An introduction to Chinese calligraphy

introduction to Chinese calligraphy
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An introduction to Chinese calligraphy

Calligraphy is one of the world’s oldest abstract art: the art of the line. This was the most celebrated art form in traditional China. Painting and calligraphy were born at the same time, sharing identical tools (such as brush and ink), but calligraphy was considered as a fine art before painting.

Chinese calligraphy

The elevated status of calligraphy reflects the importance of the word in China: Chinese calligraphy is writing Chinese characters as a form of art, combining visual art and interpretation of the meaning.

Knowing how to read and write Chinese characters is not essential to appreciate the charm of calligraphy. The characters are fundamentally ideographic in nature, meaning they can symbolize the idea of a thing rather than transcribe their pronunciation.

Calligraphers use a pliant brush made by animal hairs, dip its tip into ink made from grinding on an ink stone with water and writes on paper or silk that could have different absorbency rates according on how it has been treated.

Brush, ink, ink stone, and paper are collectively referred to as the Four Treasures of the Study (文房四寶).

Chinese calligraphy

In past times, study calligraphy was based to copying strictly the great works of masters or famous calligraphers, thus learning them by rote. The master shows the ‘right way’ to draw the Chinese characters and the apprentice has to copy strictly, continuously, until the moves become natural and the copy is perfect. Deviation from the model is seen as a failure.

The appreciation of calligraphy, as any other form of art, is very personal. However, there are some traditional rules that have been established and those who violate them are not considered legitimate calligraphers. The famous modern Chinese calligrapher Tian Yunzhang, member of the Chinese Calligrapher Association, summarized rules of modern calligraphy.

  • A correctly written character is composed in a way that is accepted as correct by legitimate calligraphers. Calligraphic often use variant Chinese characters, which can be correct or incorrect case-by-case, but in general more popular variants are more likely to be correct. Correct characters are written in the traditional stroke order and not a modern standard.
  • The characters must be legible. As calligraphy is the method of writing well, a calligraphic work must be recognizable as script, and furthermore be easily legible to those familiar with the script style.
  • In contrast to the western tradition, the characters must be concise. Good Chinese calligraphy must be unadorned script. It must also be in black ink unless there is a reason to write in other ink.
  • The characters must be aesthetically pleasing. Generally, characters that are written correctly, legibly, concisely, and in the correct context are also aesthetically pleasing to some degree.

introduction to Chinese calligraphy

These are some the main rules that calligraphers must follow when writing Chinese characters. Often the characters that don’t follow the above rules are less aesthetically pleasing. An experienced calligrapher must consider the quality of the line, the structure of each character which the lines are placed, the total organization of groups of characters.

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