Chinese Calligraphy shū fǎ

SunXinde, calligraphy
Calligraphy by the Chinese calligrapher Sun Xinde July 2005 Photo by Immanuel Giel , available under a Creative Commons license .
To see how some common Chinese characters were derived, see our character section.

Calligraphy in the West is mostly associated with recreating the illustrated medieval script. It has always meant much more in China; a career in calligraphy is a well respected profession. There is a close relationship between calligraphy and painting, a piece of calligraphy is considered a work of art in itself and valued above that of paintings. Many great paintings have a poem inscribed on them in fine calligraphy. With the complex forms of characters there is much more scope for expressing individual style into the writing compared to English and other languages with a small alphabet. Up until the rise of computers there was little alternative to hand written script, as typewriters could not cope with the large number of characters. The calligrapher signs the work by adding the imprint of a chop with red waxy paste or ink (originally colored with cinnabar). A fine painting may bear several poems by different writers at different times, and will often bear the red seal marks of the succession of proud owners as well as the calligraphers. As it was necessary to be able to write well and clearly for the Imperial examinations, all aspiring scholars had to make a careful study of calligraphy. The use of a brush rather than a rigid stylus dates back to the Qin dynasty when the script was standardized, using a brush rather than a pen had a fundamental influence on Chinese culture. By the time of the Ming dynasty more importance was put on the artistry of the calligrapher than the text that was represented.

calligraphy, Mifu, Song dynasty
Calligraphy by Mifu (c. 1097), Song Dynasty, Jiangsu province.
oracle bone, calligraphy
Chinese Oracle Bone, Shang Dynasty. Linden-Museum, Stuttgart (Germany). Image by Dr. Meierhofer image available under a Creative Commons license .

Different styles of stroke have given poetic names such as ‘playful butterfly’; ‘dewdrop’; ‘leaping dragon’ and ‘milling waves’. Types of calligraphic stroke have different qualities; they are categorized as bone; flesh; muscle and blood. Blood is the wetness or dryness of the stroke, bone the structural layout; flesh the weight (thickness) of the stroke. A person's personality is said to be evident from their calligraphy. Although calligraphy has only eight basic strokes there are many options in terms of weight, strength and layout of each character. The work of master calligraphers is often copied out as a tribute to the original artist. The finest examples of calligraphy are inscribed on stone (called steles ) so that students can take away their own rubbing of the stone with wax over paper. For example there are an appropriately large number of steles at Confucius' birthplace at Qufu. The Classics of Chinese literature were inscribed in 175CE near the capital Luoyang for students to copy; 200,000 characters were engraved on fifty huge stones, a process that took eight years to complete.

Script styles

dragon, calligraphy, script
The character long for dragon written in a variety of different script styles (Seal, official script, regular script, running script, cursive script). Image available under a Creative Commons license .

Wang Xizhi [303 - 361] or Wang Hsi-chih WG

Wang Xizhi, calligraphy
Wang Xizhi () was a Chinese calligrapher, traditionally referred to as the “Sage of Calligraphy” . This image was carried on the book which is called published in 1921. Image available under a Creative Commons license .
audio lecture
China History Podcast relating to this topic by Lazlo Montgomery (audio only).
Lazlo podcast
Wang Xizhi

Wang Xizhi is considered the sage of calligraphy. He developed the flowing grass script in contrast to the solid square official script. His calligraphy has been described as “light as a floating cloud; vigorous as a startled dragon. He lived at the time of Period of Disunity when the Eastern Jin dynasty tried and failed to keep hold of power in northern China. Wang Xizhi was reputedly taught by a woman and he kept a flock of geese which may have influenced his style. It is said that he practiced so long and ardently that he turned a pond black with the ink he discarded.

His work has been copied and re-copied down the centuries as it was as close to perfection that could be achieved. His style is called ‘xing shu’ or ‘moving writing’ which has a flowing style. Copies were usually made by taking rubbings of the calligraphy engraved in stone. His work is still very highly prized.

His most famous work ‘Preface to poems composed at the Orchid Pavilion’ is about a party for 42 guests at Lan Ting (兰亭) near Shaoxing, Zhejiang. Each had a drinking cup that was set upon the waters, when the cup stopped moving its owner had to compose a poem. There is a similar story attached to the Xishang Pavilion at the Forbidden City where a water channel was fashioned to float the cups along.

Shaanxi, calligraphy, rubbing
Taking a rubbing of famous calligraphy at Xian Beilin museum, Shaanxi Copyright © Dreamstime see image license
For more on calligraphy and drawing characters see our character stroke guide.

There are a dozen different recognized styles of calligraphy that have been used in the last few thousand years. The dà zhuàn (large seal) is the ancient form of characters attributed to the Yellow Emperor 4,000 years ago. The Qin Emperor introduced the xiǎo zhuàn (small seal) as the standard for the empire. The reform was brought in by his chief minister Li Si . The characters on seals (or chops) use the zhuàn shū script to this day. The clerical script lì shū evolved from the earlier rectilinear forms of script to become the official script of record in the Han dynasty. It is the most complex script to master and the first to develop after the brush was used for writing. From this script the Japanese derived their kanji characters.

For rapid writing a more flowing script is needed, this was achieved with the cǎo shū (grass script) which introduced many drastic simplifications to allow characters to be drawn in a single, flowing stroke; this makes them more rounded and harder to decipher. There is an intermediary form xíng shū (semi-cursive) that is sufficiently close to the rectilinear form to be understood and yet quick to write. The xing shu is the normal 'hand-written' form of Chinese. The regular, official script is kǎi shū which began to be used in the Han dynasty and was finally frozen in form in the Tang dynasty. The characters are written in a standard space and are designed to be easier to read. This is the script that children learn to write, it is also known as zhēn shū 'regular script' and zhèng shū 'regular script'.

For writing rather than reading the main script used is the xíng shū which is a compromise between fully flowing script like caoshu and the more formal and rectilinear kaishu 'standard characters'. For speed of writing the strokes are drawn together but the standard square shape is maintained. It is the script used nowadays for manuscripts and personal letters.

Oracle bones Read all about the amazing discovery of 4,000 year old ancient Chinese Writing in our oracle bone section.

The last major change to the script was in the 1960s when characters were simplified to make reading easier and writing quicker. The modern, simplified form is called 简体 jiǎn tǐ zì. See our traditional character section for more on this.

calligraphy, people
Chinese calligrapher working on a pavement in Beijing Copyright © Dreamstime see image license

Emperor Huizong of the Song dynasty was a gifted calligrapher and painter, his 'thin gold' calligraphy set the standard for fine Imperial script. Calligraphy is still much appreciated, many of Mao Zedong's works included hand-written titles and phrases. The title of the party newspaper ‘The People's Daily was written in Mao's own hand.

Four treasures of the Chinese scholar

calligraphy,ink stone,ink stick,brush,paper
The four treasures of the scholar are: ink stick; ink stone; brushes; and paper together with seal; cinnabar paste and a pen stand in the traditional form of a mountain.

Calligraphy uses the four treasures of the scholar ( wén fáng sì bǎo) these are the ink stick; ink stone; brushes; and paper.

The ink is usually provided in solid form as a stick, this is ground up with water to provide ink when needed. It is made from soot from the burning of conifer wood and bound with glue.

The ink stone has a smooth area for grinding the ink stick to make the ink with water. It is typically made from slate or similar fine grained stone. Anhui province is famous as a source of good ink-stones.

The brush is traditionally of fur which may come from goat; rabbit; camel; mouse; badger; pine marten or other animals. It is a thick brush that can take up a lot of ink for thick strokes and yet still come to a very sharp point to make fine strokes. The shaft of the brush is normally made of bamboo. Each stroke has to be made in a single movement; it does not allow for hesitation midway through or for later correction.

Paper is usually used for calligraphic work but silk and linen can also be used. The paper, such as rice paper, can be as thin and absorbent as 'tissue' paper making writing more of a challenge. Bamboo paper is often used for practice.


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Citation information: Chinasage, 'Chinese Calligraphy, the ancient art of handwriting in China', last updated 8 Oct 2015, Web, http://www.chinasage.info/calligraphy.htm.

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