INTRODUCTION TO CHINESE
CALLIGRAPHY by Kam Law
We will discuss Chinese calligraphy in this short introductory article and also
explore the differences between Chinese calligraphy and calligraphy in other
Since calligraphy is based on the written version of a language, we need to
have a simple knowledge of the Chinese language before we can have an
understanding of Chinese calligraphy. However, for the purpose of this article,
I will not talk about the origin of the Chinese language and other
characteristics. I will just concentrate on the form of written Chinese here.
The written form of Chinese is called Chinese characters which are square in
shape and monosyllabic. Each character’s pronunciation stands on its own
and is not affected or altered by the pronunciations of the character before it.
Each character or a group of two or three characters carries a meaning, but
sometimes a character or a phrase may have more than one meaning.
There are basically eight different scripts in the Chinese language; in other
words, the same Chinese character can be written in eight different ways.
However, most of the scripts have become obsolete and only two scripts, the
regular script and the running script, are in common use today. The
characters we see printed in newspapers and most of the books belong to
what is called the songtizi, which is a typeface first used in the Ming Dynasty
but popularly attributed to the Song Dynasty. This typeface belongs to the
Regular Script. This is not the first script created for the Chinese written
Jia Gu Wen (Shell and Bone Script)
From the animal bones and turtle shells excavated during the latter part of the
Qing Dynasty of China, ie, in early 18th century, there is clear evidence that in
the Yin period of the Shang Dynasty (circa 1300 BC to circa 1027 BC),
primitive characters developed from the shapes of animals, articles, and other
natural phenomenon and also ideas and concepts were carved on those
bones and shells which were used for divination purpose. There were oracles
who were in fact officials in the imperial court trained to forecast future events
by seeking advice from heaven or supernatural beings. They first drilled holes
on animal bones and turtle shells and then put them on fire and placed them
on fire. The shells or bones became cracked and the divining officials, acting
as a medium between heaven and human beings, were supposed to be able
to interpret the cracks and forecast the weather or the outcomes of future
events and activities. After each process, the date and the name of the
divining official, the question, and the oracle received from the gods were
engraved on the bones or shells. After the event, the actual happening was
also engraved on the bones or shells.
These characters are called Jia Gu Wen, meaning Shell and Bone Script. A
sample of Jiaguwen is shown below.
Jin Wen (Metal (Bronze) Script)
Similar but more mature writings are also found engraved on bronze vessels,
utensils, weapons etc. and they are called Jin Wen meaning Metal or Bronze
Script. A sample is shown below.
Zhuan Shu (Seal Script)
The Seal Script was developed in the late Western Zhou Dynasty (circa 850
BC) and became popular in the Qin State during the Eastern Zhou Dynasty
(770 BC to 256 BC). In view of the geographical spread of the different
states which were able to enjoy a high degree of autonomy under the weak
Eastern Zhou Emperor, variations caused by different dialects and attitudes
had appeared in the written form of the languages used in the different
states. After the Qin State (256 BC to 202 BC) had conquered all the other
states during the Warring States Period (475 BC to 222BC) and then unified
China, Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of the Qin Dynasty, decreed that the
written language be standardized and it is called Zhuan Shu.
In order to differentiate the styles of the Seal Script before and after
standardization, the Seal Script used during the Zhou Dynasty is called Da
Zhuan meaning Large Seal Script and the script adopted after standardization
is called Xiao Zhuan meaning Small Seal Script.
The reason why this script is called Seal Script is that it is commonly used for
engraving seals owing to its solemn but graceful style. The structure of the
characters written in the Seal Script is quite different from that of the Regular
Script and looks like characters of an entirely different language. Eyes that
have not been trained cannot read the script which has fallen into disuse. A
sample is shown on the right.
Zhu Mu Jian (Bo shu) (Bamboo and Wood Script)
Because of the regular and even structure of the Seal Script, writing it
requires tremendous efforts and time. Political and military exchanges
between the warring states in the late Eastern Zhou Dynasty rendered a lot
of written work for officials who were under pressure to do their written work
speedily. Apart from formal commemorative documents, most written work
was done with brush and ink on wooden or bamboo strips. The characters
were made less complex and less attention was paid to the regular structure
of the characters. A cursive style of Seal Script was developed. In recent
years, a large amount of bamboo and wooden strips were unearthed
providing vital information or the history of ancient China. The bamboo and
wood script is also called Bo Shu because silk was also used for writing
before paper was invented. A sample of bamboo and wood script is shown
Ba Fen, or Fen Shu or Li Shu (Clerical Script)
Ba Fen was developed in the Qin Dynasty when numerous prosecutions were
taken out against educated people and those showing the slightest
dissentient attitude. Prison matters became voluminous. Government affairs
were made bureaucratic and more or less everything had to be in black and
white. For example, there was a decree to the effect that government
officials had to seek instructions in writing. Government officials could not
cope with such a large amount of written work with Seal Script which had to
be written in an elaborate and careful manner. They had to do their written
work cursively, with the result that the beginning of a stroke might be heavier
and the end of a stroke might be thicker than an ordinary Seal Script stroke.
From this was developed the Ba Fen (Li Shu), or Clerical Script. However,
the form and style of the Clerical Script in the Qin and early Han periods
varied considerably depending on the artistic accomplishment of the
calligrapher. The Clerical Script became mature and the form stabilized in the
middle of Eastern Han Dynasty and replaced the Seal Script. A sample of a
passage written in Clerical Script is shown below.
Cao Shu (Cursive Script)
As people’s communication became more frequent in the Eastern Han
Dynasty, they tended to seek a more efficient way to do their handwriting. At
the same time, paper was invented which facilitated writing. Cao Shu or
Cursive Script as is seen and written today was developed and became
mature and very common in the Jin Dynasty (265 AD to 316 AD). A sample is
This free flowing and much abbreviated style enabled the writer who was
normally an educated person to express himself * artistically. Characters
were not confined to their respective squares and could be written as small or
as large as the calligrapher wished. Characters can be positioned leaning
towards the left or the right and strokes may have various thickness and can
be joined together so as to create as much contrast as possible yet
maintaining harmony in the entire calligraphy work.
*There were not that many women who were fortunate enough to have an
education in ancient China, but the most famous and respected Chinese
calligrapher in the entire Chinese history, WANG XiZhi, studied calligraphy
from a lady by the name of Madame Wei.
Xing Shu (Running Script)
At more or less the same time, ie, during the late Eastern Han Dynasty,
another script which was a hybrid of the Cursive Script and the Clerical Script
was developed. Characters written in Running Script are also free flowing
with many variations but they are not as abbreviated as the Cursive Script
and can easily be deciphered by the readers. A sample is shown on the left.
Kai Shu (Regular Script)
The Regular Script evolved from the Clerical Script and during the transition
period, the two terms were interchangeable. This script became very popular
in the Wei, Jin, and the North/South Dynasties and was widely used. On the
one hand, it is as regular as the Clerical Script, but on the other, the strokes
have more variations and are more stylish and more expressive than those of
the Clerical Script. This script is used up to the present day and a sample is
Four Treasures in the Study
Having talked about the eight different scripts of Chinese handwriting, let us
discuss how we can do Chinese calligraphy. Although in recent years, there is
growing interest in learning how to do Chinese calligraphy with a fountain pen
or a ball point pen, the traditional way of writing Chinese is to use brushes,
which is one of the four ‘treasures’ in a literati’s study.
A Chinese writing brush consists of two parts: the stem and the tuft. The tuft
is usually made of animal hair such as rabbit or goat hair. Goat hair is softer
than other animal hair and as it is longer than other animal hair, it is normally
used to make large brushes. Other materials such as weasel hair, which is
harder than goat hair, hen feather or reed have also been used but they are
not common. In order to render the tuft of a brush harder though still pliable,
a combination of weasel hair and goat hair is used and the weasel hair
normally forms the core of the tuft.
The stem can be made of wood, bamboo, ceramic or other materials and is
Brushes come in many sizes and big brushes are used for writing large
It is the use of brushes that enables the writing of Chinese to be developed
into an art form. The elasticity of the hair used to make the brush, the
tapering of the tuft of the brush at the end coupled with the different degrees
of concentration of the Chinese ink and the absorbent nature of the rice paper
used for Chinese calligraphy all enable the strokes in a Chinese character to
be written with varied thickness in a stylish manner and in different shades of
black, bringing out the artistic nature of the writing.
Paper used for doing Chinese calligraphy is made of bamboo, rice straw,
mulberry or hemp. The production process is a lengthy one, involving soaking
the plant in water for over a month, boiling the soaked plant fibre, pulping and
then sifting the pulp on a mesh to form a thin sheet of wet and soft rice
paper. The last and most important step is to remove the mesh from the wet
sheet of rice paper and to let it dry.
Paper produced in this process is called Xuan paper and is absorbent,
enabling the ink applied to permeate and spread outward; the stroke thus
appears thick and fat. On the other hand, if the brush is quite dry or if the
calligrapher writes at a high speed, the strokes will look sandy (dry).
Rice paper is made with different degrees of absorbency to suit the artists’
Ink sticks are made of soot from burning pine wood or ‘tung’ oil or sesame oil,
and gelatin. Ink used for Chinese handwriting is produced by rubbing an ink
stick in circles on an ink slab containing a small quantity of water. The longer
we rub the ink stick, the thicker the ink will become; the ink can be diluted by
adding water on the ink slab.
Nowadays, calligraphers normally used prepared ink liquid for practice as
producing ink by rubbing ink sticks on an ink slab is time consuming and
laborious. Ink sticks are only used to produce ink when a calligrapher wishes
to do serious calligraphy works either for exhibition or for works that are
Ink slabs are made from stones with a special quality. On the one hand, the
stones should be very hard, but their texture should be extremely smooth on
the other. The best ink slabs are produced from the quarry in Zhao Qing in
Guangdong Province. These ink slabs are called Duan Yan, being named
after the place which was called Duan Zhou in the past. Ink slabs are also
mined in She Zhou in Anhui Province and Tao Yan in Gansu Province.
Ink slabs are often embellished with carving at the edges and round the
trough. Good ink slabs are extremely expensive and have become collectors’
Ink slabs are useless on their own because without ink sticks and water, they
can best be used to decorate the literati’s study. When we wish to make ink,
we pour a small quantity of water on an ink slab and then rub an ink stick on
the ink slab in circles gently and evenly. While we are rubbing the ink stick on
ink slab, we can either study bei tie (rubbings of inscriptions on famous stelae
or copies of calligraphy works of ancient calligraphers) or do meditation.
How to Hold a Chinese Writing Brush
Holding a brush is different from holding a fountain pen or a pencil. For
beginners, the requirement is that the brush must be maintained upright
throughout the writing process. At a later stage, the brush may be allowed to
lean slightly on one side but the tip of the tuft of the brush should ‘always’ be
perpendicular to the paper, unless we wish to produce special effects.
When we pick up a brush, we should press (ye) the thumb gently on the stem
of the brush. At the same time, we should hold or guard (ya) the brush with
the first joint of the index finger from the finger tip, thus exerting opposing
pressure against the thumb. We should form the middle finger into a hook
(gou) and also press the first joint of the middle finger from the finger tip
gently against the brush, so that the total pressure from both the index and
middle fingers should equal the pressure from the thumb. The ring finger
should be placed behind the brush, providing the middle finger with support
(ge). The small finger should be just beneath the ring finger, also providing
support for it (di).
The whole idea of holding the brush in this manner is to surround the brush
with even pressure from all directions so that the brush can remain in a
steady and upright position.
While we are holding the brush, we should pay attention to the following
a. there should be as little gap as possible between the fingers.
b. the palm should be hollow as if it is holding an egg and should be kept
more or less upright but the forearm should be parallel to the desk.
c. when we are writing characters larger than three inches square, we
should not let the forearm touch the desk, neither should we rest the elbow
on the desk. When we are writing smaller characters, we can let the forearm
rest on the desk.
d. the brush should be maintained in an upright position, especially when
we are doing Seal, Clerical or Regular Scripts.
e. the motion of the brush is caused by the rotation of the wrist and the
movement of the arm. Under no circumstances should we move our fingers in
order to move the brush.
f. we should keep the arm and the hand holding the brush in a relaxed
state and hold the brush softly as if it is about to fall; never should we
squeeze the brush tightly.
There are a number of other ways of holding the brush, for example, holding
the brush with all the fingers on the same side acting against the thumb, or
holding the brush with the thumb and the tips of only the index and middle
fingers. However, the way I have described above is the most common and
easiest to learn and master.
How to Write Different Strokes in Chinese Characters
It may have been noticed that the strokes in the Seal Script comprise
basically horizontal, vertical and semi-circular strokes which are regular and
evenly spaced. There are no dots or strokes that taper off at the end like
those in the Regular Script. It was suggested by past masters that the
following character (Yong) consists of all the different strokes in Chinese
characters (this is disputed because it does not contain several other stroke
forms, for example, the right falling circular stroke with a hook) and each
stroke is given a name as follows:
1. Ce - dot
2. Le - Horizontal stroke
3. Nu - Vertical stroke
4. Ti - Hook
5. Ce - Left rising whip
6. Lue - Left falling sweep
7. Zhuo - Peck
8. Zhe - Right falling slice
When one looks at the strokes in the above character, one may think that if
one were to follow the strokes, one should be able to write the character.
This may be true with ordinary handwriting. However, if we were to do it
properly and artistically, we would need to move the tip of the brush
according to the directions as shown within the strokes in the figure below.
At the beginning, we may not find it easy to follow the directions and move
the brush forward and backward within the small space of a dot or when we
start writing a horizontal or vertical stroke. The secret is that when we start
writing a stroke, we should use the tip of the brush to follow the directions as
shown above. After we have finished the ‘start’ of a stroke, we may then
press the brush slightly to complete the stroke.
For example, if we wish to write a horizontal stroke from left to right, we
should start the stroke by moving the tip of the brush from the right and then
move it to the left before we actually start the stroke from left to right. The
same applies if we wish to write a downward vertical stroke, ie, we should
move the tip of the brush upwards before we move the brush downwards.
There are several other essential points that should be borne in mind when
we do Chinese calligraphy. While writing, we should imagine that something is
holding back our brush while we are moving the brush in the direction of our
choice. By injecting this feeling into our hand movements, the strokes will
become powerful and robust.
We should hold the brush just tightly enough so that it does not fall on the
desk. By holding the brush lightly and tenderly, the weight of our arm and the
weight of the brush will enable the brush to have contact with the paper.
Writing of course involves the brush touching the paper, but ‘touching’ only will
bring about weak and insipid strokes. We should avoid such strokes.
In this context, touching is quite different from contact which involves control
and feeling and enables the brush to ‘speak’ with the paper.
Before we start writing a character, we should first of all have an image on
the paper of the character we wish to write and then follow the image. An
image can be changed many times and improved upon but once a stroke has
been written, it cannot be altered.
Let me use three alphabets GGG (Guard, Guide and Glide) to assist
beginners in remembering the above seemingly complicated instructions. First
of all, we should guard the brush as if it is a very important person.
Bodyguards should be very near to the VIP whom they are protecting but
should not be too close as to be in the VIP’s way. Therefore we should hold
the brush very gently so that the brush engages fully with the paper.
After we have formed an image of the character we are about to write on the
paper, we should just guide the brush through the image. Through this mental
process, the strokes in a character will flow smoothly and appear to link
together although physically they are separate.
If we hold a brush gently, we will be able to let it glide along the paper so that
the contact between the brush and the paper is enhanced. Of course, we
should not forget the imaginary force that holds back the brush.
Sequence of Writing Strokes in a Chinese Character
Most Chinese characters consist of more than one radical and several
strokes. Past scholars have from their experience suggested that the radicals
and strokes in a character be written in the following sequence so as to
enable us to achieve better balance and better spacing of the strokes in a
From top to bottom
From left to right
Horizontal strokes first, then vertical strokes
(If there are 3 radicals in a character) Centre first, then first left and
Border first, then strokes inside border
Upper border first, then strokes inside, bottom stroke last.
Health benefits of doing Chinese calligraphy
Back in the 1980’s. the Psychology Faculty of the University of Hong Kong
carried some research studies into the mental and physical effects of writing
Chinese calligraphy on people doing it. The results, which were most
interesting, were as follows:
a. Relaxation or calmness developed during the writing of Chinese
calligraphy, suggesting that it could be used to alleviate stress.
b. While writing Chinese calligraphy, the heart rate gradually decelerated
and became regular and there was a much lower heart rate during writing
than during resting. The subjects in the research were found to inhale and
exhale more deeply when writing Chinese calligraphy than during their resting
c. Blood pressure was found to be lower during the writing of each
character than during the short rest breaks between the writing of each
d. There was a lower brain wave activity in the subjects while writing
Chinese characters than during the short resting periods immediately before
writing each character.
e. There was greater physiological reduction while writing Chinese
characters than English words, most probably because of the stroke
complexity, aesthetic value and the flexibility of the brush which required
f. Physiological relaxation effect associated with Chinese calligraphy
writing was not restricted to Chinese people.
g. Westerners writing English could also gain the benefit of relaxation,
though at a slightly lesser magnitude.
h. Experience in Chinese calligraphy was not necessarily a prerequisite
for the calligraphic benefit to occur.
Learning Chinese calligraphy appears to be a formidable undertaking at first.
However, I can assure you that once you have started learning, you will find
untold enjoyment and contentment in the practice and in the creative process
at a later stage.
A journey of a thousand miles starts with a first step of our feet.
** E N D **
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