Calligraphy, literally "beautiful writing," has been appreciated as
an art form in many different cultures throughout the world, but the
stature of calligraphy in Chinese culture is unmatched. In China, from
a very early period, calligraphy was considered not just a form of
decorative art; rather, it was viewed as the supreme visual art form,
was more valued than painting and sculpture, and ranked alongside
poetry as a means of self-expression and cultivation. How one wrote, in
fact, was as important as what one wrote. To understand how
calligraphy came to occupy such a prominent position, it is necessary
to consider a variety of factors, such as the materials used in
calligraphy and the nature of the Chinese written script as well as the
esteem in which writing and literacy are held in traditional China.
The earliest extant examples of Chinese writing are the inscriptions
that appear on so-called oracle bones (animal bones and turtle shells)
and on bronze vessels, the oldest of which date back to the Shang
dynasty (ca.1600-ca.1100 B.C.E.). Shang kings used these objects in
important divination rituals, and some scholars have argued that this
early association of writing with ritual and political authority helps
to account for the special status conferred upon those who could read
These early inscriptions were made on the surface of an oracle bone or
a bronze mold with a sharp, pointed instrument. As a result of this
process, the characters (or "graphs" as they are also called) generally
lack the kinds of linear variation and other attributes considered
prerequisites of true calligraphy. Those qualities began to emerge very
clearly during the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.), when Chinese
artisans perfected the manufacture of the basic materials still used by
calligraphers today: brush, ink, paper, and inkstone.
Although archaeological evidence confirms that brushes were known in
China at a much earlier date, it was during the Han period that their
use became widespread. A typical brush consists of a bundle of animal
hairs (black rabbit hair, white goat hair, and yellow weasel hair were
all very popular) pushed inside a tube of bamboo or wood (though jade,
porcelain, and other materials were also occasionally used). The hairs
are not all of the same length; rather, an inner core has shorter hairs
around it, which in turn are covered by an outer layer that tapers to a
point. Brushes come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes that
determine the type of line produced. What all such brushes have in
common, however, is their flexibility. It is this feature more than any
other that allows the calligraphic line to be so fluid and expressive.
The ink employed in calligraphy is usually made from lampblack, a sooty
residue created by burning pine resin or oil underneath a hood. After
being collected, the lampblack is mixed with glue and then pressed into
molds. The resulting hardened cakes or sticks can then be ground
against a stone and mixed with water, a process that allows the
calligrapher to control the thickness of the ink and density of the
pigment. Eventually ink cakes and ink sticks themselves became a
decorative art form, and many well-known artists created designs and
patterns for their molds.
The invention of paper is widely appreciated as one of China's major
technological contributions to the world. Tradition credits the
discovery of the process to Cai Lun in 105 C.E., though recent tomb
findings demonstrate that paper was known at least a century earlier.
Paper was made from various fibers, such as mulberry, hemp, and bamboo,
and provided an inexpensive alternative to silk as a ground material
for calligraphy and painting.
Together with the inkstone-a carved stone slab with a reservoir for
grinding ink and mixing it with water-brush, ink, and paper are known
in China as the Four Treasures of the Study (wenfang sibao), indicating
the high esteem in which the materials of calligraphy are held. These
Four Treasures are the same materials employed by traditional Chinese
painters. Some critics have pointed to this as a way of explaining why
calligraphy has a higher status in China than elsewhere. The argument
goes something like this: In Europe, for instance, painting is a high
art; calligraphy does not use the same materials as painting;
therefore, calligraphy is not accorded the same high status as
painting. In China painting and calligraphy use the same materials;
therefore, calligraphy is considered to be a high art akin to painting.
The problem with this argument is its basis upon the unfounded
assumption that painting in China, as in Europe, was the most valued
visual art form. In fact painting in China practically from its
inception was considered secondary to calligraphy as a visual art.
Moreover the argument that painting and calligraphy share the same
materials was used in the eleventh and twelfth centuries to elevate the
status of painting, rather than the other way around.
In trying to understand why calligraphy came to occupy such a prominent
position in China, it is useful to consider the features that were
prized when calligraphy began to emerge as an art form distinct from
mere writing; that is to say, when specimens of handwriting began to be
valued, collected, and treated as art. One of the earliest recorded
instances concerns the first-century emperor Ming of the Han, who, upon
hearing that his cousin was on his deathbed, dispatched a messenger to
obtain a piece of his writing before he passed away. By so doing,
Emperor Ming was hoping to be able to "commune" with his relative, even
after death, through the traces of his personality embodied by his
More than any other factor, it is the claim that calligraphy can serve
as a medium of revelation and self-expression that best accounts for
why it became so highly esteemed. A brief consideration of how
calligraphic technique is mastered might shed some light on the
question of why such expressive potential was seen as intrinsic to
calligraphy in the first place.
As discussed elsewhere, the Chinese written script is made up of
several thousand individual graphs. Each consists of an invariable
group of strokes executed in a set order. One of the truly unique
features of calligraphy that results from these apparently restrictive
guidelines is that the viewer is able to mentally retrace, stroke by
stroke, the exact steps by which the work was made. The viewer also is
able to observe extremely subtle nuances of execution-where a stroke
was made swiftly or slowly, whether the brush was put to the paper with
great delicacy or force, and so on.
The ability to perform this retracing personalizes the viewing
experience and generates in the viewer the sense of interacting or
communing with the absent calligrapher. At the same time it is
precisely the nuances of execution, those individualized deviations
from the set form, that separate good calligraphy from bad handwriting.
Furthermore, since everyone who is taught to read and write learns the
same basic procedures, often by literally tracing famous examples of
calligraphy, every educated person is to a significant extent able to
perceive and appreciate the achievements of a great calligrapher.
The evaluation of calligraphy thus clearly had an obvious social
dimension, but it also had an important natural dimension that should
not be overlooked. For example, early critics and connoisseurs often
likened its expressive power to elements of the natural world,
comparing the movement of the brush to the force of a boulder
plummeting down a hillside or to the gracefulness of the fleeting
patterns left on the surface of a pond by swimming geese. Writing also
would frequently be described in physiological terms that invoked the
"bones," "muscles," and "flesh" of a line. In short, while calligraphy
involves the Confucian emphasis on the social, this cannot be separated
from a more Daoist emphasis on the workings of nature.
Although the practice and appreciation of calligraphy are often
presented as essentially traditional pursuits, calligraphy is present
in modern China in various ways. Indeed, the single most commonly
reproduced example of calligraphy is undoubtedly the four character
phrase (Renmin Ribao, "The People's Daily") that to this day appears on
the masthead of every copy of the official newspaper of the PRC-four
characters originally brushed by Chairman Mao himself. Also, as several
recent exhibitions of modern Chinese art have demonstrated, many
contemporary avant-garde artists continue to engage and question the
cultural authority associated with the "beautiful writing" of the past
two thousand years.
Suggested further readings:
Billeter, Jean François. The Chinese Art of Writing. New York: Skira/Rizzoli, 1990.
Harrist, Robert, and Wen Fong. The Embodied Image: Chinese Calligraphy
from the John B. Elliott Collection. Princeton: Art Museum, Princeton
University in association with Harry N. Abrams, 1999.
Kraus, Richard Curt. Brushes with Power: Modern Politics and the
Chinese Art of Calligraphy. Berkeley: University of California Press,
Sullivan, Michael. The Three Perfections: Chinese Painting, Poetry, and Calligraphy. Rev. ed. New York: George Braziller, 1999.
Yee, Chiang. Chinese Calligraphy: An Introduction to Its Aesthetics and
Technique. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973.
Author: Charles Lachman.