Chinese Calligraphy

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History of Chinese Calligraphy

Chinese calligraphy has a long history dating 4000 years. No one can tell exactly when Chinese written language appeared. The oldest language discovered now is Jia Gu Wen. But Jia Gu Wen is a mature written language. The language discovered before it is Tao Wen. Tao Wen is a language far more from maturity. Actually it's hard to be called a language. People think there should be some written languages between Tao Wen and Jia Gu Wen. But no supporting archaeological discovery has appeared so far.


Jia Gu Wen is a script used mainly in the Shang dynasty (1600 B.C. -- 1046 B.C.). It was also used in West Zhou dynasty (1046 B.C.-- 771 B.C.) although Da Zhuan is also used at that time. Jia Gu Wen already was written very artistically. But we can not say at that time calligraphy had already been an art.


xingshu by Wang Xizhi(303-361 Jin Dynasty)

Qin Shi Huang united the old China in 221 B.C. The official language used in Qin dynasty is Xiao Zhuan. Calligraphy had already been an art at that time. Calligraphy works of Qin dynasty are always high evaluated by calligraphers in history.

The first blooming period of calligraphy as an art should be during the Han dynasty. A calligrapher, Liang Hu went to a restaurant but didn't bring money. He wrote on the wall. People there liked to pay him to watch his calligraphy. A lot of great calligraphers appeared in the Han dynasty. Unfortunately, they usually didn't sign their name after their calligraphy work. Also most scripts formed at Han dynasty such as Li Shu, Cao Shu, Xing Shu, Kai Shu.

Jin is another dynasty with great achievement in calligraphy. A lot of great calligraphers appeared at this time, including Wang Xizhi and Wang Xianzhi.


kaishu by Wang Xianzhi

The South and North dynasty is also a dynasty with great achievement. There're a lot of tablets of North Wei (386-534) with great calligraphy. People called calligraphy works of this period as Wei Bei, which means tablets of North Wei dynasty. Like tablets in Han dynasty, the calligraphers of most of them are unknown.

Tang dynasty is the dynasty that calligraphy is taken most serious. As a result, a lot of great calligraphers appeared, including Yan Zhenqing.

After the Tang dynasty, calligraphy as an art declined. The worst period is the Ming dynasty. From the Song to the Qing dynasty, the greatest calligraphy works in paper were kept in house of the emperor's family. People rarely had the chance to see them. The only available calligraphy works available to them were the tablets. Fortunately in the Qing dynasty, a lot of tablets were discovered. That's one of the reasons why calligraphy is better in the Qin dynasty.

Today, most calligraphy works are stored in museums. A lot of calligraphy books have also appeared on the market. The Capital Teacher's University even has a calligraphy department now. China now is much better than the Qing dynasty. Hopefully, there will be a lot of great calligraphers to appear again.

International perception of Chinese calligraphy

Calligraphy is even wildly accepted by the West; as once Picasso said, "Had I been born Chinese, I would have been a calligrapher, not a painter." Many calligraphic elements are being adopted by modern western art.

The main difference between Western calligraphy and Chinese calligraphy is that Western calligraphy uses diffusing ink blots and dry brush strokes which are considered as a natural spontaneous expression instead of an error. In addition, Western calligraphy often uses a uniform homogeneity of characters in one size, which is seen as a craft. While on the other hand, Chinese calligraphers think of it as a highly disciplined mental exercise that coordinates body and soul, not only in order to choose the best possible way to express the content, but also for one's physical and spiritual well being. Prominent Western artists who openly declared to be influenced by Chinese calligraphy are for instance Picasso and Matisse.

Besides Chinese and the West, also Koreans and Japanese love brush calligraphy as it is an important treasure of their cultural heritage. "Calligraphic" contests are still held in many Japanese schools as a tradition. Japan also rewards its best calligraphic artist with the national Wang Xi Zhi award. Until recently, Korean officials were expected to excel in calligraphy.