what is chinese calligraphy?

Semicursive script in a textbook from calligrapher Tian Yingzhang 田英章. photo © Marie Schroeder
Semicursive script in a textbook from calligrapher Tian Yingzhang 田英章. photo © Marie Schroeder

The 'Four Treasures of the Study'

 Calligraphy 書法, the writing according to certain rules, is an important art in China. The characters are traditionally written with the Chinese brush. The pointed brush is held in a vertical position to the paper with the thumb, index and middle fingers. The ink, in the form of a block, must first be rubbed with water on a inkstone before it can be used to fill the brush and write on paper. The four writing tools - brush , ink , inkstone and paper - together are called the 'four treasures of the study' 文房四寶. They must not be missing in any calligraphy room.

 

1. 'treasure': Brush, made of wolf-, weasel-, goat-, horse- or bearhair. photo © Kolja Quakernack
1. 'treasure': Brush, made of wolf-, weasel-, goat-, horse- or bearhair. photo © Kolja Quakernack

Simple and yet difficult

 Today there are over 55,000 different Chinese characters, all of which are structured according to a specific principle. What the letters of the alphabet are for us are, in Chinese, the so-called radicals that make up a character. There are 214 of them in total. Theoretically, a calligrapher only needs to learn eight basic strokes in order to be able to write all characters. In addition to the manageable basic strokes, it is the very personal brushwork, the interaction of the four treasures and the mood of the calligrapher that influence the writing process. All of this ultimately contributes to the quality of a finished piece of writing, which is why it is impossible to create exactly the same calligraphy multiple times. Even great masters (such as Wang Xizhi 王羲之, the master of semicursive script, 4th century) tried it and were not satisfied with their results.

 

2. 'treasure': Inkstone. The ink is rubbed on it together with water to form a black writing fluid. photo © Kolja Quakernack
2. 'treasure': Inkstone. The ink is rubbed on it together with water to form a black writing fluid. photo © Kolja Quakernack

Scripts

There are five official skripts in Chinese calligraphy. The oldest and most uniform script in terms of line width is seal script 篆書. It is written slowly, in long, rounded strokes. The clerical script (also called official script) 隸書 was the official script of China's officials for a long time. However, due to the faster writing speed, it developed into the three following scripts and was increasingly replaced by them. Regular script (standard script) 楷書 or 真書 is a very strict script with thick and thin strokes that calligraphers in China traditionally learn first. It is most comparable to the western block letters taught in elementary school. Semicursive script (running script) 行書 is visually reminiscent of a quickly written form of regular writing and is comparable to the daily handwriting of an adult with a ballpoint pen. Cursive script (grass or concept script) 草書 is a very free, dynamic script that is difficult to read and remains inaccessible to those who have not previously learned the stroke characteristics on which it is based. It is not comparable to any font used in the West. For the sake of completeness, the oracle bone inscription 甲骨文 should be mentioned here, which was found carved into cattle bones and turtle shells in ancient times and contains unmistakably pictographic line shapes. However, there is so little knowledge about it and its examples are so limited that it is usually not listed as a separate writing style.

 

3. 'treasure': Ink. It can be purchased either in liquid form or as a solid ink block. The solid ink must be rubbed with water on an inkstone before writing. photo © Kolja Quakernack
3. 'treasure': Ink. It can be purchased either in liquid form or as a solid ink block. The solid ink must be rubbed with water on an inkstone before writing. photo © Kolja Quakernack

Long (traditional) and short (simplified) characters

Chinese calligraphy is as old as the history of characters themselves. In recent history, Mao Zedong 毛澤東, China's former Chairman of the Communist Party, significantly reformed the writing system in the People's Republic of China. In order to reduce the illiteracy of his people, which he attributed to the complexity of the characters, he developed a simplified version of some of the Chinese characters with the help of scribes. Overall, around 30% of the characters were adapted as a result of this reform. The goal was to simplify the more complicated characters so that they were easier to write. Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan are not affected - they still use the traditional characters in their traditional form. Since calligraphy is an art that has a longer history than short characters, calligraphers on the Chinese mainland also learn and practice the traditional way of writing.

 

4. 'treasure': Paper. The handmade Chinese 'rice paper' is thinner than Western copy paper. photo © Kolja Quakernack
4. 'treasure': Paper. The handmade Chinese 'rice paper' is thinner than Western copy paper. photo © Kolja Quakernack