The Chinese word used to indicate the art that we call calligraphy is shūfǎ (书法); composed of shū (书) which means book, letter, document and by extension writing (even if the word for to write has its own character: xiě, 写), and of fǎ (法) which means law and/or rule.
From a semantic analysis of this two-syllable word, you can deduce that its concept includes something like “the rules of writing”, in a word: syntax.
In reality this form of writing with ink and brush has its own range of art since it goes well beyond only the application of rules, but you can also say that it is mainly made up of the research and aesthetic development of both the characters and composition.
Here’s why the best word to translate this is calligraphy.
The word calligraphy comes from the Greek word Kalligraphia, composed of the prefix “Kallos” which means beauty and the suffix “graphia” which means to write; that’s where it got its definition as the art of beautiful writing.
From the term’s etymology its clear that the Greek civilization already gave attention to the aesthetics of writing and already considered the ability to trace characters with a profile that is both understandable and pleasant to look at an art form.
Up until just a few years ago calligraphy was even taught in our elementary schools where, up until the early years of the Second World War the pupils were required to fill pages and pages of capital and lowercase letters, both in print and cursive, to refine their aesthetic sense towards them.
The modern age has swept away these practices mainly since one rarely needs to write by hand, trusting our keyboards and not the pen for our thoughts.
Paper letters have been substituted by email and novelists’ and poets’ manuscripts by now are relics in a literary museum.
Despite that, as often happens, lately there’s been a reevaluation of the past in this regard and numerous calligraphy courses have sprung up that teach the aesthetic canons of handwriting, making a comeback in beautifying congratulation and gift cards for special occasions such as weddings, funerals, graduations, and reaching old age; or writing diplomas or other high level documents.
The art of calligraphy has survived thanks to the fascination with its aesthetic form but also the external projection of the person that writes it, without the mediation of a mere machine.
Since, aside from some tribes in the Amazon, all civilizations have developed their own form of written language, calligraphy has a universal character. However it is in China that it has known an incredible development and has enjoyed, and still enjoys, a consideration unequaled by any other country in the world.
Calligraphy in China
It’s no exaggeration to say that the Chinese have an unbreakable bond with calligraphy.
The first pictures of a newborn in the family album will have congratulations written by relatives with brush and ink; when getting married, the wedding clothes are embroidered with words from well-wishers in calligraphic style; for birthdays a painting with the character that means longevity (寿) written in calligraphy is put up in the house; after death the epitaph on the tomb is written by a calligrapher.
During the most important holidays sayings and phrases written in calligraphy are displayed in homes and gifted to relatives, in tea houses, gardens and even at the walls and entrance gates of the city there are phrases and mottoes written by calligraphers that are more or less famous.
One example is the gate of heavenly peace in Tian’An Men Square in Beijing, with its writing accompanying the giant picture of Mao.
Characters in calligraphic style are used to beautify tons of things, from fans to restaurant menus, to business cards and commercial catalogs.
Even for making the shapes of characters in lighted signs for commercial activity or ads, calligraphers are hired.
Famous painters, both in the past and today, sign their paintings in calligraphy or affix the writings of famous calligraphers to enhance their works and give give greater nuance to their meaning.
This development in the art of calligraphy in the Chinese culture compared to other cultures is due to various factors that are not always so clear or easily defined.
In my opinion the main factors are researching the use of morphograms that must be clear and well-defined to be understandable, and require that the proportions are rigorously respected, otherwise you won’t be able to understand which characters belong to various radicals.
Moreover the morphograms of the Chinese written language are thousands compared to the twenty or so abundant in the letters that make up our alphabet and many of these (especially before the simplification adopted by the government in Beijing in the 50’s) are truly complicated and require a certain practice and dexterity.
Some find more metaphysical reasons, such as Zong Jianye for example, who in his book for the “Foreign Languages Press” proposes an explanation according to which “the use of the brush is a nod to the softness of the Chinese landscape and the agricultural activity of its people, in contrast with the pen that represents the dry and desolate expanses of the Mediterranean countries.”
Whatever the reasons might be, whether those more rational or those full of national pride, in my opinion it is undeniable that the attitude developed by the Chinese people over the millennia is perfectly married to the practice of calligraphy.
To make this statement clearer I share a statement by Guo Moruo (1892–1977), poet, playwright, calligrapher, and historian that presided over the Chinese Academy of Sciences:
“Teaching students the art of calligraphy doesn’t mean that we want them all to be calligraphers. We want them to learn how to write the characters according to the rules, correctly, cleanly and understandably. Cultivating this passion has its benefits: it encourages people to be careful, to concentrate their will on working with their hands and increase their consideration toward themselves and others.
Working quickly, casually and without care will end up in trouble. Practicing calligraphy will help them to avoid these bad habits”.
I believe that the reason why calligraphy is still taught in Chinese primary schools, and for which it enjoys such high consideration in China, is in the pursuit of the concepts expressed in this thought.
Calligraphy and history
The first characters that serve as an embryo for the development of writing in China, based on the data available to historians, go back about 5,000-7,000 years ago, during the time of the Yangshao culture that developed in the modern province of Henan.
In fact it is held that the geometric figures decorating the pottery are the oldest form of writing in China.
Sadly this was followed by a period of about 2,000 or 3,000 years where there’s no news, due to the absence of findings (up until now) that would allow us to understand the evolution of this embryonic form of writing, its function and use that took place during this long period of time.
The morphograms reappear during the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 a.C.) in inscriptions on turtle shells and cow bones used for divination purposes.
Contrary to the preceding inscriptions, which are on the border between pure and simple design and writing, these last inscriptions are clearly a well organized and orderly regulated form of written language.
From the desired respect for the proportions and character dimensions, to the attention placed on the harmonious symmetry both for the character and entire composition, it appears evident that there was already research not just in semantic expression but also in artistic as well.
Later inscriptions have been found on bronze objects like jars and swords that go back to the time of combating kingdoms (475–221 a.C.) and show an evolution toward greater standardization in their regularity and structure.
Some of these artifacts (certainly the most important ones) are on display at the Shanghai Museum of History, located in the extremely central People’s Square with no entrance fee, that dedicates an entire pavilion to calligraphy.
It is noteworthy that the use of these inscriptions for the practice of divination and kings’ and great leaders’ swords, denote the great importance that was attributed to the writing since ancient times.
After the first historical unification of China, that took place in 221 B.C. under the Qin kingdom, there was an explosion of the use and development of the writing that became indispensable to support the necessary bureaucracy to run a great empire.
The one considered to be the first calligrapher in Chinese history is, in fact, Li Si, the Qin prime minister, who died in 208 B.C. only 13 years since the unification.
His characters became the official script of the empire since his compositions were used in official documents and imperial seals used to validate orders for provinces both near and far.
It is from this official writing that other styles of writing developed such as cursive in various forms (running cursive and cursive hand) from which about 1,300 years ago (in the VII century A.D.) formal writing developed (regular script), which is today called traditional writing and was used up until the 50’s when the government introduced so-called simplified Chinese.
Traditional Chinese is still used in a few places such as Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao.
The art and its principles
The four treasures
Every scholar in the course of Chinese history had to own the tools for writing and be able to prepare and pass state exams for 1,300 years (until their abolition in 1906) represented the only way to obtain public responsibilities at any level and build oneself a position of power and personal success.
These tools, therefore, were considered (and still are in part) as honest to goodness treasures, indispensable for moral and material enrichment.
These objects, moreover, have a noteworthy intrinsic aesthetic appeal, are available in various forms and sizes and are even today used as prized pieces for giving a touch of class to home decoration and, in many cases, go for a considerable price.
The four treasures of studying the Chinese culture are therefore identified with the tools of calligraphy: the brush, the paper, the ink and the stone for the ink.
The first documented usage of the brush goes back about 6,000 years or so but it is only (it is said) from the fourth century A.D. where the big improvements in its characteristics began and then became, almost unchanged, what we have today.
There are numerous types of brushes that can be divided into three main categories: stiff bristles, soft bristles and mixed bristle brushes, each of which could in turn be subdivided into long, medium and short tip brushes.
The brush is composed of hairs of various animals; they use the hair of rabbits, weasels, deer or pigs for stiff bristles; goat hair or chicken feathers for soft bristles; a mixture for mixed bristle brushes with the stiff part on the inside and the soft on the outside.
The type of animal hairs listed above confer on the brush the characteristic coverage, allowing a regular and continuous flow of ink toward the tip.
In the past, the hairs of one’s firstborn child were used as bristles for the brush that would be given in later age as a sign of good wishes for one’s career of study.
There are four main characteristics that a good calligraphy brush must have:
- The tip of the brush must be flexible enough to be able to show light changes in the stroke;
- The final part of the brush should return to its original position once bent under the pressure of the hand during writing;
- The bristles should have a conical shape to allow movement in all directions and to be able to easily change direction;
- It must be able to keep its characteristics of elasticity and softness for awhile.
On the present market you’ll find hundreds of types of brushes with extremely variable prices going from 3 Yuan up to thousands of Yuan.
In my experience you can get good results with a mixed fiber brush starting at a cost of at least 70 Yuan, otherwise, in cheaper brushes you’ll find it difficult to satisfy the aforementioned standards with the result that the job will be much more difficult (if not impossible), and the end result won’t be up to the level it could be.
Paper is one of the four main inventions of the Chinese together with gunpowder, typography and the compass.
It was invented in the second century A.D. by Cai Lun and perfected by his disciple Kong Dan, who used the bark of a tree to make a soft and durable paper whose characteristics are very similar to our paper today.
The paper most used by calligraphers of all ages is the type called Xuan, which takes its name from its region of origin: Xuancheng, in Anhui province.
It is still today produced according to the ancient recipe by mixing the fibers of an indigenous elm and the straw of a rice plant to obtain a paper of a certain filigree of finely interlaced horizontal and vertical mesh.
It has a distinct characteristic of being white, soft, delicate and resistant to insects, can hold its color for a long time and, thanks to its particular capacity to absorb, allows for strokes of various shades of color depending on the time in which one moves the brush.
There exist no less than 60 different types of this special paper; for first-timers a less expensive type with good characteristics such as the maobian zhi (made with bamboo pulp) or yuanshu zhi would be best.
You can also use other types of paper; what’s important is that it has a good capacity to absorb and is not resistant to water, such as the type used for printers and photocopiers.
There is also another type of paper, the so-called “magic paper” or shuixie zhi (literally paper for writing on water), which allows you to write by dipping the brush in clean water. In this case the characters disappear in just a few minutes once the water dries.
For beginners looking to practice, there are sheets marked with lines and squares to help you keep the proportions and even sheets (not all that common to tell you the truth), that already have the characters written which the student must then retrace.
The ink that is traditionally used is made by rubbing a stick of round or rectangular-shaped ink on a special stone with water.
This stick can be obtained from wood oil (Tung oil), coal or pine soot with animal glue and scent.
The use of this type of ink is documented as going back to 5,000–7,000 years ago, when it was used for decorating pottery.
The characteristics that, in every case, a good ink should have is that it is syrupy, won’t fade, and not create lumps during writing, always measuring out in correct proportions the black dust that came from rubbing the stone and the added water.
The process of grating is very important for getting an ink with good characteristics: move the stick on the stone slowly and in a rotating motion with light pressure; use lukewarm water and not hot water or tea; don’t use too much water otherwise the ink stick can break because it is overly soaked (if you want to make a lot of ink do it in several passes or get a bigger stone).
In the modern age other types of ink have been developed that are derived from the petrochemical industry that are more widespread today, given the easy availability of raw materials that make them up compared to traditional ones, and at low cost.
On the market there are also many types of bottled ink available, liquid and already diluted with water, which can be used immediately and are more convenient, faster and easier to use.
They are mainly divided into three categories going from number one, which is of the best quality, to number three, of least quality.
In this case too, the quality is based on the above mentioned characteristics for solid ink and the friction that the different inks create during writing: lesser quality ink creates more friction making the brushwork less fluid and the work more difficult even if, since beginners must move the brush slowly, it’s difficult to appreciate these subtleties.
Although bottled ink is more convenient and easy to use, training in this art you’ll feel the need to return to its origins. The ritual of scraping and diluting the ink will help you to focus your attention before beginning and have better relaxation of mind and body, both essential conditions for good results.
The first stones for ink found go back to some 4,000 or 5,000 years B.C., and were used for obtaining a color used for painting, especially pottery.
This tool has seen a large development and popularity beginning in the III century A.D. when the expansion of writing included wide swaths of the population.
It could be made of pure stone or even porcelain, bronze or iron. Ink stones have even been found in jade, used by kings or high ranking functionaries.
Today they have become objects of collection, almost a cult, since thanks to their valuable craftsmanship it holds a timeless appeal.
As mentioned before, even if today they’re no longer indispensable as they used to be, thanks to the appearance of liquid ink on the market, they still represent, in the imagination of the Chinese people, a touch of class and a demonstration of love for their age-old culture.
Basic elements to consider in learning the art of calligraphy are the stroke, structure of the characters and their composition.
Characters in Chinese writing are made up of various types of strokes, which can be traced in different ways according to the calligrapher’s style and the effect you seek to obtain.
Below I will give a few brief particulars for writing characters in regular script such as:
- it is most used;
- it is what is taught in Chinese schools;
- it is considered best for starting off.
The basic strokes of all characters are the eight listed below.
The dot can take various forms and is one of the most difficult strokes to achieve. It is necessary to pay close attention to the beginning and ending part of the stroke, and the direction of the tip.
It also takes a lot to practice the right pressure on the tip of the brush, which must change rapidly and without uncertainty considering the extreme brevity of the stroke.
The horizontal stroke
To get a good horizontal stroke you have to start at the extreme left with light pressure to be released gradually during the movement toward the right of the brush, to then be reapplied at the final part.
The stroke need not be perfectly horizontal; usually it has a slightly upward tilt.
The vertical stroke
The stroke goes from high to low and the final part can be a point or round. Even in this case you start with light pressure which is lessened in the middle of the stroke.
For a point stroke the brush is lifted quickly toward the end, while the rounded-end stroke is obtained by reapplying the same pressure as at the beginning, to then invert the direction at the end of the stroke and quickly lift the brush.
In some cases the stroke is not perfectly vertical; rather it has a tilt lightly curved toward the left.
The descending stroke toward the right
This stroke usually starts finely in the beginning part then ends wide, into a point, at the end. It is made with a delicate movement of the brush that, in the final part, is pressed withe a certain strength to then be quickly raised while continuing in the same direction.
The descending stroke toward the left
This stroke usually starts wide in the beginning and ends finely.
It is necessary to pay attention to the beginning of the stroke and exert a slight pressure on the brush that is gradually released during the length of the stroke.
The hook stroke
This stroke has many variations and can be vertical, horizontal or curved, and has its principal characteristic in its final part.
It is usually made by pressing the brush in the beginning, releasing pressure during the stroke and pressing harder again just before the end, to then raise it quickly while moving in the direction of a hook.
The rising stroke
This stroke is wide in the beginning and ends in a point; you need to start by pressing the tip of the brush and gradually release the pressure (slowly), raising the brush quickly at the end.
Its perfect shape is that of a sword and its inclination should be about 45 degrees compared to the rest of the figure.
It goes from low to high.
The curved stroke
The curved stroke is formed by the union of a horizontal and vertical stroke obtained by making two strokes in sequence without lifting the brush from the paper.
This stroke can be as a straight or rounded corner.
In some cases it gives the impression of being disconnected, in some cases it can end in a hook.
It is made by using basic strokes explained previously.
It is necessary to pay attention to the connecting point of the strokes, which if you want to give a sense of continuity is made by exerting pressure, if you want to give the idea of a break it is made without pressure and almost (only almost) raising the brush.
About 37% of Chinese characters are unique blocks while the remaining 63% is made up of a combination of radicals.
To get a beautiful and elegant character, both building blocks and combination radicals are designed by following a few rules that will better both the balance and symmetry.
The same stroke (such as the dot) can be found multiple times in the same character and is made differently according to its position.
For example in the character 心 xīn (heart) their are three dots of differing shapes to offer the character optimal spacing and good balance.
In the event that the same character becomes a radical in another character, such as in 慧 huì (brilliant / intelligent / intelligence), the shape and relative position of both the dots and the hook strokes are modified to be in harmony with the rest.
Not following the rules of structure inevitably ends in poor results, characterized by unbalanced characters that don’t present a solid base, seemingly suspended and about to fall, and communicate anxiety and disorganization to the observer.
There are thousands of this type and to unravel them requires a good dose of diligent practice, not so much to memorize the various combinations (which would be almost impossible), but to develop an aesthetic sense to the point that it helps you to guide the brush in any situation.
In general every stroke must be in complete harmony with the rest of the character and traced in a different way according to what’s around it so as to respect the rules of the structure.
Everything turns around a center that once identified acts as a pivot for the balancing of the character.
In the composition of a good calligraphic work it is necessary to pay attention to the size of the characters which must always be the same.
As a result the first character that you write is very important since it is a starting point for all those that follow.
Even the spacing should be consistent and not present a marked difference between one character and another, or between one line and another.
The composition should be balanced, and as an example characters made up of a few strokes should be the same size as those made up of a lot of strokes. So, to avoid too much empty space, characters composed of few strokes must be traced with large and powerful strokes, while the others with fine and light strokes.
To give life to the composition, characters must be harmoniously irregular and not all the same length and width: some will lightly lean in one direction while others will be perfectly straight.
This irregularity doesn’t follow well-defined rules; but is rather determined by the talent and ability of the calligrapher, and is the quality gives character to the whole work.
How to begin
The best thing for beginning would be to find a teacher that can introduce you to this art and guide you in your first steps.
All you need are a few basic tips to help you to produce an aesthetically pleasing composition, which can give you the motivation to continue and grow.
You can also use one of the numerous books as a guide for your first strokes that, even though they don’t usually provide very detailed explanations on the practice but concentrate more on the history of various styles, though for a beginner this could be a good starting point.
Here are some tips:
The tools are very important and it isn’t a good idea to buy those of the lowest quality, since in return for an insignificant saving, you’ll have much poorer results than you could have.
It is especially important that you at least get a mid-level quality brush (see the section on brushes), otherwise you’ll have to work harder and your results won’t be so great.
You can just use the tip of the brush, so generally even with a large brush you can write fine or small characters while with a finer brush you can’t make larger characters. To begin I recommend that you start as a mid-size one.
Begin practicing with simple characters then move on to more complex ones, making sure that you know the rules that dictate the sequence of making the strokes.
It isn’t necessary to know the meaning of the character you are writing. You do need to know the order of the strokes that make them up, so as to have a certain fluency.
Start with characters that are neither too big or too small, let’s say between 5 and 10 cm high, because those that are too small require a very steady hand and a very clean stroke, while those that are too big require an wide movement of the wrist and arm, which makes it more difficult.
Get (you can find them in any bookstore) some exercises (shūfǎ liànxí) and repeat them many times until you’re able to move the brush without uncertainty.
I don’t recommend that you use the “magic paper” (see the chapter on paper) because writing with water instead of ink are two different things, and if you learn with water, when you move on to ink you’ll have to start over from almost zero.
Despite that don’t throw away completely the idea of trying ink and water at the same time to get an idea of the differences and make your first exercises more functional and complete.
Usually along with exercise sheets there are instructions on how to move the brush for various strokes that I found very useful in facing the difficulty of your first characters in a more knowledgeable way.
Practice is at the heart of learning in many cases; in this case it is fundamental since theory covers only a tiny part; this too is part of the Asian culture and the Chinese in particular: learning by doing.
Mastering the secrets of this art is a lifetime undertaking, and once you reach a new level of ability you’ll see another hundred levels to achieve.
It is like going up the trunk of a centuries-old oak: when you reach the top of the trunk there are branches, at the end of which there are more branches and them more branches still: each time you reach the end of a branch the succeeding branches multiply.
The beauty and enrichment are in the journey and, training in the practice, you’ll see there is no final destination to reach; rather a continuous trending to betterment since there is no level where you can’t improve further.
To the question “how much practice is necessary” the answer is the more time you dedicate to learning the better you’ll get, even though to just see some results you’ll have to dedicate at least one or two hours a day.
You need to relax the body and mind, and complete empty yourself of thoughts to become one with the brush.
The brush is held with all five fingers of the hand, and is always held perpendicular to the paper: don’t give in to the temptation to tilt it otherwise you won’t learn.
Forward strokes are guided by the ring finger and pinky and the middle finger for backward movements. The thumb and index finger serve as support.
Use your wrist for long strokes and for very long strokes also use your arm.
Never go back over strokes that have already been made to correct imperfections, everything must flow continuously and you have to strictly follow the motto: “the first one is right”; otherwise it would be like cheating.
Initially make slow strokes so as to have full control of even little movements; later, when you feel more certain, you can move the brush by alternating very fast and slow strokes: Yang and Yin that flow complimentary.
For smaller characters you can stay seated while it’s better to write larger characters while standing.
In every case you have to keep your back straight and shoulders down, relaxed and rested on your torso; in a seated position your legs shouldn’t be crossed or stretched out but with both feet planted on the ground in line with your knees, which should point in the direction of the toes of your feet.
You can rest your wrist on the table and raise just your wrist; or keep it lightly raised or even support it by resting it on your other hand: the main purpose is to feel comfortable and relaxed, otherwise your hand will shake and the stroke will be uncertain.
Your tongue should rest with its tip on your palate, without exerting pressure but just to make a connection; in addition teeth are held in contact, again without any pressure; the muscles of the face, neck and body should generally be as relaxed as possible.
After extensive practice, when you can write for hours without any soreness (which means you’re relaxed enough), you can begin coordinating your breaths with the strokes, exhaling when you exert pressure and inhaling when relaxing pressure or raising the brush.
After extensive and diligent practice, working on your breathing and relaxing promotes a constant and capillary flow of vital energy, (Qi), so as to improve the efficiency of body and mind.
Not just in the Chinese culture, but also in the West, the powerful expressiveness of writing by hand is widely known.
This recognition has such a solid basis so as to elevate the analysis of handwriting to the level of an actual science: graphology.
The birth of this new science goes back to the early years of the XX century when the Franciscan G. Moretti (1879-1963) in his “Treatise of Graphology” (1914), demonstrated the strict correlation between the writing style and core self of the writer, laying the basis for future developments.
Graphology has been defined in a famous dictionary as the “Science that proposes, in the psychodiagnostic field, to reveal the character and mental and moral conditions of a person through the examination of their writing, but is also used to analyze handwritten documents to determine their authenticity or source, and in the judiciary field, to verify those that are false”.
Even the writing of characters and the way of making the strokes of which they are composed is closely tied to your personality and interior dynamics.
Once you acquire a certain dexterity through practice, you can create your own style that is unique and unrepeatable, and also involve your emotions in the movement of the brush, creating compositions that mirror your character, personality and humor.
You can sign these expressions of yourself on paper, giving eventual observers sensations in a simple and direct way.
The thickness of the strokes, their intensity and shades of color, straight or rounded corners, the relative sizes of the characters and radicals, their spacing; they are all elements that will become the source of personal expression that no one could replicate.
For this, once you’ve acquired a certain fluency and ability in the use of the brush, the advice that calligraphers give to see if their work is a success or not: if looking within yourself with all sincerity you are satisfied by your composition and find it pleasing to look at and expressive at the same time, it means that your work is a complete success, regardless of the judgements of others.
Practicing the art of calligraphy is a doorway that will allow you to enter into the depths of the Chinese culture, and is worth dabbling in at least to get an idea of what it means, and has meant over the course of the millennia.
You can look at various preserved artifacts in must museums and even in neon signs along the streets with different eyes and greater understanding, you can impress your Chinese friends and colleagues who would never expect that there could be such a deep will to understand their culture from a laowai, that in many cases (at least according to my experience) not even they have.
You also shouldn’t underestimate the benefits of this practice on your physical and mental health.
In many Chinese medical treatises you’ll find that the practice of calligraphy is recommended to cure or especially to avoid innumerable sicknesses, considering its ability to circulate vital energy, the Qi, which is at the root of any diagnosis or surgery in traditional Chinese medicine.
Not only sicknesses but also harmful psychological excesses can experience benefits from this practice, which is even recognized as an integral part of the journey toward illumination for Taoist monks.
As an example, in the famous novel from the Ming Dynasty, Xīyóu jì (Journey Toward the West), the protagonist Sun Wukong (the famous monkey king) in his journey toward illumination described in the first two chapters, every day, besides other domestic affairs, “…studied the language and behavior under the spiritual guidance of his older brothers, commented that the (ancient) writings, discussing the Tao, practiced calligraphy and burned incense”.
For a certainty you can say that calligraphy represents a resource that will allow you to derive benefits in many ways: you’ll improve your physical and mental health, increase your knowledge of Chinese society, refine your aesthetic sense, moreover it will give you a powerful took to express your inner self and creative side.