History of Chinese Calligraphy
Calligraphy emerged as a prized visual art form sharing many of the same tools as painting, namely brush and ink. However in China, unlike in many Western cultures, calligraphy was valued above painting until the Song dynasty (960–1127) and was even considered the supreme art form for a time. This elevated status reflects the value of word and language in Chinese culture.
The written word was given an honored place in Chinese society not only because of its power in communicating imperial and scholarly messages, but also for its visual beauty. Rather than an alphabet, each written Chinese word is represented by a unique symbol or character. This means each and every word must be learned and memorized individually.
In an essay dating back to the Tang dynasty, the elements of a character are revealed, highlighting that a word goes beyond a simple meaning, but also denotes morality and even a manifestation of energy.
“[A written character should stand] balanced on all four sides . . . Leaning or standing upright like a proper gentleman, the upper half [of the character] sits comfortably, while the bottom half supports it.”
The Four Treasures of the Study, a phrase that refers to the essential tools used by traditional Chinese painters to create calligraphy, are a brush, ink, paper, and an inkstone (a carved stone slab with a reservoir for grinding ink). In recent decades, the process of Chinese calligraphy has been modernized, which we will explore below.
- The writing brush can be made from several different hair types, thus affecting how soft or hard it is which in turn impacts the style and breadth of each stroke.
- The ink stick comes in a long shaft, often decorated in delicate gold patterns and must be blended with water to create an ink paste.
- Paper is one of the greatest contributions China made to the world and had an important place in ancient Chinese society.
- The ink slab is where the ink stone is ground with water and is often interestingly sculpted and quite heavy.
Over the centuries, different styles have evolved including seal, clerical, cursive, and standard calligraphy, to name a few. Below you can see an example of each. The symbol repeated in each script is the Chinese character for dragon, commonly associated with power and strength.
When trying to understand the reason for the importance of calligraphy in Chinese culture, consider that it serves as a means of self-expression and even revelation.
Following the rule of Chairman Mao and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, during which old culture and customs were banished, the ancient artform was altered as younger generations didn’t have a pervasive knowledge of the classic form. Later in the 20th century, President Xiaoping pursued a cultural recovery encouraging a calligraphy comeback.
With the evolution of modern Chinese calligraphy came the exploration of color and new mediums, as well as contemporary tools and techniques. Today, calligraphy is considered more closely connected to painting and poetry rather than scholarship as it was centuries ago.
In recent years, contemporary artists have been combining traditional techniques with new conventions to create a fresh and unique approach to the art of calligraphy.
Strokes for Writing Fu
Stroke order is an important element of Chinese calligraphy. Having the wrong order could lead to ink falling differently thus making cursive characters indistinguishable. There are a few key rules to follow:
- Characters should be written from top to bottom.
- Characters are written from the left to right.
- Horizontal strokes are prioritized over vertical strokes.
Watch the video below to see the beauty of Chinese calligraphy in action. The clip demonstrates how both the traditional tools of brush and inkstone as well as the modern pen can be used to create the perfect card or home decor. Fu is the symbol for good fortune and is often seen upside down on the front of a door to symbolize good luck coming into your life.
If you want to replicate the Fu symbol at home, download the printable worksheet for step-by-step stroke instructions. In Chinese calligraphy, each stroke needs to be done in a precise order and direction. To simplify the process, practice with the worksheet until the form is perfected. Try again on the printables for an elegant, finished look.
The tips below will be helpful for those attempting the traditional method of Chinese calligraphy with the inkstone and brush. If you are interested in attempting the traditional method, tools can be purchased at online retailers or local, specialized stationary stores.
- Allow time for grinding the ink.
- Use less water than seems necessary.
- Let the brushes soak in water to loosen the bristles.
- Ensure the ink has turned into a thick paste for solid lines.
- For a watercolor look, add more water to the ink paste.
- Keep the brush almost completely vertical for proper stroke lines.
If you are using a brush pen, try the suggestions below.
- To ensure the strokes flow as they would with a paintbrush, use a calligraphy pen rather than a ballpoint pen.
- Hold the pen at a vertical angle.
- Lift the elbow off of the table to allow for the movement needed in each stroke.
While Chinese calligraphy produces a beautiful and fluid character, perfecting the movement behind each stroke is key. The rich history of calligraphy helps gain a better understanding of the rigidity of form and evolution of calligraphy as high art. For information on more Chinese calligraphy, refer to this guide by Columbia University.