and so on. Some publications are quite illuminating and enticing. We find human being as a very interesting creature to create different ideologies from many sects of knowledge. However, it’s common to be “high in the eyes, low in the hands” ( 眼高手低, a Chinese term that depicts good insight yet not enough skills.) There is nothing improved if we don’t actualize and just have knowledge. Some say “If you practice the wrong way, you still have to practice.” This is quite right. However, insight should keep us asking ourselves honestly and constantly, “Am I practicing in the right direction?” 

Any obstacle in the complete round of the cycle of creation can weaken, disrupt, or cripple the art. Artists may have difficulty accessing their deepest level of insight because of technical deficiency. Thus, there should be a balance between knowledge and application. If one is highly skilled yet lacks of insight and depth, he is just an “artisan.” If one is both skillful and insightful, then he is truly an artist.

I personally arrange time in the proportion of 60% practice, 30% reading articles and research and 10% thinking without practice and reading. Usually after I have practiced for a while, I do some research while my mind and body need to relax a little bit. When I get away from practice and reading, I contemplate different topics and maybe explore possibilities.

Since there are so many styles in Chinese calligraphy, a final word is that always practice patiently, slowly, carefully, and systematically. Be sure to choose a quiet time and room to practice. Try to minimize interruption by friends, family, TV or any physical and mental deficiency. If you fuss and fume for immediate results, you may be sadly disappointed. (Only after we have reached a higher level, it’s not necessary to practice systematically. Systematism is the death of spontaneity, and spontaneity is the very soul of art.)

P10: Live With and Without Art

The most important thing to an artist is "life" rather than "practice." To attain a high level in art, a balanced and disciplined life is a major topic besides studying art itself. It’s advisable to always maintain beginner’s mind and enthusiasm, look for long-term goals (e.g., build up foundations rather than look for quick result), and never abuse ourselves. Oftentimes an artist is so enthusiastic for his work and gets himself overly abused. Later his mind or body will revenge!

I have a big sign in my studio “No calligraphy today for a better tomorrow!” I mentally, but not necessarily or actually, disguise myself not to practice for one day to relax my mind and body. To attain a level of “practice without practice” or “live with or without art” is seemingly paradox. Yet think over its value if we can apply it.

Similar to the “practice while not practicing” notion, pianist Josef Hofmann mentioned in his book about “mental unhitching.”  He suggested going out for walk after one or two hours of practice.  It is absolutely necessary in order that the newly acquired results of our work may – unconsciously to ourselves – mature in our mind and get, as it were, into our flesh, bones, and blood. That which we have newly learned must become affixed to our entire organism, very much like the picture on a photographic plate is developed and affixed by the silver bath. If we allow Nature no time for this work, the result of our previous efforts will vanish and we will have to begin all over again.

The great poet Lu Yiu (  陸游 ) told his son, “If you want to learn poetry, the learning is outside poetry. (  汝果欲學詩, 功夫在詩外 )” There is nothing more illuminating to an artist than experiencing and observing one’s life. Many parables, anecdotes, and methods of Chinese calligraphy are discovered from everyday life rather than from theories or textbooks first.

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Last Updated on Thursday, 31 March 2011 13:33