East Asian calligraphy

East Asian calligraphy
East Asian calligraphy
Lanting P3rd.jpg
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese 書法
Simplified Chinese 书法
Japanese name
Kanji 書道
Hiragana しょどう (modern)
しよだう (historical)
Korean name
Hangul 서예
Hanja 書藝
Vietnamese name
Quốc ngữ Thư Pháp
Hán tự 書法

East Asian calligraphy is a form of calligraphy widely practised and revered in the Sinosphere. This most often includes China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. The East Asian calligraphic tradition originated and developed from China. There is a general standardization of the various styles of calligraphy in this tradition. East Asian calligraphy and ink and wash painting are closely related, since they are accomplished using similar tools and techniques. Chinese painting and calligraphy distinguish themselves from other cultural arts because they emphasize motion and are charged with dynamic life. According to Stanley-Baker, "Calligraphy is sheer life experienced through energy in motion that is registered as traces on silk or paper, with time and rhythm in shifting space its main ingredients."[1] Calligraphy has also led to the development of many forms of art in East Asia, including seal carving, ornate paperweights, and inkstones.


Definition and classification


The local name for calligraphy is Shūfǎ 書法 in China, literally "the way/method/law of writing";[2] Shodō 書道 in Japan, literally "the way/principle of writing"; and Seoye (서예) 書藝 in Korea, literally "the skill/criterion[3] of writing". The calligraphy of East Asian characters is an important and appreciated aspect of East Asian culture. East Asian calligraphy is normally regarded as one of the "arts" (Chinese 藝術 pinyin: yìshù, Japanese 芸術 geijutsu) in the countries where it is practiced. But there is actually a debate as to whether East Asian calligraphy is a discipline or an art. Indeed, both may be true.

As a practice

As a discipline calligraphy is, at the basic level, a pursuit -書法 Chinese: shūfǎ, "the rules of writing Han characters"[4]- focused on writing well. Students aim to obtain the writing characteristics of exemplary pieces of writing. Elementary school students practice calligraphy in this way, as do elders practicing temporary calligraphy, without aspiring to artistic creation.

As an art

Calligraphy is also considered an art - 藝術/艺术 Chinese: yìshù, a relatively recent word meaning "art",[5] where works are appreciated more or only for their aesthetic qualities.

The English word "Calligraphy" refers to that which is "beautiful writing", thus including both aspects.

Evolution and Styles

Kǎishū (trad)
Kǎishū (simp)
Chinese calligraphy written by Song Dynasty (A.D. 1051-1108) poet Mi Fu. The style Xinshu display there is specific by its fast speed and low pressure of the ink-brush on the paper. The calligrapher may play with speed, pressure, stroke order to create visual effects which may be in accordance with the emotions within the text, such is in the most revered Preface to the Orchid Pavilion by Wang Xizhi.[6]
Ancient China

The oldest extant Chinese characters from ancient China are Jiǎgǔwén characters carved on ox scapulas and tortoise plastrons. Brush-written examples decay over time and have not survived. During the divination ceremony, after the cracks were made, characters were written with a brush on the shell or bone to be later carved.(Keightley, 1978). With the development of Jīnwén (Bronzeware script) and Dàzhuàn (Large Seal Script) "cursive" signs continued. Moreover, each archaic kingdom of current China had its own set of characters.

Imperial China

In Imperial China, the graphs on old steles — some dating from 200 BC, and in Xiaozhuan style — are still accessible.

In about 220 BC, the emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first to conquer the entire Chinese basin, imposed several reforms, among them Li Si's character unification, which created a set of 3300 standardized Xiǎozhuàn characters.[7] Despite the fact that the main writing implement of the time was already the brush, little paper survives from this period, and the main examples of this style are on steles.

The Lìshū style (clerical script) which is more regularized, and in some ways similar to modern text, were also authorised under Qin Shi Huangdi.[8]

Kǎishū style (traditional regular script) — still in use today — and attributed to Wang Xizhi (王羲之, 303-361) and his followers, is even more regularized.[8] Its spread was encouraged by Emperor Mingzong of Later Tang (926-933), who ordered the printing of the classics using new wooden blocks in Kaishu. Printing technologies here allowed shapes to stabilize. The Kaishu shape of characters 1000 years ago was mostly similar to that at the end of Imperial China.[8] But small changes have been made, for example in the shape of 广 which is not absolutely the same in the Kangxi Dictionary of 1716 as in modern books. The Kangxi and current shapes have tiny differences, while stroke order is still the same, according to old style.[9]

Styles which did not survive include Bāfēnshū, a mix of 80% Xiaozhuan style and 20% Lishu.[8] Some Variant Chinese characters were unorthodox or locally used for centuries. They were generally understood but always rejected in official texts. Some of these unorthodox variants, in addition to some newly created characters, were incorporated in the Simplified Chinese character set.

Cursive styles and hand-written styles

Cursive styles such as Xíngshū (semi-cursive or running script) and Cǎoshū (cursive or grass script) are less constrained and faster, where more movements made by the writing implement are visible. These styles' stroke orders vary more, sometimes creating radically different forms. They are descended from Clerical script, in the same time as Regular script (Han Dynasty), but Xíngshū and Cǎoshū were use for personal notes only, and were never used as standard. Caoshu style was highly appreciated during Emperor Wu of Han reign (140-87).[8]

Printed and computer styles

Examples of modern printed styles are Song from the Song Dynasty's printing press, and sans-serif. These are not considered traditional styles, and are normally not written.

Tools : The Four Treasures of the Study

The ink brush, ink, paper, and inkstone are essential implements of East Asian calligraphy: they are known together as the Four Treasures of the Study (T: 文房四寶 / S: 文房四宝) in China, and as the Four Friends of the Study (HG: 문방사우 / HJ: 文房四友) in Korea. In addition to these four tools, desk pads and paperweights are also used by calligraphers.


The brush is the traditional writing implement in East Asian calligraphy. The body of the brush can be made from either bamboo, or rarer materials such as red sandalwood, glass, ivory, silver, and gold. The head of the brush can be made from the hair (or feathers) of a wide variety of animals, including the weasel, rabbit, deer, chicken, duck, goat, pig, tiger, wolf, etc. There is also a tradition in both China and Japan of making a brush using the hair of a newborn, as a once-in-a-lifetime souvenir for the child. This practice is associated with the legend of an ancient Chinese scholar who scored first in the Imperial examinations by using such a personalized brush. Calligraphy brushes are widely considered an extension of the calligrapher's arm.

Today, calligraphy may also be done using a pen, but pen calligraphy does not enjoy the same prestige as traditional brush calligraphy.


Paper nowadays is frequently sold together with a paperweight and desk pad.

Scheme of Chinese calligraphy paper (for beginners) : page, paperweight, desk pad and usage.

Special types of paper are used in East Asian calligraphy.

In China, Xuanzhi (宣紙), traditionally made in Anhui province, is the preferred type of paper. It is made from the Tartar wingceltis (Pteroceltis tartarianovii), as well as other materials including rice, the paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera), bamboo, hemp, etc. In Japan, washi is made from the kozo (paper mulberry), ganpi (Wikstroemia sikokiana), and mitsumata (Edgeworthia papyrifera), as well as other materials such as bamboo, hemp, rice, and wheat.


Paperweights are used to hold down paper. A paperweight is often placed at the top of all but the largest pages to prevent slipping; for smaller pieces the left hand is also placed at the bottom of the page for support. Paperweights come in several types: some are oblong wooden blocks carved with calligraphic or pictorial designs; others are essentially small sculptures of people or animals. Like inkstones, paperweights are collectible works of art on their own right.

Desk pads

The desk pad (Chinese T: 畫氈, S: 画毡, Pinyin: huàzhān; Japanese: 下敷 shitajiki) is a pad made of felt. Some are printed with grids on both sides, so that when it is placed under the translucent paper, it can be used as a guide to ensure correct placement and size of characters. However, these printed pads are used only by students. Both desk pads and the printed grids come in a variety of sizes.

Ink and Inkstick

Scheme of Chinese Inkstone, Ink Stick, and technique to use them.

The ink is made from lampblack (soot) and binders, and comes in inksticks which must be rubbed with water on an inkstone until the right consistency is achieved. Much cheaper, pre-mixed bottled inks are now available, but these are used primarily for practice as stick inks are considered higher quality and chemical inks are more prone to bleeding over time, making them less suitable for use in hanging scrolls. Learning to rub the ink is an essential part of calligraphy study. Traditionally, East Asian calligraphy is written only in black ink, but modern calligraphers sometimes use other colours. Calligraphy teachers use a bright orange or red ink with which they write practice characters on which students trace, or to correct students' work.


A stone, ceramic, or clay from the banks of the Yellow River inkstone is used to grind the solid inkstick into liquid ink and to contain the ink once it is liquid. Chinese inkstones are highly prized as art objects and an extensive bibliography is dedicated to their history and appreciation, especially in China.

Seal and Seal paste

Scheme of Chinese Seal, Seal paste, and technique to use them.

Calligraphic works are usually completed by the calligrapher putting his or her seal at the very end, in red ink. The seal serves the function of a signature.

Technique: principles

The shape, size, stretch and type of hair in the brush, the color and density of the ink, as well as the absorptive speed and surface texture of the paper are the main physical parameters influencing the final result. The calligrapher also influences the result by the quantity of ink/water he lets the brush take up, then by the pressure, inclination, and direction he gives to the brush, producing thinner or bolder strokes, and smooth or toothed borders. Eventually, the speed, acceleration and deceleration of the writer's moves, turns, and crochets, and the stroke order give the "spirit" to the characters by influencing greatly their final shape.


Ouyang Xun's 九成宮醴泉銘,
Song Dynasty rubbing page
Yao Mengqi's copy.

Traditionally, the bulk of the study of calligraphy is composed of copying strictly exemplary works from the apprentice's master or from reputed calligraphers, thus learning them by rote. The master showing the 'right way' to draw items, which the apprentice have to copy strictly, continuously, until the move become instinctive and the copy perfect. Derivation from the model is seen as a failure.[1] Competency in a particular style often requires many years of practice. Correct strokes, stroke order, character structure, balance, and rhythm are essential in calligraphy. A student would also develop their skills in traditional Chinese arts, as familiarity and ability in the arts contributes to their calligraphy.

Since the development of regular script, nearly all calligraphers have started their study by imitating exemplary models of regular script. A beginning student may practice writing the character 永 (Chinese: yǒng, eternal) for its abundance of different kinds of strokes and difficulty in construction. The Eight Principles of Yong refers to the eight different strokes in the character, which some argue summarizes the different strokes in regular script.

How the brush is held depends on the calligrapher and which calligraphic genre is practiced. Commonly, the brush is held vertically straight gripped between the thumb and middle finger. The index finger lightly touches the upper part of the shaft of the brush (stabilizing it) while the ring and little fingers tuck under the bottom of the shaft, leaving a space inside the palm. Alternatively, the brush is held in the right hand between the thumb and the index finger, very much like a Western pen. A calligrapher may change his or her grip depending on the style and script. For example, a calligrapher may grip higher for cursive and lower for regular script.

In Japan, smaller pieces of Japanese calligraphy are traditionally written while in seiza. In modern times, however, writers frequently practice calligraphy seated on a chair at a table. Larger pieces may be written while standing; in this case the paper is usually placed directly on the floor, but some calligraphers use an easel.

Basic calligraphy instruction is part of the regular school curriculum in both China and Japan and specialized programs of study exist at the higher education level in China, Korea, and Japan. In contemporary times, debate emerged on the limits of this copyist tradition within the modern art scenes, where innovation is the rule, while changing lifestyles, tools, and colors are also influencing new waves of masters.[1][10]

Chinese calligraphy is being promoted in Chinese schools to counter Character amnesia brought on by technology usage.[11]

Evaluation and appreciation

What is considered good calligraphy often varies depending on individual preferences. However, there are established traditional rules which cannot be violated. Violation of these rules will render a calligraphic work unable to be considered good calligraphy. Those who repeatedly violate these rules are not considered legitimate calligraphers.[5] Among these rules are:

  • The characters must be written correctly.[5] A correctly written character is composed in a way that is accepted as correct by legitimate calligraphers. Calligraphic works often use variant Chinese characters, which are deemed correct or incorrect on a case-by-case basis, but in general, more popular variants are more likely to be correct. Correct characters are written in the traditional stroke order and not a modern standard (See Stroke Order per Polity).
  • The characters must be legible.[5] As calligraphy is the method of writing well, a calligraphic work must be recognizable as script, and furthermore be easily legible to those familiar with the script style, although it may be illegible to those unfamiliar with the script style. For example, many people cannot read cursive, but a calligraphic work in cursive can still be considered good if those familiar with cursive can read it.
  • The characters must be concise.[5] This is in contrast to Western calligraphy where flourishes are acceptable and often desirable. Good Chinese calligraphy must be unadorned script. It must also be in black ink unless there is a reason to write in other ink.
  • The characters must fit their context.[5] All reputable calligraphers in China were well educated and well read. In addition to calligraphy, they were skilled in other areas, most likely painting, poetry, music, opera, martial arts, and chess. Therefore, their abundant education contributed to their calligraphy. A calligrapher practicing another calligrapher's characters would always know what the text means, when it was created, and in what circumstances. When they write, their characters' shape and weight agrees with the rhythm of the phrases, especially in less constrained styles such as semi-cursive and cursive. One who does not know the meaning of the characters they write, but vary their shape and weight on a whim, does not produce good calligraphy.
  • The characters must be aesthetically pleasing.[5] Generally, characters that are written correctly, legibly, concisely, and in the correct context are also aesthetically pleasing to some degree. Characters that violate the above rules are often less aesthetically pleasing.


Japanese and Korean calligraphies

East Asian Calligraphy usually refers to Chinese character calligraphy. Japanese and Korean people developed specific sensibilities and styles of calligraphies, as well as applying to specific scripts.

Japanese calligraphy extends beyond Han characters to also include local scripts such as hiragana and katakana.

In the case of Korean calligraphy, the Hangeul and the existence of the circle required the creation of a new technique.[12]

The existence of temporary calligraphy is also to be noted. This is the practice of water-only calligraphy on the floor which dries out within minutes. This practice is especially appreciated by the new generation of retired Chinese in public parks of China.

Other arts

Calligraphy has influenced ink and wash painting, which is accomplished using similar tools and techniques. Calligraphy has influenced most major art styles in East Asia, including Ink and wash painting, a style of Chinese, Korean, Japanese painting, and Vietnamese painting based entirely on calligraphy.

Notable calligraphers




  • Choi Chiwon 崔致遠(최치원)
  • Kim Saeng 金生(김생)
  • Tan Yeon 坦然(탄연)
  • Yi Aam 李嵓(이암)
  • Yi Yong 李瑢(이용)
  • Pak Jega 朴齊家(박제가)
  • Kim Jeonghee 金正喜(김정희)
  • Kim Myeong-hui 金命喜(김명회)
  • Han Ho 韓石峰(한석봉)
  • Sejong the Great 世宗大王(세종대왕)
  • Grand Prince Anpyeong 安平大君(안평대군)
  • Kang Sehwang 姜世晃(강세황)
  • Yun Sun 尹淳(윤순)
  • Yi I 李珥(이이)
  • Yi Hwang 李滉(이황)
  • Yi Sun-sin 李舜臣(이순신)
  • Shin Saimdang 申師任堂(신사임당)
  • Jeong Yak-yong 丁若鏞(정약용)
  • Kim Okgyun 金玉均(김옥균)
  • An Jung-geun 安重根(안중근)


The Calligraphy Model "Sunny after Snow" by Wang Xizhi

See also


  1. ^ a b c (Stanley-Baker 2010a)
  2. ^ 書 being here used as in 楷书/楷書, etc, and meaning "writing style".
  3. ^ 王力古漢語字典. Beijing: 中華書局. 2000. p. 1118. ISBN 7101012191. 
  4. ^ Shu Xincheng 舒新城, ed. Cihai (辭海 "Sea of Words"). 3 vols. Shanghai: Zhonghua. 1936.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g 田蘊章《每日一題每日一字》 - Internet video series on Chinese calligraphy
  6. ^ Wang Xizhi. "Wang Xizhi and Preface to the Orchid Pavilion (Image)". Cultural-china.com. http://arts.cultural-china.com/en/63Arts212.html. 
  7. ^ Fazzioli, Edoardo (1987) [1987]. Chinese calligraphy : from pictograph to ideogram : the history of 214 essential Chinese/Japanese characters. calligraphy by Rebecca Hon Ko. New York: Abbeville Press. pp. 13. ISBN 0896597741. "And so the first Chinese dictionary was born, the Sān Chāng, containing 3,300 characters" 
  8. ^ a b c d e Blakney, p6 : R. B. Blakney (2007). A Course in the Analysis of Chinese Characters. Lulu.com. pp. 148. ISBN 1897367112, 9781897367117. 
  9. ^ 康熙字典 Kangxi Zidian, 1716. Scanned version available at www.kangxizidian.com. See for example the radicals , or 广, p.41. The 2007 common shape for those characters does not clearly show the stroke order, but old versions, visible on the Kangxi Zidian p.41 clearly allow the stroke order to be determined.
  10. ^ (Stanley-Baker 2010b, pp. 9–10)
  11. ^ "New calligraphy classes for China's internet generation". BBC NEWS ASIA-PACIFIC. 27 August 2011. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-14693677. Retrieved August 29 2011. 
  12. ^ Daikynguyen.com

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