Chinese Calligraphy

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Chinese calligraphy

Calligraphy, shufa, occupies one of the highest positions in the rich and colorful treasury of Chinese art. Through the use of a brush to write Chinese characters, a calligrapher can express his or her aesthetic idea, education, thoughts and feelings, personality and temperament in a point or a line. Calligraphy has developed in China over more than 3,000 years. It is an important part of the best traditional Chinese culture.

The art of calligraphy spread to Japan, Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, and wherever the Chinese diaspora has settled. Its popularity continues to grow.

Two aspects of Chinese calligraphy distinguish it from other calligraphic arts: the nature of Chinese characters and use of the brush. The structure of Chinese characters, each of which occupies a square space, and their rich connotations make them an ideal calligraphic medium. The softness and elasticity of ink brushed make them ideal tools to express the changing styles of calligraphy. A line made with the stroke of a brush may present different tastes of writing styles. This can be completed only with an ink brush. Various types and sizes of characters require different kinds of brushes.

Chinese calligraphy is an art based on the unique form of Chinese characters which developed from inscriptions on tortoise shells and ox bones to dazhuan and xiaozhuan (seal characters), official script, regular script, running hand and cursive hand.

There are three elements in Chinese calligraphy:

1. Maneuverability. This requires the dexterous control of the brush, the scientific movement of the fingers, elbow and body and effective use of the ink. The brush must be controlled to move on the paper at the right speed with the required force, quick or slow, light or heavy, lifting up or pressing down to form various types of brush sharpness, mid-way or side cutting, or hidden or exposed point. The lines should be written with force, giving a feeling of substance, like the veins, bones, blood and flesh of the human body.

2. Structure. This refers to the layout of the points and the execution of the brush movement. It stresses the balance, escape and supplement, capping and piercing, facing up and the reverse, siding, filling a blank, covering, and increase and decrease, to make the combination of the strokes of each character full of life and animation.

3. Style. This refers to the taste, style and quality of the work. It requires the skillful expression of a combination of beauty in form and in quality of the work so as to give a vivid presentation as a result of the producer’s inspiration. The maneuverability of the brush and the structure are techniques used to produce a beauty in form and quality. But the style represents the producer’s personal accomplishments separate from achievement in calligraphy. Style is the most important, but it cannot be separated from the beauty in form and quality. A good calligraphic work is required to contain these two aspects.

Calligraphy, superficially speaking, is nothing more than writing characters. However, good calligraphy cannot be produced without a good educational foundation. The wonder of a calligraphic work is always based on the depth and breadth of the knowledge of its producer. This involves a process of integrating training in basic techniques with knowledge.

It is very difficult to appraise a calligraphic work. This is because the requirements of a work include the practical function of communicating information through seemingly simple points and lines, the expressive function of communicating feelings, and the aesthetic function. The simpler the expression, the richer the content. The more abstract it is, the deeper its implication. It is a medium for expressing the mood, will, feelings, ideas and the pursuit of beauty of its producer. This requires the appraisers and connoisseurs to have extensive knowledge and keen observation.

Like chopsticks, calligraphy used to be wholly Chinese. As Chinese culture spread to the Korean peninsula, Japan, Vietnam and Singapore, calligraphy became a unique art throughout Asia.

Famous Calligraphers

Chinese calligraphy is the product of 5,000 years of Chinese culture. Through the ages, a great number of outstanding calligraphers have emerged. Wang Xizhi (321-379) and his son Wang Xianzhi (344-386) of the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420) created a beautiful and flowing new style, which has remained very popular in later generations. Ouyang Xun (557-641), Chu Suiliang(596-658), Yan Zhenqing (708-784) and Liu Gongquan (778-865) of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) each created their own types of regular script which have also been followed by later generations. Zhang Xu and Huai Su (725-785), also of the Tang Dynasty, invented a wonderful cursive style of writing. Su Shi (1037-1101), Huang Tingjian (1045-1105) and Mi Fu (1051-1107) of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) were all well known for their cursive hand and running hand. During the Qing period (1644-1911), calligraphers were divided into two schools: the stone rubbing school and the model book school. Yu Youren (1879-1964) blended the two schools into one to create a new school.

All these calligraphers established their own unique styles: the "free and natural beauty" of Wang Xizhi, the "strong and robust beauty" of Yan Zhenqing, the "fresh and clear beauty" of Mi Fu and Huang Tingjian, the "bold and flowing beauty" of Zhang Xu and Huai Su and the "exotic and clumsy beauty" of Su Shi and Zheng Banqiao (1693-1765). The brilliant history of calligraphy and the achievements of generations of calligraphers are an important part of Chinese culture.

Throughout history, philosophy has exerted a strong influence on calligraphy. Yin and Yang in the doctrine of the Way of nature, and the Chan Sect's sudden enlightenment, meditation and self-cultivation, have all stamped a deep brand upon calligraphic aesthetics. Traditional philosophical ideas have nourished Chinese calligraphy. And calligraphy, in the form of art, has embodied the meaning of traditional philosophical ideas. Good verses and compositions are copied by calligraphers, so calligraphy involves the presentation of literary works. People can enjoy the beauty of both calligraphy and literature at the same time. Wang Xizhi's Lan ting ji xu (Foreword to Poems Composed at Lanting Pavilion) written by hand is a good example. The literati of the Song Dynasty further combined poetry and calligraphy. Many of the poems and essays written by hand by Su Shi and Huang Tingjian can be admired for the art of their calligraphy. Modern master calligraphers, including Kang Youwei (1858-1927), Guo Moruo (1892-1978), Qi Gong, and Zhao Puchu, have produced many excellent calligraphic and literary works.

Calligraphy integrates the aesthetics of painting with those of music and dance. It boasts the rhythm of music, the posture of dance and the pattern of painting. Form, quality, posture, style and reasoning are combined, making substance abstractive to produce a lasting feeling of beauty.


A Brief Historical Account

The Pre-Qin Dynasty Era (1,600 -221 BC)

It was not until the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220) that calligraphy established itself as a distinct art genre. However, prior to that time, the Chinese text had been gradually yet consistently attaining an aesthetic quality in addition to developing as a practical means of recording information.

Scholars generally acknowledge the Oracle-bone Inscriptions and the Bronze Characters of the mid-Shang Dynasty (1,600-1,100 BC) as the earliest form of mature Chinese characters. Characters adopted during this period had already developed many distinctive calligraphic features: rhymic strokes, symmetry, a fluid and coherent arrangement of different characters within a piece of writing, and a range of unique writing styles.

A total of around 4,500 symbols have been found in over 100,000 oracle-bones. 1,700 of the symbols have been decoded over the years. These are the earliest mature calligraphy works. The symbols on the majority of the oracle-bones were carved with knives or other similar tools. The inscriptions were scratched into turtle plastrons and ox scapulae between the 14th and 11th centuries BC, and were records of divinations made to foretell events such as the outcomes of royal hunts, weather conditions or harvests, and other practical concerns of the rulers. However, a small number of oracle-bones had symbols written in cinnabar or ink, indicating that people has already learnt how to use writing brushes at that time.

Since the Western Zhou Dynasty (1,100-771 BC), bronze characters came to replace the oracle-bone inscriptions and stretched for well over a millennium. Bronze characters were used for epigraphs on bells and the three-legged cooking vessels (these were usually tripods, but were sometimes four-legged vessels, or quadripods). Bronze characters used in the late Western Zhou Dynasty were characterized by a departure from the complex pictographic symbols to the abstract characters consisting of regular strokes. In the eighth century BC, a close relative of bronze characters was developed. Characters of this style were found on ten stone drums, and were named Shi Ku wen, or Stone Drum script.

The Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770-256 BC) was divided into the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC) and the Warring States Period (475-221 BC). Numerous states contended with each other and developed their own system of writing based on the bronze characters, until the state of Qin united all territory that was Chinese in 221 BC.

Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) and Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD)

Seven major powers (Qi, Chu, Yan, Han, Zhao, Wei, and Qin) fought each other in the Warring States period (475-221 BC). Gradually, the state of Qin conquered its rivals and achieved supremacy. In 221 BC, Qin conquered Qi, the last of the other six major powers and united all territory that was Chinese. Under Emperor Qinshihuang, the written script, which had assumed rather different styles under the seven states, was standardized. Historical data shows there were altogether 194 written forms for the character "寶" (bao, third tone), and 104 written forms for "眉" (mei, second tone). The new, standardized script was later termed "lesser seal script" (xiao zhuan shu).

The Qin and Han dynasties constituted a crucial stage for the evolution of the Chinese characters. It was during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) that the clerical script (li shu) developed out of the lesser seal script. Then, regular cursive (zhang cao), regular script (kai shu, or zhen shu), running script (xing shu) developed from the clerical script. By the end of the Han Dynasty, the Chinese characters had achieved basically all their written forms.

Wei and Jin Dynasties (220-420)

The Three Kingdoms (Wei, 220-265; Shu Han, 221-263; Wu, 222-280) followed the Han Dynasty. The 200 years during the Kingdom of Wei (220-265) and the Jin Dynasty (265-420) were a period of important historical development and transition for Chinese characters and calligraphy. The written forms of Chinese characters were basically finalized through the clerical script during the Han Dynasty. During the Wei and Jin dynasties, the regular script (kai shu), the running script (xing shu) and the cursive script came to be finalized, adding significantly to the aesthetic value of the Chinese characters and calligraphy. Great master calligraphers emerged during these 200 years, including Cai Yong (133-192) of the Eastern Han Dynasty, Zhong Yao (151-230) of the Kingdom of Wei, Suo Jing (239-302) of the Western Jin (265-316), Wang Xizhi (321-379 or 303-361) and Wang Xianzhi (344-386) of the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420), to name just a few.

Northern and Southern Dynasties (386-589)

The biggest achievement during the Northern and Southern Dynasties was in relation to the regular script (kai shu), which exists mainly in the form of tablets and tombstones. Calligraphy from this period not only inherited and developed the style of the Han Dynasty clerical script, but also paved the way for the full blossoming of the regular script during the Sui (581-618) and Tang (618-907) dynasties.

The other significant achievement during this period was wei bei of the Northern Dynasties (386-581). Wei bei is the summation of all tablets and tombstones of Northern Wei (386-534). Renowned Tang Dynasty kai shu calligraphers such as Yu Shinan, Ouyang Xun and Chu Suiliang were adherents to the wei bei style.

Masterpieces during this period include Cuan Long Yan Bei, Liu Huaimin Mu Zhi, Xiao Dan Bei and Yi He Ming of the Southern Dynasties; and Song Gao Ling Miao Bei, Shi Ping Gong Zao Xiang, Zhang Menglong, Hua Yue Song of the Northern Dynasties.

Sui and Tang Dynasties (581-907)

The Sui Dynasty (581-618) existed for less than 40 years. However, it was during this time that kai shu began to come of age and new styles were adopted, finally reaching its zenith in the Tang Dynasty (618-907).

Li Shimin (599-646), the second emperor of the Tang dynasty, loved Wang Xizhi's calligraphy and spent a lot of money searching for and collecting Wang Xizhi's calligraphy works.

There were four great calligraphers in the early Tang Dynasty. They were Yu Shinan, Ouyang Xun, Chu Suiliang and Xue Ji. During the mid-Tang period, Yan Zhenqing, one of the most important Chinese calligraphers, emerged. He changed the style of earlier Tang significantly. His calligraphy works are solemn, dignified, stately, and majestic. Liu Gongquan after him created a style which is thin yet full of energy.

Cursive script also achieved its historical breakthrough during this time. Zhang Xu, Huai Su and Sun Guoting, who mastered this style, are considered to be among the best cursive calligraphers of all time.

Song and Yuan Dynasties (960-1368)

Calligraphy during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) developed further in terms of the semi-cursive script (xing cao), but failed to achieve any further significant progression in regular script and wild cursive script (kuang cao). However, calligraphy during the Song Dynasty was unique in that it was much more idiosyncratic.

The invention of a movable printing technique by Bi Sheng around 1045-1048 during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) had significant bearing on the development of calligraphy in two aspects: easy access to models of calligraphy, which facilitated in making Wang Xizhi and Wang Xianzhi's calligraphy the absolute paragon to aspire to for calligraphy practitioners; and a diminished practicality for the role of calligraphy against increasing aesthetic emphasis and diversified styles practiced by a vast number of calligraphers.

Among the Song Dynasty calligraphers, Su Shi, Huang Tingjian, Mi Fu and Cai Xiang were the most notable and were collectively called, "the Four Best".

Zhao Ji (1082-1135) is the most famous and accomplished artistically inclined emperor in Chinese history. He created the unique "Slender Bronze" style, or shou jin shu.

Of all the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) calligraphers, Zhao Mengfu was the most accomplished and ranked alongside Yan Zhenqing, Liu Gongquan, Ouyang Xun of the Tang Dynasty as the "Four Best Kai Shu Masters" of all times.

Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)

Calligraphy development during the Ming Dynasty was characterized by popular adoption and extensive studies of calligraphy copies. All the Ming Dynasty emperors loved calligraphy and encouraged the practice of this art. Zhu Di (1360-1424), the third Ming Dynasty emperor (1402-1424), recruited accomplished calligraphers and gave them official posts.

The Ming Dynasty, however, was lacking in great master calligraphers. Nevertheless, numerous calligraphers did carve names for themselves at different stages of this period. The more famous of these include Song Ke, Shen Du, Zhu Yunming, Wen Zhengming, Wang Chong, Xu Wei, Xing Tong, Dong Qichang, Zhang Ruitu, Huang Daozhou, and Mi Wanzhong.

Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)

Development of calligraphy during the Qing Dynasty can be classified into three stages: the early stage, which spans the reign of Emperors Shunzhi (1644-61), Kangxi (1661-1722), and Yongzheng (1722-35); the middle, which spans the reigns of Emperors Qianlong (1735-95), Jiaqing (1796-1820) and Daoguang (1820-50); and the late stage, which spans the reigns of Emperors Xianfeng (1850-61), Tongzhi (1861-74), Guangxu (1874-1908) and Xuantong (1908-1911).

Calligraphy of this era focused on the extensive study of calligraphy copies and tablets, and the innovation of a certain idiosyncratic style based on these studies.

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