Ancient Chinese calligraphy and writing use the same characters, however, calligraphy is more than just writing Chinese characters on a piece of paper. While ancient Chinese writing was used to communicate such information as official government laws, answering questions on an exam, or listing vegetables produced in a province, ancient Chinese calligraphy was used as an art form, which was practiced for hours by the writer to achieve a specific style of making the characters.
Writing was about what the writer was writing about; calligraphy was about how the writer or calligrapher wrote or expressed the characters.
Learning Chinese Calligraphy
To make the art of Chinese calligraphy, the writer or calligrapher had to be able to write the characters fast, have the strength to hold their hand and arm in a certain position while writing, and be able to use different brushes to create different styles of characters.
Students in ancient China spent many hours reviewing the writing styles of past masters of the art of calligraphy. They learned different techniques and the history of calligraphy. For many students and masters, writing calligraphy was seen and used as a religious or meditative experience.
Creating Chinese Calligraphy
When creating a piece of calligraphy, the calligrapher completes the calligraphy or work of art in one session. This allows for the same mood of the calligrapher to be incorporated into the work. If the calligrapher is angry, sad, or happy, the mood will show in the style of the characters.
Characters are written separately or joined together in one flowing continuous line. Some characters have very sharp and crisp lines while others are fat, elongated, or barely discernible as the character it is supposed to represent.
Ancient Chinese poets used the style of the calligraphy characters to help represent the words on the paper. Such as a poem by eighth century poet, Wang Wei that describes water splashing from one rock to another where the brush strokes are not perfectly formed. You can see the effect of the water spraying into the air from one rock to another.
Calligraphy was a skill that set the wealthy apart from the poor. The cost of supplies, brushes, ink stones, ink and paper were relatively inexpensive in ancient China, however the cost of hours spent perfecting a single brush stroke was not practical for those who had to work to feed their families.
Calligraphy changed the lives of scholars from that of learning to chasing artistic dreams. It gave more power to officials if their calligraphic style was impressive even if their style of rule was poor. Calligraphy was a skill highly regarded in ancient China and in its governments. The examination to become an official in an emperor’s government required that calligraphy be used, and it was one of the ways that men were selected to work in the government.
To study and learn calligraphy, students imitate great masters. Most great masters in ancient China wrote with Confucian ideals or about historical events. When the student copies these ancient masters, they are learning over and over the same ideals and historical events. Through this copying of masters, calligraphy helped the emperors keep men with the same knowledge and viewpoints in the government, which helped the emperor, maintain control of their empire.
Chinese Calligraphy Technique
Chinese calligraphy is an art form that requires a specific style of holding the brush. The calligrapher holds his arm and hand in a horizontal position at a 90-degree angle to the table with the brush vertically held between thumb and two to three fingers on the opposite of the brush.
The pressure on the brush creates different thicknesses of strokes. The direction of the brush stroke changes the amount of ink leaving the brush and going onto the paper. A single line can become a different picture depending on the size and type of the brush, the amount of ink on the brush, the way in which the brush starts and stops the line such as lifting the brush off the paper in a single motion or circling the brush before lifting, the type of paper used, and the pressure used when making the stroke.
Chinese Calligraphy Tools
There are four items required to create calligraphy: an ink stick, an ink stone, a writing brush, and paper.
Ink sticks are made from burning pine needle oil and collecting the soot, which is mixed with glue made from animal bones, animal fat, or vegetable oil, and sometimes, herbs. The mixture is poured into molds where it was left to cure for up to four weeks. Ink sticks have artistic carvings or are painted with designs. Ink sticks from ancient China can still be bought and are sold for thousands of dollars. The Hui ink stick from Anhui province is considered the best ink stick.
Ink stones are used by the calligrapher as a bowl for grinding the ink from the ink stick and mixing it with water. Duan ink stones from Duanzhou in Guangdong Province are prized as the best ink stones. They are made from volcanic material. Other prized ink stones are the She from Anhui province made from slate, Tao from Gansu province made of green stones from the Taohe River, and Chengni from Shandong province made from Yellow River clay.
A Chinese calligraphy brush shaft can be made from bamboo, wood, ceramic or metal. The brush tip can be made from animal fur, hair, whiskers, or feathers, and from pine needles and stiff weeds. Huzhou in Zhejiang province is famous for producing the Hu brush. Another fine brush prized by calligraphers is the Xuan brush from Xuanzhou province.
Jingxian Xuan paper from Anhui province is prized by calligraphers. It is made from fibers of the Qin Tan tree, mulberry and hemp. Xuan paper lasts for thousands of years without weakening or deterioration of the fibers and ink does not fade on the paper. Another prized calligraphy paper is Jiajiang paper from Sichuan province, which is made from bamboo fibers.
Famous Chinese Calligraphers
- Wang Xizhi (Hsi-chih) (303 – 361 CE): Eastern Jin (317 – 419 CE) dynasty calligrapher said to be the best calligrapher of all time
- Huizong (1101 – 1125 CE): Northern Song (960 – 1126 CE) dynasty emperor whose “slender gold” style of calligraphy resembles small twisted strands of gold wire
- Qianlong (1736 – 1795 CE): Qing (1644 – 1911 CE) dynasty emperor who wrote more than 40,000 poems during his reign