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What is Chinese Calligraphy? A Guide

    Since the dawn of civilisation, China has cultivated a particular branch of the visual arts that has no equivalent anywhere else in the world. On first encounter, Westerners mislabelled it “calligraphy”… only today are true art lovers outside China progressively beginning to prospect the riches of this artistic El Dorado that has finally opened up to them.

    – Simon Leys, ‘One More Art’ (1996)

    Chinese calligraphy is either unknown or misunderstood by many outside of China.

    On the surface, it looks like a simple activity: Chinese characters written with brushes and ink…

    This is both true and an oversimplification. There is more to it: art, history, ritual, practice, cultural significance…

    In fact, many call it the supreme Chinese art and a central part of Chinese culture and civilisation.

    Let’s explore this artistic El Dorado further…

    What is Chinese calligraphy?

    Chinese calligraphy the traditional art of writing Chinese characters with a Chinese brush and ink.

    It has been practiced and admired as a high art form for around three thousand years.

    Along with poetry and painting, it is seen as one of the three perfections‘ of Chinese art.

    书画同源 
    Calligraphy and painting have the same source

    – Chinese proverb

    It was practiced by officials, emperors, scholars, and artists throughout many dynasties. Up until the 20th century, it was an essential part of the education system.

    Chinese Calligraphy comes from writing

    Chinese characters themselves have existed in China in one form or another for thousands of years. Early forms were written or engraved onto various materials, including: 

    • Animal bones
    • Turtle shells
    • Rocks
    • Brass ritual vessels 
    • Bamboo
    • Silk

    With the invention of paper during the Han dynasty 2,000 years ago, brushes could be used to create more flexible strokesand forms of characters.

    Being literate was a necessity for Chinese officials. And being able to write well was a highly prized skill.

    Many officials, bureaucrats, and scholars could be judged on the appearance of their writing. Some it believed reflected their inner nature and cultivation.

    If the heart is right, then the brush will be right.

    – Lu Shihua

    Calligraphy is still popular in China (& East Asia)

    Today, Chinese calligraphy is still very popular in China and some neighbouring Asian countries, such as Korea, Japan and Vietnam.

    In China itself, it came back into popularity in the 1970s. Today scrolls or decorations with calligraphy are often placed in homes, shops, temples, or public places, especially during national festivals.

    Famous samples of it are even carved into rocks or decorative stone pillars at historic locations. And museums, such as the Palace Museum in Beijing, display many priceless historical pieces.

    Calligraphy and painting are skills, but they embody the great Dao… The ancients achieved immortality through their calligraphy and painting.

    – Lu Shihua

    As a fine art, it is still studied and admired in universities, art galleries, and auction houses.

    And books are often published on famous calligraphers, many of whom were also famous poets and/or painters. One example of this the Song dynasty scholar-official Su Dongpo (1035 – 1101 AD).

    The Four Treasures of the Study

    Ink, brush, and paper (often called – along with ink stones – ‘the Four Treasures of the Study/scholar’s studio‘) were the tools for writing in China for thousands of years.

    Today, they are still the tools used for it.

    A cat sitting on Chinese calligraphy paper next to an ink stone, ink stick, saucer for ink and brush
    From left to right: paper, ink stone (where ink sticks are ground down), ink stick, a small saucer for placing ink in, and brush.

    The Different Chinese calligraphy SCRIPTS

    There are several recognised types of Chinese calligraphy scripts.

    These were developed over centuries and often reflect their purpose and the tools used for writing at the time.

    Chinese character lái written in different chinese scripts
    The main scripts of Chinese characters illustrated using the commonly used character lái (‘come (to); arrive’)

    Oracle bone script

    Oracle bone script, also known as shell and bone script (甲骨文 [jiǎgǔwén]), is the oldest known form of mature Chinese characters.

    It was only re-discovered in 1899 and can be traced back to the Shang dynasty in China, approximately three to three and a half millennia ago (around 1500 – 1083 BC).

    It was inscribed on various types of animal bones, such as shoulder and shin bones, antlers, and tortoise shells. These inscribed items (oracle bones), were tools for divination.

    The aesthetic of oracle bone script encompasses a blend of simplicity, solemnity, and elegance. it achieves this through a combination of long straight lines and various curved or rounded shapes.

    Seal script

    Seal script (篆书 [zhuànshū]) evolved out of oracle bone script. It covers two main categories of characters: 

    Today, both types are primarily used for creating seals. These are stamps which act as a form of signature for officials and artists.

    seal script vs clerical script side by side

    Clerical (or official) script

    Clerical script appears to have originated from the Qin dynasty (221 – 206 BC).

    The Qin was China’s short-lived but first unified empire. It was a time when great efforts were being made to centralise China’s bureaucracy, culture, taxes, etc.

    One popular story (probably apocryphal), is that an official named Cheng Miao created this style through his 10-year imprisonment for offending the Qin emperor. Upon completing it, the emperor released and promoted him.

    It is also known as the ‘official style’. In Chinese, it’s name (隶书 [lìshū]) likely reflects its was use by clerks ([] means ‘clerk’) from around 200 B.C. onwards.

    Clerical script was based on the small seal style. It replaces long, curved strokes with shorter, squatter looking ones.

    It is still popular today, where it is often used on monuments and even shop signage.

    Regular script

    Regular script (楷书 [Kǎishū]) (sometimes called today’s clerical script 今隶 [jìn lì]) is still the most commonly used script for documents in China today.

    Many see it as essentially an abbreviated clerical script. However, others argue that it appeared independently.

    Over the centuries, what was considered regular script has changed. The style we now call regular script has evolved since its first appearance in the second century. 

    It kept changing until the Tang dynasty (618 AD – 907 AD). Since then, aside from character simplification between the 1950s and 1970s, it hasn’t changed significantly.

    Running script

    Its name reflects how free and vivid the calligrapher’s hand should be. 

    Running script strokes can be joined up. They also don’t need to be as carefully arranged in terms of their dimensions as characters and lines as many other scripts.

    The most well-known masterpiece of running script was created by Wang Xizhi during the Eastern Jin dynasty (317 AD – 420 AD) (see below, ‘The most famous Chinese calligrapher’). 

    The other two of ‘the three great running script masterpieces‘ are:

    Draft of a Requiem for my Nephew by Yan Zhenqing
    Draft of a Requiem for my Nephew (758 AD) by Yan Zhenqing, ink on hemp paper, running script. 28.3cm x 75.5cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Grass script

    Detail from Autobiographical Essay by Huaisu
    Detail from Autobiographical Essay (777 AD) by Huaisu, ink on paper, grass script. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum’s Open Data collection)

    Grass script (草书 [cǎoshū]) or fully-cursive script is the most visually striking forms of calligraphy.

    It is the freest and fastest style there is. Its frantic appearance can be identified instantly by anyone familiar with Chinese characters. However, it is rarely legible to most viewers.

    A form of it called zhangzao (章草 [zhāngcǎo]) appeared alongside clerical script during the Han dynasty. The inventor of this cursive script was the calligrapher Zhang Zhi.

    Today’s cursive script (今草 [jīnshū]) appeared between the second and third centuries. It grew out of both regular and running script.

    Many calligraphers found cursive script to be excellent for expressiveness. But it was the Tang dynasty poet and calligrapher Zhang Xu who is today known as the ‘grass stage’ because of his mastery of cursive script.

    What is unique about Chinese calligraphy?

    1. Chinese CHinese character space

    Each Chinese character takes up approximately the same space. This makes written Chinese language particularly suitable for calligraphy.

    By contrast, languages with alphabets usually have different word and line lengths, even if they use the same number of syllables.

    A ‘the box model‘ is used to teach young and foreign Chinese language learners written Chinese. Paper with squares printed on it are used for practicing writing characters.

    These boxes can still be imagined on blank paper once the writer is familiar with their dimensions. They allow writers to quite easily guess how many characters they can fit within a certain space.

    Once used to this, creating equal length lines on blank paper for calligraphy is relatively simple.

    3. Chinese character structure

    All Chinese characters are made up of a combination of the same strokes. These strokes can be seen as the basic rules of the art.

    When writing characters, these strokes must be written in the correct order. Left to right and top to bottom in general, but in more specific ordering for certain components of characters.

    In calligraphy in particular, these strokes and their order cannot be changed. And once written, they cannot be corrected. After all, viewers will be able to see clearly in the ink if anything has been changed.

    Traditional vs simplified Chinese characters

    Reforms carried out in the Chinese Mainland between the 1950s and 1970s simplified a large number of Chinese characters.

    Today, the difference between traditional and simplified characters is clear but not large.

    In 1956, 515 characters and 54 character components were simplified. It’s estimated that they brought about a 12.5% reduction in the numbers of strokes used for the 2000 most commonly used characters.

    4. Chinese calligraphic tradition

    Calligraphy has a long and rich history in China. It is an ancient art form and was long considered one of the essential skills of the educated elite, alongside the ability to:

    • Write poetry
    • Write well (in general)
    • Paint
    • Play music
    • Appreciate the arts

    The calligraphic tradition has been preserved well and is still central to Chinese culture. Famous calligraphers from the past are remembered and studied just as famous artists are.

    The most famous Chinese calligrapher: Wang Xizhi

    Many consider Wang Xizhi (王羲之) (303 AD – 361 AD) to be the most important and influential Chinese calligrapher who ever lived.

    There are many apocryphal stories about him. For example, he is said to have often practiced by a pond, where he would wash his brush and ink stone. Over time, this turned the pond black.

    Unfortunately, only copied versions of his original works exist today (not the originals themselves). One celebrated example of his work is the traced copy of his Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Collection.

    The original copy is said to have been buried with the Emperor Taizong of the Tang dynasty, who was a huge fan of Wang and had Academy of Calligraphy calligraphers make many copies of his work.

    The most well known copy of this is housed in the Palace Museum, which is in the Forbidden City in Beijing.

    Preface to the Orchid Pavilion by Wang Xizhi
    Preface to the Orchid Pavilion (535 AD) by Wang Xizhi, ink on paper, Tang dynasty imitation in running script (allegedly by Feng Chengsu), 24.5 x 69.9cm. Palace Museum, Beijing. (Image source: Alamy)

    His son, Wang Xianzhi (王献之) (344 AD – 386 AD) also grew up to be a famous calligrapher. It is said that the father once crept up on the son to try and snatch away his calligraphy brush.

    However, the son was grasping it so well that the father failed. This made him remark that the boy would attain great fame for himself as a calligrapher.

    What is the art of Chinese calligraphy all about?

    1. Calligraphy’s relationship with painting

    Fishermen by Wu Zhen
    An example of literati painting: Wu Zhen’s Fishermen (1345 AD), ink on paper, section on a handscroll, 35.2 x 332cm. Shanghai Museum. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    In China, traditional painting was seen to be a fine art long after calligraphy was as established as one. This is partly because painting was often carried out by professional artists.

    By the Song dynasty (960 -1279 AD), literati painting (separate from professional painting) had raised in status.

    Like painting (which, born from the same brush, is its younger brother rather than twin), Chinese calligraphy addresses the eye and is an art of space; like music, it enfolds in time; like dance, it develops a dynamic sequence of movements, pulsating in rhythm.

    – Simon Leys, ‘One More Art’ (1996)

    This type of painting used the same tools as calligraphy, including only black ink. But it lacked the advanced techniques and attempts as realistic portrayal of professional painting.

    Chinese calligraphy is seen as an art to be appreciated visually. The meaning of the words written is generally considered less important than the appearance of their strokes.

    The same principle could be applied to the art of calligraphy in other languages. An old document written in a beautiful hand in English is often nice to look at regardless of what it actually says.

    Not all great calligraphers are great artists and vice versa. But there are cases when they are. Just as there are cases when great Chinese poets are also great calligraphers and/or artists – Wang Wei (699 AD – 759 AD) is one such famous example.

    其文之毫末;诗不能尽,溢而为书,变而为画,皆诗之余。

    What is used up in poetry overflows to become calligraphy and is transformed to become painting: both are what is left over from poetry.

    – Su Dongpo

    2. Decoration

    Many Chinese businesses and homes like to have calligraphy put up on the inside or outside of their buildings. Many of these will have auspicious words that might be seen as a kind of god luck omen for the owner.

    3. Festivals

    Chinese calligraphy is often placed on simple or decorative paper and pasted onto doors and walls during Chinese festivals or important occasions.

    Many are not even real pieces of human-made calligraphy. They are printed pieces using fonts that look like calligraphy.

    Although all that see them will know that these are genuine calligraphy, they will still appreciate the general effect these calligraphy-like documents bring. In this sense, they aren’t unlike fake Christmas trees.

    What is the practice of Chinese calligraphy all about?

    The practice of writing Chinese calligraphy is hugely important.

    Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising when you consider that Chinese is the home of Confucianism (which emphasises the use of ritual), Daoism (which includes meditation), and tai chi.

    1. Ritual practices

    Ritual has long been important in China. It was Confucius’ favourite subject, for example.

    Writing calligraphy in Chinese traditionally includes a number of steps which ultimately amount to a ritual of kinds.

    Added to this, there is the fact that calligraphy is often presented as a present for auspicious occasions.

    2. Mental (and physical) concentration and relaxation

    The ritual of writing Chinese calligraphy is itself seen by many as a form of concentration and relaxation.

    Even the grinding of ink sticks in ink stones is something to savour and use to calm one’s mind.

    Calligraphers aim to reach a kind of ‘flow’ state of deep yet unforced concentration when writing.

    This state and process might be described differently by different people. It is said to cultivate the writer’s ‘inner hills and valleys’ (their inner self). And the characters themselves are also seen to reflect this in turn.

    The very act of quietly focusing on the strokes used to create beautiful written words is both therapeutic and demanding.

    Getting good at it takes years of persistent practice. And it’s this practice/cultivation itself which many calligraphers seek.

    Conclusion

    Chinese calligraphy has a long and rich tradition.

    In part, this is due to the nature and long history of Chinese characters. Their structure, and the stroke order used to create them, is fixed.

    It is seen as both a form of artistic expression (the most elite art in Chinese civilisation) and a therapeutic activity which is both challenging and relaxing.

    There are several recognised styles. Seal and clerical script are the two oldest and most formal.

    Regular, running and grass script all emerged in the Han dyansty about two thousand years ago and remain the three most practised scripts.

    Over the years, a large number of famous calligraphers have produced masterpieces in these different scripts. Some of these calligraphers were officials, generals, poets, and painters, too.