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How to Hold a Chinese Calligraphy Brush

    Wang Xizhi (王羲之) (303 AD – 361 AD) is considered by many to be the most influential Chinese calligrapher who ever lived.

    Legend has it that he once sneaked up on the young son Wang Xianzhi (王献之) (344 AD – 386 AD) to snatch away a calligraphy brush.

    But the son was holding his brush so well that the father failed. The father remarked that this meant the boy would become a great calligrapher. And he did.

    This story highlights an important point: the first step in learning Chinese calligraphy is learning how to hold a Chinese calligraphy brush.

    Let’s look at how to do that in a few simple rules.

    Do all Chinese calligraphers hold the brush in the exact same way?

    Not all Chinese calligraphers hold the brush in the exact same way. This is especially true of the true masters of the art.

    However, when beginners start learning Chinese calligraphy, they should study how to hold the brush in the standard way.

    This teaches the basic discipline of the art. It also prevents them from holding the brush like a pen.

    Later on, there is more room for variation.

    The standard way to hold a Chinese calligraphy brush

    Placing your fingers in the right place on a Chinese brush is important.

    The standard way of doing it is known as ‘touching the strirrup‘ (mō dèng [摸镫]). This is because only part of a rider’s feet touch each stirrup when riding a horse.

    To properly hold the brush in this way, follow the below steps. If you are left-handed, reverse each step.

    Photo of hand holding a chinese calligraphy brush in the correct way (known as 'riding the stirrup')
    ‘Holding the stirrup’

    Step 1: Place right thumb on left side of brush handle

    Place the upper phalange (i.e., final section) of your right thumb on the (/your) left side of the brush handle – somewhere between 1/3 – 1/5 of the way up. You thumb should point up.

    Step 2: Place top of right index finger on right side of brush handle

    Your right index finger should be placed above your thumb and on the opposite side of the brush handle. The inside flesh on upper phalange (tip) should be in contact with the brush. It should be extended upwards, not fully but significantly.

    Step 3: Hook upper parts of middle finger around the brush handle

    Your middle finger hooks or curves around the brush handle to act as a stabiliser. The upper phalange should point downwards, too.

    Step 4: Place fourth (/ring) finger against the right side of the brush handle

    The finger nail and flesh of your fourth finger (also known as ring finger) should press against the right side of the brush. It stabilises the brush on the opposite side to the middle finger.

    Step 5: Place little finger behind and against the fourth finger

    Your little finger (or pinky) does not touch the brush handle. It presses against the nearest finger (the fourth finger) from behind, helping to hold it steady.

    Other important principles for holding the brush

    There is more to holding a Chinese calligraphy brush than where you place your fingers. The below should all be paid attention to, too.

    Hold the brush almost vertically

    Getting the physical conditions of ready before you start writing is important.

    Chinese calligraphy brushes should be held in an almost vertical position and not tilting left nor right. This means that the brush tip should be pointing down at the paper.

    Birdseye view of hand holding Chinese calligraphy brush
    The brush should be held almost vertically

    Use a horizontal surface

    The paper itself should be placed flat on a perfectly horizontal surface – ideally a table just above waist height.

    Upright or tilted surfaces (like a canvases on canvas frames) are not suitable. They make excess ink run and restrict strokes.

    Grip the brush firmly with your fingers

    Your finger muscles should grip the brush handle firmly. If you hold it too loosely, the brush might slip mid-stroke and ruin your fingers positioning.

    Your thumb and index finger have the most control over the brush overall. They guide its direction and regulate the pressure that you apply to each stroke and its parts.

    From time to time, you may need to shuffle your fingers about to readjust your grip. This is natural and should be avoided.

    Don’t press your palm against the brush

    It’s important not to press your palm against the brush because it will restrict the range of movement.

    This same principle also applies to using a pen (when writing in any language!).

    Keep your wrist loose

    A lot of the strength and flexibility needed to write beautiful Chinese characters comes from wrist positions.

    Maintaining a loose wrist will help you change direction for strokes. Most characters are made up of strokes and combinations of strokes which rely on the brush tip moving in very different directions.

    Horizontal, vertical, diagonal, light but well-placed strokes and sudden upturns at the end of strokes are all necessary. A rigid wrist would dampen the elegance and speed of all of these.

    Stand up (if possible)

    Chinese calligraphy has traditionally been practiced standing up at a table. This gives brush-holder more room to move than sitting down.

    When seated, you may need to move the paper you are writing on or lean over to reach another section.

    man sitting down writing Chinese calligraphy
    Sitting down places your centre of gravity in a sub-optimal position for practicing Chinese calligraphy

    But when standing up, you have more control over your centre of gravity. You have more range to lean and shuffle your feet over to a new position.

    Man standing up writing Chinese calligraphy
    Standing up gives you more control over your body and movement

    However, for some, sitting down to write characters is not a big problem. Some calligraphers even kneel at a lowered down table.

    Summary

    Learning how to hold a Chinese calligraphy brush is the first step in learning Chinese calligraphy. 

    Whilst not all calligraphers hold the brush in the same way, beginners should learn the standard way first. This builds up basic discipline (and prevents holding the brush like a pen!). 

    The standard way – known in Chinese as ‘touching the stirrup’ – involves placing all five fingers in specific positions. This might feel a bit unnatural at first, but it will soon become second nature.

    Other principles should be keep in mind, too. These include holding the brush almost vertically, using a horizontal surface, gripping the brush firmly, not pressing your palm against the brush, keeping your wrist loose, and standing up (if possible).

    As you develop your calligraphy capabilities, your technique will evolve.