Calligraphy, the writing of characters, is an art which has developed
over many centuries in China. This unit introduces students to this
ancient art through step-by-step instructions on writing Chinese characters.
As each character is made up by a series of single brushstrokes, the
student will soon learn to recognize these as components of the completed
character and the written Chinese language will become much less forbidding.
The exercises in this unit also encourage the students to experience
the rhythm and sense of design in Chinese writing, thereby bringing
an aesthetic dimension to their understanding of the Chinese language.
A. What is calligraphy?
The word "calligraphy" is originally a Greek word meaning "beautiful
writing." We usually associate this word with good penmanship,
handwriting that is neat, legible and attractive. In China, however,
calligraphy is regarded as an art from in itself and is admired and
displayed in museums just as paintings are.
Moreover, calligraphy is often used to decorate articles of everyday
use. For instance, when you go to a Chinese restaurant you may notice
that the dishes are painted with characters as well as with colorful
pictures. Even on the ordinary, everyday level of life, beautiful writing
B. Some Styles of Chinese Calligraphy
1. Oracle Inscriptions
The earliest known examples of Chinese writing are inscriptions on
animal bones and tortoise shells dating from the 13th century B.C.
during the Shang dynasty. These inscriptions were the records of
divinations made by heating the bones or shells over a fire until
cracks appeared on them. Predictions were read form the pattern of
the cracks and recorded directly on the bone or shell. The figure
below shows an oracle carved on the plastron of a tortoise. Note
that the characters are composed of fairly straight lines with sharp
endings. (Do you think these features might have something to do
with the kind of materials used?)
|Oracle Inscriptions (Archaic)
|The Great Seal Style (Archaic)
2. The Great Seal Style
This term covers a broad range of styles which came into use during
the Chou dynasty (1122-221 B.C.). Compared to the Oracle Style,
these characters are more rounded at the corners and show a mixture
of thick and thin strokes. Many of the surviving examples of this
style, such as the one below, come from inscriptions that were cast
on bronze vessels. At the bottom of the first column is the pictograph
(picture-word) for "house." The first word in the second
column is also a pictograph. It shows "carriage" from a
bird's eye view — a compartment with two wheels on either side, joined
by an axle.
3. The Small Seal Style
In 221 B.C. the first unifier and emperor of China ordered that the
writing system be standardized and established the writing style
of his native state, Ch'in, as the model script of the empire. The
round contours of this script, later known as the Small Seal Style,
make it similar to the Great Seal Style. However, the lines are all
of an even thickness and the characters are very elongated so that
they might be imagined to fit neatly into a vertical rectangle.
|The Small Seal Style (Archaic)
4. Clerical Style
During the Han dynasty (207 B.C.-220 A.D), the Small Seal Style was
surpassed in popularity by another script which could be written
more quickly and easily with a brush. This style became known as
the Clerical Style because more of the samples of this script were
found on official documents such as government records of taxes,
census records, deeds, etc. Notice the upward tilt at the end of
the horizontal strokes which gives each character a fluid quality.
This style is the forerunner of the Regular Style which we will look
|Clerical Style (Archaic)
5. Regular Style
The Regular Style preserves the Clerical script's precision and modulation
of line width but is less formal and heavy in appearance. Note that
the horizontal lines generally slope upwards but do not have the
final tilt at the end of the stroke which the Clerical Style has.
Note also that the vertical lines are kept strictly vertical and
do not lean away from the center of the character as in the Clerical
Style. As students of calligraphy have traditionally mastered this
style before attempting the others, we will also use it as our model
in learning to write Chinese.
|Regular Style (Modern)
6. Running Style
As the name suggests, this style allows for more freedom and fluidity
in movement. The strokes and dots that are written separately in
the Regular Style are joined together in a single sweep of the brush,
thus producing a feeling of speed and fluency.
|Running Style (Modern)
Styles 1 through 4 are called "archaic" styles because they
are no longer in use, except for special artistic purposes. Styles
5 and 6 are both in common use today and are called "modern" styles,
although historically they have been practiced since the end of the
5th century A.D.
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