CALLIGRAPHY in China is not only the art of fine handwriting, but also an integral part of Chinese culture, which has profound influence on the nation’s philosophy and the common state mindset. As an old Chinese saying goes: “The way Chinese characters are written is a portrait of the person who writes them.”
In ancient times, practicing calligraphy was virtually a spiritual pursuit as well as a pleasure for Chinese scholars. For many, it still is today.
Also, because it derives from the written Chinese language, which is composed of pictorial images, calligraphy is considered the highest form among the visual arts in China and has fundamental impacts on other Chinese art forms such as the traditional ink-wash painting and seal carving.
Inventor of Chinese characters
According to legend, Cang Jie, who invented the written Chinese language or the Chinese characters, was a bookkeeper and historian appointed by Yellow Emperor (2697-2589 BC), one of the legendary Chinese sovereigns.
One morning, Cang Jie was disturbed by some people quarreling outside. When he opened the window, he found three hunters arguing with each other about footprints left by animals in the snow. One said that those were the footprints of a deer going south, another insisted they were the footprints of a mountain goat going west. The third one claimed they were footprints of a tiger.
Looking at those footprints, Cang Jie wondered if different footprints could help identify different animals, and pondered if he could use different symbols to indicate different things.
In the following days, he began to study the shapes and other characteristics of animals, various objects, landscapes, as well as the sun, moon and stars in the sky.
Based on his observation, he used simple lines to draw symbols to represent each of them. And those symbols gradually evolved into a unique pictograph, which eventually were turned into Chinese characters.
Yellow Emperor realized the significance of this invention and ordered the whole nation to learn the new writing system.
It was said that on the day the Chinese characters were created, the sky began to shower crops as a heavenly present to congratulate human beings on major progress in their evolution and civilization.
According to historical records and archeological discoveries, however, the earliest known Chinese logographs were engraved on large animal bones and tortoise shells, hence the name Jiaguwen, or shell-and-bone script.
In 1992, such a script was found on a potsherd unearthed in east China’s Shandong Province, indicating that the wide use of the script can be dated to the late Neolithic Longshan Culture (2600-2000 BC), about the time the legend claims when Cang Jie invented Chinese characters.
With development of new tools and materials for writing in the following centuries, the Chinese characters began to have linear variation and other attributes considered as prerequisites of calligraphy.
And during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), the so-called “Four Treasures of the Study,” namely, the writing brush, ink stick, ink slab and paper had been perfected and became the common tools and materials for writing. More than 2,000 years later, they are still the basic tools and materials for Chinese calligraphy today, though not often used for writing any more.
Meanwhile, based on the shell-and-bone script, Chinese characters had evolved into several major styles, such as Seal Script, Clerical Script, Regular Script, Semi-cursive Script and Cursive Script.
The Seal Script is the oldest style that continues be practiced today and used mainly in seal carving. Clerical Script, featuring a flat pattern and the dramatically flared tail of a dominant horizontal or slanted stroke, is not in common use any more. But it’s still used for headlines in newspapers and magazines or for creating calligraphic artworks.
The Regular, Semi-cursive and Cursive scripts are still widely practiced today. The Regular Script is usually the first one should learn in calligraphy and serves as the basis for other styles. The Semi-cursive Script is the most popular style for it can be rendered in a faster and smoother way than the restrictive Regular Script.
The Cursive Script is a unique style of Chinese calligraphy. The characters here frequently flow into one another and some strokes are often modified or eliminated completely. As a result, it is very difficult to read even for educated Chinese who have practiced other styles of calligraphy. But, the Cursive Script can better express the writers’ feelings and is loved by many for its beautiful and abstract appearance. So, today, it is preserved mainly for its artistic value.
Some scholars and researchers believe that the reason that calligraphy has been considered a higher form of art than the traditional ink-wash painting in China rests in the fact that Chinese painting has not only shared the same tools and materials as used in calligraphy, but also borrowed many key techniques of the latter.
Others point out that calligraphy can serve as a better medium of revelation and self-expression. This is because Chinese calligraphy has a unique feature that enables viewers to “mentally retrace, stroke by stroke, the exact steps by which the work was made.”
As a result, Chinese calligraphy can offer a personalized viewing experience and give viewers the sense of interacting with the creators.
During the long history of evolvement of Chinese calligraphy, the country has brought forth numerous master calligraphers. Among them, Wang Xizhi (AD 303-361), known as the “Sage of Chinese Calligraphy,” is widely deemed as the greatest.
Wang’s influence on Chinese calligraphy is considered as fundamental and far-reaching as Shakespeare’s influence on the English language and literature.
Wang’s best-known artwork is called Lan Ting Xu, or Preface to the Poems Collected from the Orchid Pavilion, which was created at a party of poets he organized on the third day of the third month in the Chinese calendar in AD 353 at Lan Ting — the Orchid Pavilion — near today’s Shaoxing City in east China’s Zhejiang Province.
Written in the semi-cursive style, the 324-character manuscript has been widely claimed a timeless classic for its unparalleled beauty and high-minded sentiments about life and death.
Ever since Wang’s time, there has not been a Chinese calligrapher, professional and amateur alike, who has not copied this masterpiece a hundred, or even a thousand times in practice.
Today, every primary school student in the country is still required to practice calligraphy.
Chinese calligraphy, also has a great influence in many of China’s neighboring countries, particularly in Korea and Japan, where people have developed some of their own styles and techniques of calligraphy.
In 2008, Chinese calligraphy was listed as a national intangible cultural heritage by the central government in China.