An expert’s introduction to Chinese calligraphy
Chinese Paintings specialist Dr. Malcolm McNeill is your guide to this creative and expressive art form, which is valued as an outward expression of the artist’s state of mind
Calligraphy was the paramount visual art in pre-modern China. Using only brush and ink, calligraphers developed their techniques over generations.
Today, this powerfully graphic art is still celebrated as an outward expression of the artist’s inner psychology. Its rhythm, movement and flow is accessible to anyone who views it, not only to those of us who can read Chinese characters.
An ancient art form
The earliest surviving Chinese script dates back over 3,000 years, in inscriptions made for the rulers of the Shang dynasty (circa 1600-1100 BCE). Since the fourth century CE calligraphy has been practiced, prized and collected as an elite visual art.
From as early as the 10th century calligraphy was a key component of the imperial civil service examinations. Honing your writing could pave a path to power and prestige. Collectors and connoisseurs also saw exceptional calligraphy as an expression of upright morality. Good character was seen in good brushwork.
In the 20th century calligraphy remained central to Chinese art, expressing an enduring relationship with history. In the 21st century it gives Chinese artists a distinctive voice in a global art world. For the contemporary collector, Chinese calligraphy appeals to both a classic and cutting-edge taste.
Materials and techniques
The calligrapher’s tools are simple. You begin with a cake of carbon-based ink, which you then grind on an ink stone. A dropper is used to add water, diluting the ink. A flexible animal-hair brush is then dipped into the ink solution, and used to create a work upon a sheet of paper or silk. These are simple materials, but through them calligraphers can achieve huge variations.
Following the movements of the brush is the key to understanding a fine work of calligraphy. All characters are formed from a defined set of strokes, but can be executed in a broad array of script types.
From the most clearly legible to the wildly expressive, the core script types are seal, clerical, regular, running, and cursive. In seal, clerical and regular script, each stroke is executed separately, giving clarity and poise to the piece. In running and cursive scripts the brush accelerates, with separate strokes and characters flowing together into a continuous movement.
The more you look at a piece of calligraphy, the more you come to appreciate its flow and structure, irrespective of your relationship to the Chinese language. By following the turns of the brush, you can recreate the creative process behind the work of art in front of you.
Models, styles and seals
Masterpieces of classical painting and calligraphy were often inscribed by historic connoisseurs. These inscriptions celebrated the superlative qualities of the artworks they accompanied.
Today, these inscriptions underscore the authenticity of the paintings and calligraphic works on which they are inscribed. The seals and inscriptions of historic connoisseurs do more than just help us understand a piece of calligraphy, they also enhance our enjoyment. They remind us that our time with the artwork is part of its ongoing story.
Chinese calligraphers also tended to model themselves on historic masters. The best way to learn was by copying these masters’ works out by hand. As many great calligraphers were also collectors, they would often directly copy original pieces in their own collection. Sometimes they would even replicate the original artist’s signature, making the task of authenticating an historic work quite a challenge.
Art for a global audience
While you need to understand Chinese characters to practice calligraphy, that is certainly not the case when it comes to appreciating or collecting it. In fact, many of the most sought-after masterpieces are in cursive or wild cursive scripts. These scripts are so abbreviated that they are illegible to many native Chinese speakers.
It is not the content of a piece of calligraphy that makes it valuable, but its form, rhythm and movement. A prize piece of calligraphy can be any kind of text, from a sacred Buddhist sutra, to a modern dinner party menu. For the discerning collector, the medium trumps the message.
Modern and contemporary calligraphy
Calligraphy remained central to Chinese art throughout the 20th century. Many modern artists developed styles and techniques that were less rigidly based on historic models, giving greater freedom to their creative impulses.
Chinese calligraphy continues to evolve in the contemporary art world. The explosive abstraction of Wang Dongling has interesting parallels with 20th-century Euro-American artists’ interest in process.
Seen next to Jackson Pollock’s Number 16, 1949 (1949), Wang’s calligraphy clearly shares Pollock’s focus on visible gesture and technique. However, they arrive at a shared destination by antithetical routes. Pollock’s action paintings intentionally rejected the use of discernible form in favour of abstraction. Wang’s mad cursive script arrives at illegibility through an extreme exploration of an historic calligraphic technique.
Xu Bing’s ‘Square Script Calligraphy’ uses strokes from Chinese characters to reproduce English texts, playing on a shared struggle to make sense of the world around us.
In Zen Poetry No. III (above), Xu deploys this script to commemorate the 2002 attack on the Twin Towers in New York. He quotes a Buddhist poem in which dust stands as a metaphor for the illusory nature of human existence, paralleling the dust thrown up by the Twin Towers’ collapse.
In the face of a tragedy that shook the world, Xu’s work is a meditative, sensitive reflection on shared human experience. The Zen sentiments of the verse offer a possible tool to process overwhelming tragedy. The trans-cultural script in which the verse is written make it a truly international message.
Developing an eye
While the expansive history of Chinese calligraphy can seem intimidating to new collectors, there are so many entry points into this wonderfully creative and expressive world. International museum collections provide a great place to start.
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In the UK the British Museum has excellent collections of modern calligraphy. In the United States, collections of traditional Chinese calligraphy are especially strong at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Freer Gallery, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.
In China, the palace museums in Beijing and Taipei, as well as the Shanghai Museum, are exemplary. Although the best approach of all is to walk into Christie’s and handle a piece in your own time. You’ll be amazed by how readily it will speak to you.