Chinese Calligraphy: Kungfu on Paper

Chinese Calligraphy uses pictographic symbols, the chinese characters, that are naturally related to pictures in shape and form. Chinese characters, therefore, express meaning and have deep aesthetic significance. This is why it is said that Chinese calligraphy is “silent music and dance” on paper.

Chinese Calligraphy
Confucius Institute students practicing Chinese calligraphy.

Confucius Institute Reporter
Sun Ying
本刊记者 孙颖
In Beijing there is an old street named Liulichang which is famous for its shops that sell antiques, scroll paintings and calligraphy. Among numerous such shops is a small, plain-looking gallery. In the gallery, a young man is standing at a desk covered with a felt desk pad with ink stains strewn all over it. On his right side sits a writing-brush washer made of blue and white porcelain and a black ink stone. In front of him lies a book of stone-inscription rubbings and a sheet of calligraphy-practice paper marked off with squares having a cross-hatched pattern resembling the Chinese character [mǐ: rice].

Holding the brush shaft between his thumb, index, and middle fingers, with the ring and little fingers tucked under the shaft, he dips the taupe tip of the brush into the ink until it has drawn in enough ink, then takes a careful look at a stone-inscription rubbing, lifts the wrist and the elbow, and starts to copy. As the ink fans out in the wake of the leisurely brush strokes, a Chinese character of due proportion materializes on the paper. After a character is written, he puts down the brush, examines his work, then shakes his head gently. Apparently, he is not really satisfied.

The whole time the young man practices, his teacher, Zhang Lilin, stands at his side giving instructions.

Chinese Calligraphy
An elderly Chinese practicing calligraphy.

Union of word and form

For a long time, “Chinese kungfu” has inspired admiration from many people. Not so well known, however, has been another kind of Chinese kungfu, one that is practiced on paper and whose history actually goes back much farther than the martial arts – it is calligraphy. With a history of over three thousand years, Chinese calligraphy can be said to have appeared with the first Chinese characters.

As pictographic symbols, Chinese characters are naturally related to pictures in shape and form. Chinese characters, therefore, express meaning and have deep aesthetic significance. This is why it is said that Chinese calligraphy is “silent music and dance” on paper.

French calligrapher André Kneib has spoken highly of Chinese calligraphy, calling it a great and unique art form: “With Chinese calligraphy, each character is like a poem, as it is capable of satisfying the psychological need for molding our temperament. The artistic forms of dots and lines can satisfy our eyes need for the aesthetic; the act of writing can satisfy our need for physical exercise, as it is an activity that involves our entire body and mind.”

Chinese calligraphy emphasizes structure and layout. In order for a character or a passage to look like one harmonious whole that affords us aesthetic visual pleasure, it is important to pay attention to the arrangement of and coordination between various strokes in addition to writing each one of them well. Zhang Lilin compares this to the kungfu practice, where a good performance requires individual good moves working in close coordination.

Chinese calligraphy bears another close resemblance to kungfu – both have different schools of practitioners. Since the beginning of Chinese writing, there have been five basic types: zhuànshū (seal script), lìshū (clerical script), kăishū (traditional regular script), xíngshū (semi-cursive script), and căoshū (cursive script).

Chinese calligraphy bears another close resemblance to kungfu – both have different schools of practitioners. Since the beginning of Chinese writing, there have been five basic types: zhuànshū (seal script), lìshū (clerical script), kăishū (traditional regular script), xíngshū (semi-cursive script), and căoshū (cursive script). Each type has also been rendered differently by different calligraphers. For example, Yan Zhenqing’s writing looks dignified and solemn, Liu Gongquan’s writing looks lean and vigorous, and Wang Xizhi’s writing looks gentle and natural. These masters of calligraphy have been like founders of different schools of marshal arts, for their works have often become models for later generations of calligraphy learners to copy.

Different calligraphic effects are also produced through choices of brushes or paper. Red gold-flecked paper creates a happy atmosphere, while white xuānzhǐ paper suggests elegant simplicity; a weasel-hair brush writes with vigor and strength, while goat-hair brushes are capable of grace and mellowness. By using different combinations of tools and varying the force, one can create works of calligraphy in infinite variety.

Chinese Calligraphy
The dance “Cursive” (a kind of Chinese character script) draws inspiration from Chinese calligraphy.

Test of willpower

Works of Zhang Lilin almost fill this gallery of less than 10 square meters, furnished only with a desk and a few chairs. Upright traditional regular script, elegant semi-cursive script, and simple seal script appear on various kinds of xuānzhǐ paper to be art pieces of widely different temperaments.

When a work is done, the calligrapher puts his square seal at the very end, in red cinnabar paste, whereupon the whole piece immediately takes on its Chinese character.

Zhang Lilin has practiced calligraphy for over 40 years, since he was 5. He still remembers clearly what it was like when he studied calligraphy at the age of 5. The family of letters into which he was born attached great importance to his calligraphy practice even at that very early age. For a five-year-old, however, sitting quietly at a desk practicing calligraphy was not easy. Zhang Lilin recalls, “I was required to practice 3 hours every day. Sometimes my finger-tips would callous as a result of holding the writing brush for too long.”

Looking back, those years of hard work now seem but a sweet memory. “When I was 10 years old, my calligraphy was already famous around the area,” said Zhang Lilin with a proud look, “but now that I have studied calligraphy for so many years, I know that the more I learn the more, them more there’s still to learn. This is the magic of calligraphy, and also why I’m attracted to it.”

To calligraphers, hard work is the most important element for success. Chinese calligraphy is a traditional craft that embodies a traditional Chinese characteristic – perseverance. Since antiquity, there has never been an accomplished calligrapher who was not diligent in study and hard practice. Once, the great calligraphy master Wang Xizhi got himself in an embarrassing situation as a result of too much hard practice.

The story goes that, one day, when Wang Xizhi was practicing calligraphy he forgot to eat. So, his mother had a plate of hot steamed buns and a dish of thick soy sauce sent to him. Wang Xizhi, however, was so engrossed in his calligraphy practice that he started to eat the buns after dipping them in ink. At the sight of this, the family members asked him how the buns tasted, to which he replied: “Very good, very good! But the sauce tastes a little bitter.” The family members didn’t know whether they should laugh or be angry. It was exactly such hard, persistent practice that made Wang Xizhi a great calligraphy master.

So, although he has already attained good penmanship, Zhang Lilin still believes that he cannot afford to slacken his practice: “Now besides teaching calligraphy, I still practice it for 5 hours a day.”

Chinese Calligraphy

Pleasure for body and mind

After all, those who have calligraphy as their life-long pursuit, the way Zhang Lilin does, are only a small minority. Most learners of calligraphy are attracted to it mainly because it helps them find calmness of heart. A student of Zhang Lilin’s says that he practices calligraphy despite the fact that he has a busy job, because calligraphy practice is exactly the kind of activity that he needs in order to find a peace of mind amidst numerous troubles of work and life.

All those who have practiced calligraphy say that they feel meaningful and calm when they are concentrating on studying strokes and structures in order to write a beautiful character. Is this because calligraphy has some kind of a bewitching power? The answer is no. An ancient Chinese scholar said: “Penmanship can create vital energy and improve it.” In other words, because calligraphy practice requires involvement of the entire body and mind, it is conducive to unobstructed circulation of the vital energy and therefore makes a good physical exercise with harmonizing effects. Because ancient Chinese believed that “vital energy” was an essential element for health, calligraphy has been said to contribute to a long life. It is said that the famous calligraphers in Chinese history have all lived long lives. Tang Dynasty calligrapher Yan Zhenqing lived to be 76, and Ouyang Xun even made it to 84 – extremely rare for people of that time.

“The same principles of qigong applies to calligraphy practice,” says Zhang Lilin with a smile. “When you practice calligraphy, you must get rid of all distracting thoughts, channel your vital energy to the dantian (lower diaphragm) region, mobilize all passages of vital energy in your body, and concentrate all your forces on the tip of the brush. In other words, you do almost the same thing as when you practice qigong.”

Because ancient Chinese believed that “vital energy” was an essential element for health, calligraphy has been said to contribute to a long life. It is said that the famous calligraphers in Chinese history have all lived long lives

In addition to demanding concentration of vital energy, Chinese calligraphy emphasizes “cultivation beyond the brush”. It is believed that good-looking writing alone does not automatically mean real calligraphic attainment; more importantly, calligraphy should reflect the calligrapher’s overall self-cultivation. Therefore, a student of calligraphy should not only study structures of Chinese characters, but also develop a habit of reading good books, appreciating works of art, and drawing from various sources of cultural treasures in order to raise the level of overall self-cultivation. Contemporary calligraphy master Ouyang Zhongshi has developed his simple and modest style precisely because he is, besides his outstanding penmanship, well versed in various other subjects including logic, ancient Chinese civilization, phonology, painting, drama, and literature. Such self-cultivation also affords one a different kind of pleasure outside of calligraphy practice.

Calligraphy of the Jin Dynasty (265-420) strove for vigor, whereas that of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) valued unfettered expression. With any writing system, changes have reflected the corresponding times, and have been a result of innovation based on the preceding period. This has been especially true with Chinese calligraphy, for, when it comes to art people are free to express themselves in whatever ways they consider fit.

At to the future development of Chinese calligraphy, Zhang Lilin is full of confidence: “I think that over the past few years, people have become increasingly interested in calligraphy. I have taught a lot of foreign friends who love Chinese calligraphy. Now I still have many young students. Every evening, I also use the Internet to have discussions with calligraphy students from all over the country. The Internet has brought me more opportunities for exchange with the world outside.”

By this time, the young man who has been practicing has already filled the entire sheet of paper with his writings and started, in all earnestness, to discuss them with Zhang Lilin. The noon sun shines in through the window, showering the snow-white xuānzhǐ paper with its generous rays and lighting up the entire gallery.


Confucius Institute Magazine 13

pdfPublished in Confucius Institute Magazine
Magazine 13. Volume 2. March 2011.
View/Download the print issue in PDF

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