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Chinese Calligraphy: The Art of Written Language

by Karen Comstock


Summer Volume: 2002 Issue: 9(2) page(s): 7 and 33

Calligraphy, known as shu pa, is like a rare exotic flower in the history of civilization, some have said. It is a unique gem in Asian cultures. Graphically speaking, this form of writing is comparable to painting because of its ability to evoke emotion through form and design. It is abstract art that displays a rhythmic harmonious flow, somewhat akin to music. From a practical point of view, this artistic form of painting is a practical art known as written language.

The Chinese writing system is an ancient one. The earliest known examples of Chinese characters were carved into tortoise shells and ox bones. They include crude pictographs, also known as ideographs, scratched on to what we now call oracle bones.

Archaeologists and epigraphers of various countries report that most early writing systems went through a pictographic stage. Think of Egyptian hieroglyphics and you can see this connection. However, in time, most writing systems developed a phonetic alphabet that represents the sounds of spoken language rather than continuing to use visual images perceived in their physical world.

Chinese is the world’s only major writing system that continues its pictograph-based development. Not all Chinese characters are simply impressionistic sketches of concrete objects. Many Chinese characters incorporate meaning and sound as well as one or more visual images. Therefore, written Chinese is not an alphabetic language, but rather a script of ideograms that follow some rules of notation. Their formation follows three principles: the drawing of pictographs, associative compounds, and picto-phonetics. Pictographs are picture words that underwent gradual evolution over centuries until they changed into rather square characters from their irregular drawings. Thus, they became somewhat stylized in their form.

The principle of forming characters by drawing pictures is easy to understand, but think of the difficulty of their expressing abstract ideas. To do that, the ancients invented the associative compound combining two or more elements, each with a meaning of its own, to express more abstract ideas. For example, sun and the moon written together was used to mean bright. The sun placed over a line representing the horizon could mean sunrise or morning.

Though pictographs and associative compounds indicate meanings of characters by their forms, neither of the two categories giving any hint to pronunciation. The picto-phonetic method combines one element indicating meaning and the other sound, creating new characters. Currently picto-phonetics constitutes about ninety percent of all Chinese characters.

Subsequently, many more script types were invented: seal script, clerical, standard, semi-cursive, and cursive scripts. Zhuan or seal script was the earliest form of Chinese writing after the oracle inscriptions, which had caused great inconvenience because the script lacked uniformity. The first effort toward unification in script writing is said to have taken place during the reign of King Xuan (827 to 782 BCE) of the Western Zhou Dynasty. Then, a 'grand historian' Shi Zhou compiled a lexicon of fifteen chapters, standardizing Chinese writing under a script called Zhuan. This Zhuan script had two sub-types: Ta zhuan or Greater Seal, examples of which can be found on engraved bronze vessels in the Zhou Dynasty, and Xiao zhuan or Lesser Seal.

Li shu came in the wake of the Xiao zhuan in the same short-lived Qin Dynasty (221 to 207 BCE). This was because Hsiao zhuan, a simplified form of script, was still too complicated for various government offices that had to copy many documents. Modifying the seal script (Li shu) devised by the prison warden Cheng Miao, changed the curly strokes into straight and angular lines making writing much easier. The Li shu style was much more convenient to write than the Xiao zhuan style and saved uncounted hours of precious time. Li shu was already very similar to Kai shu, which is standard script. The oldest existing example of Kai shu dates back to the Three Kingdoms period (220 to 265 CE) and the script developed during the Jin Dynasty (265 to 420 CE).

Xing shu script falls in between standard and cursive script, and originated in the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 to 220 CE). There are literally countless historical examples of Xing shu; the earliest is a rendering of the preface to 'The Orchid Pavilion; or Lan Ting Shu written in the hand of Wang Xizhi (321 to 379 CE) of the Eastern Jin Dynasty. Cao shu is an abbreviated, quickly written script. Characters are altered to reduce the number of times the brush needs to be lifted.

A skillful hand and an artistic flair with Chinese characters are important, but not enough to succeed. The 'Four Treasures of the Study' are needed to achieve success. These include a brush pen, inkstick, paper, and inkstone. These are indispensable to any traditional Chinese scholar. With these four tools the Chinese painter or calligrapher can create the beauty of Chinese art. And, unlike conventional pens with a metal point, Chinese brush pens are made from the fine animal hair of rabbit, deer, and goat. Brush makers were highly respected artisans in the history of Chinese calligraphy.

To continue with technical matters, various types of black ink were used to create Chinese paintings and calligraphy. In the Shang Dynasty, soot was no doubt concomitant in the earliest stages of Chinese writing, since it is a natural product of fire. Pinewood was used as a source for this pigment by the end of the second century CE and inksticks, which are pigment with a binder, were developed in the second or third century CE. Inkstick, pigment used in Chinese traditional painting and calligraphy, is made from a mixture of soot and resin, and molded into stick form. The three types of soot most commonly used are from pine, oil, and lacquer.

Paper is assumed to have been developed during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 to 220 CE). The exact method of papermaking is still in doubt, but early types of paper seem to have been made from raw vegetable fibers and rags. The raw fibers included mulberry, laurel, and China grass, all of them mixed with rag fibers made of flax and hemp.

Inkstone is the palette of the Chinese scholar. To create ink, an inkstick must be ground on an inkstone made of durable whetstone. In ancient times, literati would have poems or their names engraved on their ink-stones. These could then be passed on to future generations as a decorative work of art and a keepsake.

This is how Chinese calligraphy developed in the past. What will it be like in the future, nobody knows. Two things are certain: In a relatively long period of time, traditional styles of calligraphy will co-exist with new modern expressions derived from traditional calligraphy. The only way for Chinese calligraphy to survive and develop is to stress and explore its artistic value.

In the hard copy of this magazine are some examples of words about food and agriculture that developed and changed over time. Perhaps you can dream up what they might look like in the future.
Karen Comstock is the school foodservice director at North Shore Hebrew Academy. When not busy with feeding responsibilities for the eight hundred students there, she explores her interest in Chinese calligraphy, which she reports originated from written Hebrew, another form of abstract art.

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