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Chinese Calligraphy: The Typical Sign of Chinese Culture

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Calligraphy literally means “good writing”. However, Chinese calligraphy cannot be defined as just “writing” Chinese characters. Neither can it be described as a way of making Chinese characters look “more beautiful”. These are misassumptions often made. The most important aspect of it is, that it is an emotional form of art, as it carries the thoughts and feelings of the artist. Calligraphy has been an important feature of the Chinese culture for the past 4000 years.Calligraphy is an art which is unique to Asian cultures and is regarded as the most sublime form of art in the Chinese culture

Chinese Calligraphy, also known as brush calligraphy can be identified as one of the four critical standards for Chinese literati. The four skills are: calligraphy (shu), painting (hua), playing on a stringed musical instrument (Qin) and a strategic board game (Qi). Calligraphy is an art which is unique to Asian cultures and is regarded as the most sublime form of art in the Chinese culture.

Characteristics of Chinese calligraphy

Several styles of writing can be distinguished, such as seal, official or clerical, running or semi-cursive, cursive and regular. Each style has its own specific features and purpose. There exist seven basic strokes, also known as the seven mysteries. The basic strokes consist of a dot, a horizontal line, a vertical line, a sweeping downward stroke, a sharp curve and a downward stroke.

Combined, the various styles, shapes and forms are infinite and depend on factors like the concentration of ink, the flexibility of the paint brush, the thickness of the paper and the absorptive capacity of it. A specific feature of calligraphy is that all strokes are permanent and incorrigible. Each stroke demands careful planning and a confident execution with a steady hand. Because this form of art is so sublime and abstract, in the imperial era, the general assumption originated that calligraphy had the ability to reveal one’s personality. Therefore, this characteristic was used as an significant criteria for selecting executives for the Imperial Court.

Tools of Chinese calligraphy

Chinese calligraphy distinguishes itself from other calligraphy techniques, as it is painted on a special calligraphic paper known as Xuan paper, which is somewhat absorbent, using a special brush and special ink. The ink is solid and comes in the shape of a stick. The ink is made from the soot of pinewood or oil smoke and a gum substance is added. A pottery-baked ink stone is used to contain the ink. These ink stones are hard and flat and the calligrapher uses them to mix water with the ink he produces, by grinding the ink stick on the ink stone. It is important to anticipate the right amount of ink needed, in order to finish the work. In case the artist has to grind ink twice, there is a risk of change in the colour of the shades.

The brushes are made from bamboo with a bundle of animal hair from deer, rabbits, wolves, sheep etc. The choice of the particular animal depends on the type of calligraphy. Thinner types of hair (like rabbit hair for instance) were used if the style of calligraphy was more delicate. A calligrapher always holds his brush straight up or down and the palm of his hand never makes contact with the brush.

International perception of Chinese calligraphy

The main difference between Western calligraphy and Chinese calligraphy is that  Western calligraphy uses diffusing ink blots and dry brush strokes which are considered as a natural spontaneous expression instead of an error. In addition, Western calligraphy often uses an uniform homogeneity of characters in one size, which is seen as a craft.  While on the other hand, Chinese calligraphers think of it as a highly disciplined mental exercise that coordinates body and soul, not only in order to choose the best possible way to express the content, but also for one’s physical and spiritual well being.  Prominent Western artists who openly declared to be influenced by Chinese calligraphy are for instance Picasso and Matisse.

Besides Chinese and Western, also the Koreans and the Japanese love brush calligraphy as it is an important treasures of their cultural heritage. “Calligraphic” contests are still held on many Japanese schools as a tradition. Japan also rewards its best calligraphic artist with the national Wang Xi Zhi award. Until recently, Korean officials were expected to excel in calligraphy.

History of Chinese calligraphy

Chinese calligraphy originated from the Chinese way of writing characters, which on its turn originate from painting. From the very beginning, people had a strong appreciation for Chinese characters. Gradually this perception evolved, and the people started to find the characters more than just “good looking”. That was the start of calligraphy and the invention of the brush resulted into the fact that calligraphy was acknowledged as a form of art. This will be explained more explicitly in the next paragraphs.

The history of Chinese Calligraphy is estimated to be 4000 years old. Jia Gu Wen is the oldest language discovered so far. It is a matures written language and this script was used in the Shang dynasty (1600  – 1046 B.C.) However, it was still used in the West Zhou dynasty (1046  – 771 B.C.) Jia Gu Wen was already an artistic form of writing, but there is no concrete evidence that calligraphy was already considered to be an art in that time.

When Qin Shi Huang united the Old China in 221 B.C., Calligraphy was already an art and art works produced in this dynasty have always been high evaluated and respected throughout the history. Calligraphy started to bloom as an art during the Han dynasty (206 B.C. -220 A.D.) Take for instance, Liang Hu, who was a calligrapher that used to write on the walls of restaurants. People were paying just to watch him. Because calligraphers in this dynasty usually did not autographed their work, most of them have remained unknown. However, a significant amount of scripts were produced by the hands of identified calligraphers such as Li Shu, Cao Shu, Xing Shu and Kai Shu.

A lot of of calligraphers appeared in the Jin dynasty (260 – 439 A.D.), like Wang Xizhi. Great performances were also achieved in the Northern and Southern dynasties (Nan bei chao 440 – 589 A.D.) Calligraphy works of this period are known as Wei Bei (tablets of the North Wei dynasty). But it was not until the Tang dynasty (618 – 907 A.D.) that calligraphers were taken seriously. One of the most famous calligraphers of this period was Yan Zhenqing.

Despite this, calligraphy as an art somehow declined, especially in the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644 A.D.) From the Song (960 – 1297 A.D.)to the Qing dynasty, (1644 – 1911 A.D.) calligraphic art works were only available to the public on tablets, as the majority was of the pieces were stored in the emperor’s house.

The Chinese Brush Calligraphy is one of the traditional four arts which was once an important critical standard for the Chinese literati in the imperial era and now prevails not only in China but also worldwide as a unique branch of art.

Calligraphy is so abstract and sublime that in Chinese culture it is universally regarded to be the most revealing power of a person. While one has conformed to the defined structure of words, the expression can be displayed with great creativity by individuals.

To become an artist or expert in calligraphy, one has to practice word by word and stroke by stroke until the spirit of the practice gets into one's mind. Just as Chinese Qi Gong, the Chinese brush calligraphy can temper a person into a state in which one can apply subconsciousness got from the daily practice to control the concentration of ink and the compatibility of font and size of each piece or word.

In contrast to the Western calligraphy, diffusing ink blots and dry brush strokes are viewed as a natural and free impromptu expression. All the varieties of the operation depend on the mental exercise that coordinates the mind and the body to perform the proper sense to choose the proper way in expressing the content of the passage.

Calligraphy is considered as an active way of keeping one fit and health for the practice is either relaxing or self-entertaining. Historically, many calligraphy artists both in China and Japan were well known for their longevity.

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Last Updated on Sunday, 15 August 2010 15:53