Chinese Calligraphy is a traditional form of writing characters from the Chinese language through the use of ink and a brush. It is a tradition that is rooted in China through centuries of practice.
Chinese calligraphy is an art of turning Chinese characters into images through pressure and speed variations of the pointed Chinese brush. It emphasizes the expression of emotions while being a mental exercise to an artist which coordinates the body and the mind to select the best styling for the presentation of the passage content.
In English, "calligraphy" literally means "beautiful writing." It is one of the Chinese traditional arts and a written form that unites the languages spoken in China. It is seen on the walls of offices, shops, hotels, and houses everywhere.
Picasso, the world-famous master of art, once expressed: "If I once lived in China, I must had become a calligrapher rather than a painter".
The History of Chinese Calligraphy
Chinese calligraphy has an extensive history of about 1,000 years. It is a unique artistic form of Chinese cultural treasure and represents Chinese art. It is reputed to be the most ancient artistic type in oriental world history.
Calligraphy initially began due to the need to record ideas and information. The unique forms of calligraphy developed and originated from China, particularly for writing Chinese characters by using ink and a brush. Furthermore, Chinese calligraphy is responsible for the development of numerous forms of art such as ornate paperweights, ink stones, and seal carving.
The revivalist calligraphers of the Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368) such as Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322) further developed the popular classical traditions of the Tang (618–907) and Jin (1115–1234) dynasties.
In the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), the notions of artistic liberation and freedom from calligraphy rules gained momentum. During this period calligraphers started to form individual paths with their own styles. The most popular calligraphers are such as; Wen Zhengming (文徵明, 1470–1559), Zhang Ruitu (張瑞圖, 1570–1641), Zhu Yunming (祝允明, 1460–1527), and Huang Daozhou (黃道周, 1585–1646).
During the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), scholars started turning to inspiration from the ancient works' rich resources inscribed in clerical and seal script. The Qing scholars were interested in studying these antiquities and becoming familiar with the steles that facilitated the creation of a calligraphy trend, which acted as a complement to the 'Model Book' school. Therefore, the Stele school became a link between the present and the past in the approach to the traditions which the clerical and the seal script began being the Chinese calligraphy innovation sources.
Zhong Yao (鍾繇,151-230): He is known as the "father of standard script". His famous works include the Xuānshì Biǎo (宣示表), Jiànjìzhí Biǎo (薦季直表), and Lìmìng Biǎo (力命表), which survive through hand copies, including those by Wang Xizhi.
Wang XiZhi (王羲之, 303-361): He was traditionally referred to as the Sage of Calligraphy during the Jin Dynasty. Although none of his work remains today and all of his masterpieces which you see were copied or traced by others
Ouyang Xun (歐陽詢, 557–641): He was a Confucian scholar and calligrapher of the early Tang Dynasty.
Cai Xiang (蔡襄, 1012–1067): He was one of the four best calligraphers during the Song Dynasty (960–1279).
Zhao Mengfu (赵孟頫, 1254–1322): He was a prince and descendant of the Song Dynasty, and a Chinese scholar, painter, and calligrapher during the Yuan Dynasty.
Categories of Chinese Calligraphy
There are five main categories of traditional Chinese calligraphy:
1. Seal script - zhuan shu
Small or large, Chinese seal script is a script that was designed to be engraved. It is the oldest script but it is still used because it has remained to be popular. During some time in the Qing Dynasty, seal script faced a renaissance as an act of rebellion against the invaders because of the desire to understand and rediscover the roots of the Chinese culture. The script uses ancient characters that are difficult to read especially for modern Chinese.
2. Clerical script - li shu (pron. lee shoo)
Also referred to as the chancery script. The script was adopted as a way of simplifying brushstrokes. it is a legible script today despite being established during the Han dynasty.
3. Regular script - kai shu (pron. keye shoo)
Emerging at the end of the Han dynasty, in the 3rd century A.D., regular script was the result of another effort to simplify writing, decreed by the last emperor of this dynasty. It is the easiest to read and is very suitable for learning calligraphy. The brushstrokes are clearly drawn.
4. Running script - xing shu (pron. hsing shoo)
Also known as the semi-cursive script since it is halfway between regular and cursive. Running script and regular script are the most popular styles today. The strokes in each character are connected and simplified, which makes writing faster. However, the characters remain separate from each other.
5. Cursive script - cao shu (pron. tsao shoo)
Literally “grass” or “straw” script, the Chinese also call it “mood writing.” All the strokes for a single character are shortened and linked together; most of the time, the characters run into each other, making them practically illegible for modern Chinese.
The other scripts had to follow restrictive rules generally imposed by the imperial authority, although this did not keep artists from excelling. While this style seems surprisingly modern due to the virtuosity and abstract nature of the brushwork, it is not modern at all. It emerged at a time of great social unrest at the beginning of the Han dynasty, around 200 B.C., as a revolt against authority. It was a way for intellectuals to express their desire to depart from the beaten track.
The Four Treasures of the Study
The four components of penmanship in Ancient China, also known as 'the four treasures of study' were employed by scholars throughout ancient China. Here is a brief insight into the four tools of the trade:
1. Writing Brush
The handles for Chinese brushes are made of hardwood, ivory, porcelain, or bamboo, with the bristles made from rabbit’s hair, wools, horsehair, or the hair of wolves, foxes, etc.
It must have a fine texture and the right absorbency. Modern glossy paper is no good.
3. Ink Stick
The ink stick is a block of dried ink dye. It looks like a large black domino and is used by most calligraphers. Ink sticks or pre-made bottled ink can be purchased in bookshops or other vendors.
4. Ink Slab
The flat, hard slab is made from stone or pottery. The ink slab is made from stone or pottery used in Chinese calligraphy and painting for grinding dry ink and mixing with water. In China, there are four famous Chinese ink slabs: Anhui She Ink slab, Gansu Tao Ink slab Gansu, Guangdong Duan Ink Slab and Shanxi Chengni Ink Slab.
Where to See/Learn Calligraphy in China
Museums: The Beijing Capital Museum, China Art Gallery, Beijing Museum of Cultural Relics Exchange, The Imperial City Art Museum and many more exhibition centers.
Bookstores: Books which are devoted to calligraphy can be found in various Beijing bookstores like; The Bookworm, Yansha Books and Wangfujing Foreign Language Bookstore
Temples: Chinese Calligraphy is written on temples like the Temple of Heaven, Lama Temple, Beijing Temple Fair, and the Confucius Temple. In addition, name plaques, shops, main doors or even modern door houses also serve as an ever-present part of Chinese culture. So, on your trip to China makes sure to get yourself one.
Our Top 5 Recommendations for Calligraphy Schools in China
If you are a foreigner in China and you are interested in learning this artistic expression, the best way for you to learn Chinese calligraphy is to find a school in China.
1. Beijing Calligraphy School
This is a new educational organization of self-study examination of higher education for students of Chinese calligraphy majors. It provides various forms and strong faculty force which gathered the elite of Beijing calligraphy education and gets credit for its high quality. Since the year it is found in 2005, it has satisfied the majority of calligraphy lovers’ eager to promote the education of calligraphy and improved the popularity and improvement of calligraphy education.
2. Beijing Calligraphy Training College
Located in the Royal Courtyard, near the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, it is a Holy Land of China cultural and historical capital. In recent years, the college has trained a large number of outstanding international artists. On behalf of the college, students go abroad for cultural exchanges and hold personal calligraphy and painting exhibitions and trade shows in more than 20 countries, bringing the real value and social and economic benefits to the works.
3. Hangzhou Chuanxiao Calligraphy School
It is the only specialized training school teaching the art of calligraphy in Hangzhou. Since the year 1993, it has been continued to carry forward the art of calligraphy and the universal education of calligraphy, which won the general public approved particularly the majority of the students and parents. Sponsoring more than 10 years, it has been insisting on taking the perfect line, trying to find a new set of calligraphy education models, and is equipped with specially prepared textbooks.
4. Yunying Calligraphy School in Tianjin
Located in Tianjin Nankai Primary School, it covers three learning contents of regular script, running script and grass script with a writing brush and hard pen. Use the works of well-known calligrapher Zhang Tianyun and Zhang Tianying as the main teaching materials and the writings of the ancient tablet as the model. Their teachers are the outstanding ones in the field of Chinese calligraphy.
5. Xizhi Calligraphy and Painting School
It is a pioneer of Chinese calligraphy and painting training education and an outstanding contribution to the inheritance and popularity of Chinese painting and calligraphy. Now it has become a gold brand of national concatenate education and enjoys a good reputation.
Artistic Characters and rules:
Chinese calligraphy serves the purpose of conveying thought but also shows the 'abstract' beauty of the line. Rhythm, line, and structure are more perfectly embodied in calligraphy than in painting or sculpture.
- Every Chinese character is built up in its own square with a variety of structure and composition.
- The drawing consists of only three basic forms: the circle, the triangle, and the square.
- For each character, there is a definite number of strokes and appointed positions for them in relation to the whole. No stroke may be added or deleted for decorative effect.
- Strict regularity is not required.
- The pattern should have a living movement
We Can Help You Learn Calligraphy
Like all our private tours, finding the opportunity to learn calligraphy is fully-customizable to suit your requirements. You can simply tick the boxes and fill in the blanks on our Create My Trip page, and we will design a unique tour for you to include any of the places above.
We offer an introductory class to learn basic Chinese calligraphy in a beautiful Beijing hutong. You will be given a basic introduction to calligraphy and learn how to draw simple characters under the guidance of our teacher. All drawing tools such as brushes, ink, and paper are provided. This class can be tailor-made to suit your experience.