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Chinese Calligraphy

Here you will find:
Introduction
Major Styles of Chinese Calligraphy
Resources

 

Introduction

Chinese calligraphy(Brush calligraphy) is an art unique to Asian cultures. Shu (calligraphy), Hua (painting), Qin (a string musical instrument), and Qi (a strategic boardgame) are the four basic skills and disciplines of the Chinese literati.

Regarded as the most abstract and sublime form of art in Chinese culture, "Shu Fa" (calligraphy) is often thought to be most revealing of one's personality. During the imperial era, calligraphy was used as an important criterion for selection of executives to the Imperial court. Unlike other visual art techniques, all calligraphy strokes are permanent and incorrigible, demanding careful planning and confident execution. Such are the skills required for an administrator / executive. While one has to conform to the defined structure of words, the expression can be extremely creative. To exercise humanistic imagination and touch under the faceless laws and regulations is also a virtue well appreciated.

By controlling the concentration of ink, the thickness and adsorptivity of the paper, and the flexibility of the brush, the artist is free to produce an infinite variety of styles and forms. In contrast to western calligraphy, diffusing ink blots and dry brush strokes are viewed as a natural impromptu expression rather than a fault. While western calligraphy often pursue font-like uniformity, homogeneity of characters in one size is only a craft. To the artist, calligraphy is a mental exercise that coordinates the mind and the body to choose the best styling in expressing the content of the passage. It is a most relaxing yet highly disciplined exercise indeed for one's physical and spiritual well being. Historically, many calligraphy artists were well-known for their longevity.

Brush calligraphy is not only loved and practiced by Chinese. Koreans and Japanese equally adore calligraphy as an important treasure of their heritage. Many Japanese schools still have the tradition of having a student contest of writing big characters during beginning of a new school year. A biannual gathering commemorating the Lanting Xu by Wang Xi Zhi (The most famous Chinese calligrapher in Jin dynasty, ) is said to be held ceremonially in Japan. There is a national award of Wang Xi Zhi prize for the best calligraphy artist. Not too long ago, Korean government officials were required to excel in calligraphy. The office of Okinawa governor still displays a large screen of Chinese calligraphy as a dominating decor.

In the West, Picasso and Matisse are two artists who openly declared the influence by Chinese calligraphy on their works. TOP

Major Styles of Chinese Calligraphy

Over the thousands of years, the style of Chinese calligraphy has evolved continually. About 213 B.C., under the famous Chin Shih Huang Ti, who perpetrated the 'burning of the books', the Prime Minister Li Szu drew up an official index of characters and unified the written form for the use of scholars. This is chuan-shu and contained more than 3,000 characters. From that time to the present, there are five major styles of calligraphy:

Seal Style/ Zhuan Shu/ Chuan Shu

Seal Style is generally divided into 2 stages, the first being Large Seal Style and the second, Small Seal Style. Curiously enough, this has nothing to do with size.

Large Seal Style was a logical offshoot from Shell Bone Style. The first changes came about because people were now writing in metalwork, not with knives. But it still wasn't standardized. The First Qin Emperor, Qin Shihuang, changed that. He's the man notorious for burning thousands upon thousands of books — a good way of wiping out the opposition of the intelligentsia — but also the act that unified China's myriad languages and scripts. His pyromania changed the rather messy Large Seal Style to a neater Small Seal Style.

Ever seen a little marbly block with a name carved in the bottom? They're seals, also called chops, and they used to be people's official signatures.

Seal Style characters are generally tall, and neater versions (Small Seal Style) look like they're symmetrical even if they're not. It allows for quite a bit more flexibility than Shell Bone Style — although strokes have to be the same thickness, they're curves rather than a collection of straight lines. Its effect is rather graceful, as a whole; like a lot of snakes curving and dancing.

Seal Style encompasses a whole range of development, so there are a lot of variants. TOP

 

Official Style/Clerical Style / Li Shu

Qin Shihuang (the first Qin Emperor) was an easy man to offend, especially when he got old [246-207 BCE]. Cheng Miao, the inventor of Official Style, discovered this when he was given an enormous quantity of work to copy out overnight. Predictably he couldn't finish it and the Emperor threw him into jail.

Cheng Miao was not best pleased. He blamed it all on Seal Style, which is a bit of a pain to write for too long. The worthy minister therefore created Official Style, a simplified and otherwise modified script, thereby securing a pardon. Official / Clerical Style became the style for clerks to write in, and was also known as Slave Style due to its origins.

Perhaps Cheng Miao simply had a grudge against Seal style, but he gave the Chinese language a script of enormous artistic potential in his prison sulk.

It's not just that Official Style tends to be short and wide, that makes it different. It had a rhythm and bounce that made it almost a pleasure for scribes to write all day. Strokes go from thick to thin to thick, all in one pass of the brush (unlike former single-thickness strokes). TOP

 

Standard Style/ Regular Style/ Kai Shu

Calligraphers being temperamental creatures, they have a habit of insisting on a Revelation before creating their masterpieces. Zhong Yao, the inventor of Regular Style, was no exception. He knew he absolutely had to read The Nine Forces Essay by Cai Yong. That's where the fun started.

The essay was owned by the ex-calligrapher Wei Dan, who flatly refused to part with it. He'd been traumatised by having to write a plaque for the Emperor (at 250 feet above sea-level!), and thereafter refused to promote the dangerous art of calligraphy.

Enraged by Wei Dan's refusal, Zhong Yao threw assorted fits, beating his breast so hard that he vomited blood. Fortunately, the Emperor cured him with a magic pill and he lived to become great and powerful. When Wei Dan died, Zhong Yao robbed his grave for the essay, and then gifted Chinese with Regular Style.

Regular Style is everywhere today: signboards, textbooks, computer screens. It's so familiar that it's hard for me to describe. I think of it as a no-nonsense style, clean and straight and matter-of-fact in its lines. Characters fit roughly into squares, and though strokes do vary in thickness, they don't swing and curve as much as Official Style. TOP

 

Walking Style/ Semi-Cursive Style/ Xing Shu/Hsing Shu

While Walking Style is more or less equivalent to English cursive. Walking Style is when strokes are joined up and frequently merged, and some short forms are used.

 

Grass Style/Cursive Style/ Cao Shu/ Tsao Shu

Grass Style appears to have a totally different set of characters from normal, and it utilizes short forms fanatically. It's often so joined-up that it looks like one long, twirling ribbon.

There are two flavours of Grass Style. Zhang Cao is based on Official Style. It's flatter and retains Official Style's characteristic swallow's tails. Jin Cao is based on Regular Style, which is more popular. TOP

 

Resources:

About
Asia Art Net
Asia Wind
Calligraphy By Patricia Buckley Ebrey, Univ of Washington
ChinaVoc
China the Beautiful
Geocity.com
ShuFaWest
Wave Dancing

 

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Created by Yang Lu
yanglu@ucla.edu
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