Calligraphy, a highly revered and cherished art form, holds a special place in Chinese culture. Like oil painting and sculpture in the West, calligraphy serves not only as an artistic expression but also as a spiritual anchor for the Chinese people throughout history.
This profound fascination with calligraphy has made it a critical element of Chinese culture and history, shaping the identity and aesthetic philosophy of the nation for thousands of years.
The evolution of Chinese calligraphy
The roots of Chinese calligraphy can be traced back to the invention of hieroglyphics. As writing systems evolved, various calligraphic scripts emerged, each possessing its own unique beauty and charm. From the archaic oracle bone script to the elegant seal script, and from the standard script to the cursive script, every style showcases the ingenuity and creativity of the calligraphers.
Oracle bone script and early origins
The earliest form of Chinese writing can be traced back to the Shang Dynasty (16th to 11th centuries BC) with the oracle bone script. This script was etched onto turtle shells and animal bones, primarily for divination purposes. The characters in the oracle bone script were pictographic and quite simple, representing objects, animals, and natural phenomena.
During the Eastern Zhou period (8th to 3rd centuries BC), the seal script emerged as a standardized form of writing used for official documents and inscriptions on seals. The characters in seal script were more angular and structured compared to the earlier pictographic forms, making them more suitable for engraving onto seals. The seal script is highly regarded for its elegance and has influenced later calligraphic styles.
The clerical script, also known as lìshū (隶书), appeared during the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) and the Han Dynasty (206 BC – AD 220). It was used for bureaucratic and administrative purposes, as it was easier to read and write compared to the seal script. The clerical script featured well-defined strokes with greater variation in line thickness, laying the foundation for later calligraphic styles.
The regular script, or kǎishū (楷书), evolved from the clerical script during the Han Dynasty and became the standard script for formal writing. The regular script is characterized by its uniformity, balanced structure, and clear strokes. It is one of the most widely used styles in modern calligraphy and serves as the basis for teaching Chinese characters in schools.
Also known as cǎoshū (草书), the cursive script emerged during the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220) and the Wei-Jin period (AD 220-420). Calligraphers developed this style to write faster, which led to the simplification and merging of strokes. The cursive script is fluid and dynamic, allowing for more artistic expression and personal style.
Running script, or xíngshū (行书), is a semi-cursive style that bridges the gap between the regular script and the cursive script. It developed during the Wei-Jin period and became popular during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). Running script retains some of the formality of the regular script while incorporating elements of the cursive script’s speed and freedom.
The grass script, or caoshu (草书), is a highly cursive and abstract style that emerged during the Eastern Jin Dynasty (AD 317-420). This script is characterized by its rapid and continuous strokes, with characters often appearing as a series of connected brushstrokes. Grass script is considered one of the most challenging styles to master due to its fluidity and lack of rigid structure.
In modern times, calligraphers have continued to explore and innovate within the traditional script styles. While preserving the essence of ancient calligraphy, they infuse new elements, techniques, and artistic concepts. Calligraphy has become an expression of individuality, with contemporary calligraphers developing their own unique styles while maintaining the spirit of Chinese calligraphy.
Calligraphy and social status
Throughout history, calligraphy has been closely linked to social status and served as a symbol of prestige and refinement. In ancient China, calligraphy was not only a form of artistic expression but also a path to attain scarce educational opportunities and rise to the elite class. Mastery of calligraphy was seen as a prerequisite for gaining admiration and respect from peers.
During the Jin Dynasty (AD 265-420), calligraphy became a means of displaying superiority among noble families. The competition was fierce, and young children from aristocratic households received extensive training in calligraphy to hone their skills. The Wang family, with Wang Xizhi and his son Wang Xianzhi, were considered the greatest calligraphers of this era, and their achievements were unparalleled for generations to come.
Calligraphy and politics
In certain periods of Chinese history, calligraphy became intertwined with politics. An iconic example is during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), where Emperor Taizong not only revered Wang Xizhi’s calligraphy but also excelled at it himself. He used calligraphy as a tool to promote his subordinates based on their talents to mimic Wang Xizhi’s works.
The Emperor held the Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Collection by Wang Xizhi in the highest regard and considered it the finest example of running script. He safeguarded Wang’s works only for his most trusted subordinates and was buried along with them upon his death. Calligraphy, in this context, became a way for the emperor to gauge loyalty, unity, and capability among his subordinates.
Calligraphy and Chinese literati
The imperial examination system further elevated the importance of calligraphy in ancient China. Since only a select few had access to formal education, calligraphic skills became a means for examinees to differentiate themselves. Examiners often ranked candidates based on their calligraphy rather than the content of their essays, making calligraphy a significant indicator of talent and potential for promotion.
Calligraphy was in high demand for various purposes, including writing letters, contracts, Buddhist scriptures, and decorative elements for weddings and funerals.
Calligraphy in modern China
In modern times, while urbanization may have limited space for traditional zhongtang, the practice of displaying calligraphy in living rooms remains prevalent. People still assemble calligraphic works to impress guests, and the choice of calligraphy and its meaning reflects social status and is considered a symbol of fortune and prosperity for generations. Today, calligraphy continues to be an expression of aesthetic philosophy and personality. Although it was once a privilege among the well-educated elite, reduced poverty and illiteracy rates have encouraged more and more people to practice calligraphy. It has become a part of life among many Chinese individuals, serving not only as a recreational activity but also as a way to promote physical fitness and artistic appreciation.
With numerous calligraphy training courses, interest groups, competitions, exhibitions, and auctions, modern China is experiencing another Golden Age of Chinese calligraphy. The art form that once served as a foundation for education and social status now embraces a more democratic approach, offering opportunities for people of all backgrounds to engage with and appreciate this gem of Chinese culture.
Chinese calligraphy stands as a testament to the rich cultural heritage of China. It has been cherished for its artistic beauty, spiritual significance, and close ties to the nation’s history and politics. From ancient times to the present day, calligraphy has played an integral role in shaping the identity and collective aesthetic philosophy of the Chinese people. As it continues to evolve and thrive in modern China, calligraphy remains a gem that not only preserves the past but also enriches the present and inspires the future.