Chinese calligraphy is a form of aesthetically pleasing writing (calligraphy), or, the artistic expression of human language in a tangible form. This type of expression has been widely practiced in China and has been generally held in high esteem in the Chinese cultural sphere (including, historically, for example, Japan, Korea and Vietnam). There are some general standardizations of the various styles of calligraphy in this tradition. Chinese calligraphy and ink and wash painting are closely related: they are accomplished using similar tools and techniques, and have a long history of shared artistry. Distinguishing features of Chinese painting and calligraphy include an emphasis on motion 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 China, including seal carving, ornate paperweights, and inkstones.


In China, calligraphy is referred to as Shūfǎ (書法/书法), literally: "the way/method/law of writing";[2] Shodō (書道/书道) in Japan (literally: "the way/principle of writing"); and Seoye (서예; 書藝) in Korea (literally: "the skill/criterion[3] of writing").

Chinese calligraphy is normally regarded as one of the "arts" (Chinese 藝術/艺术 pinyin: yìshù) in the countries where it is practised. Chinese calligraphy focuses not only on methods of writing but also on cultivating one's character (人品)[4] and taught as a pursuit (-書法; pinyin: shūfǎ, "the rules of writing Han characters"[5]).

Calligraphy is also considered an art (藝術/艺术; pinyin: yìshù, a relatively recent word meaning "art"[6]) where works are appreciated more or only for their aesthetic qualities.


There are several main categories of Chinese traditional calligraphy:

  • Xing (hsin, semi-cursive), developing style between Tsao and Kai
  • Cao (tsao, cursive), started during the Han Dynasty
  • Zhuan (Zuan, seal), imposed via an official table with standard shapes in China ca 221 BC
  • Li (clerical), transforming style of Zuan
  • Kai (regular), the most commonly used style of Chinese calligraphy, and it is also regarded as the official style.


On Calligraphy by Mi Fu, Song Dynasty

Ancient China

Chinese characters can be retraced to 4000 BC signs (Lu & Aiken 2004).

In 2003, at the site of Xiaoshuangqiao (小双桥), about 20 km southeast of the ancient Zhengzhou Shang City, ceramic inscriptions dating to 1435–1412 BC have been found by archaeologists. These writings are made in cinnabar paint. Thus, the dates of writing in China have been confirmed for the Middle Shang period.[7]

The ceramic ritual vessel vats that bear these cinnabar inscriptions were all unearthed within the palace area of this site. They were unearthed mostly in the sacrificial pits holding cow skulls and cow horns, but also in other architectural areas. The inscriptions are written on the exterior and interior of the rim, and the exterior of the belly of the large type of vats. The characters are mostly written singly; character compounds or sentences are rarely seen.[7]

The contemporary Chinese character's set principles were clearly visible in ancient China's Jiǎgǔwén characters(甲骨文) carved on ox scapulas and tortoise plastrons around 14th - 11th century BCE (Lu & Aiken 2004). 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 (大篆,Large Seal Script) "cursive" signs continued. Moreover, each archaic kingdom of current China had its own set of characters.

Imperial China

Poems of The four treasures in a scholar's study (Qing dynasty)

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 (秦始皇, 259 BC - 210 BC), the first to conquer the entire Chinese basin, imposed several reforms, among them Li Si's (李斯, 246-208 BC) character unification, which created a set of 3300 standardized Xiǎozhuàn characters.[8] 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 Huang.[9]

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.[9] 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.[9] 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.[10]

Styles which did not survive include Bāfēnshū, a mix of 80% Xiaozhuan style and 20% Lishu.[9] 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 sloppy 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 used for personal notes only, and were never used as standard. Caoshu style was highly appreciated during the reign of Emperor Wu of Han (140 BC−87BC).[9]

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.

Gallery along history

Materials and tools

The ink brush, ink, paper, and inkstone are essential implements of Chinese calligraphy. They are known together as the Four Treasures of the Study. In addition to these four tools, a water-dropper, desk pads and paperweights are also used by calligraphers.

A Chinese calligraphy set, Gurgaon, near Delhi, India


A brush is the traditional writing instrument for Chinese calligraphy. The body of the brush is commonly made from bamboo or other materials such as wood, porcelain, or horn. The head of the brush is typically made from animal hair, such as weasel, rabbit, deer, 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 child, as a once-in-a-lifetime souvenir. 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.[citation needed] Calligraphy brushes are widely considered an extension of the calligrapher's arm.

Today, calligraphy may also be done using a pen.


Calligraphy tools

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

Some people insist that Chinese calligraphy should use special papers, such as Xuan paper, Maobian paper, Lianshi paper etc. Any modern papers can be used for brush writing. Because of the long-term uses, Xuan paper became well known by most of Chinese calligraphers.

In China, Xuanzhi (宣紙), traditionally made in Anhui province, is the preferred type of paper. It is made from the Tatar wingceltis (Pteroceltis tatarianovii), 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, 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 ink stones, 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

Using an ink stick and inkstone
Brush-washers for removing excess ink are essential tools in the traditional art of Chinese calligraphy.[11] The Walters Art Museum.

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, Chinese calligraphy is written only in black ink, but modern calligraphers sometimes use other colors. Calligraphy teachers use a bright orange or red ink with which they write practice characters on which students trace, or to correct students' work.


Commonly made from stone, ceramic, or clay, an 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

Using seal paste with a Chinese seal

Calligraphic works are usually completed by the calligrapher applying one or more seals in red ink. The seal can serve the function of a signature.


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 and turns, and the stroke order give "spirit" to the characters by influencing greatly their final shape.


A page of Ouyang Xun's 九成宮醴泉銘,
Song Dynasty rubbing
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 becomes instinctive and the copy perfect. Deviation 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][12]

Chinese calligraphy is being promoted in Chinese schools to counter Character amnesia brought on by technology usage.[13]

In recent study, Chinese calligraphy writing have been used as cognitive intervention strategy among older adults or people with mild cognitive impairment. For example, in a recent randomized control trial experiment, calligraphy writing enhanced both working memory and attention control compared to controlled groups [14]

Evaluation and appreciation

While appreciating calligraphy will depend on individual preferences, there are established traditional rules and those who repeatedly violate them are not considered legitimate calligraphers.[6] Among these rules are:

  • The characters must be written correctly.[6] 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 case-by-case, 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.
  • The characters must be legible.[6] 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.[6] 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.[6] 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 Go. 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 varies their shape and weight on a whim, does not produce good calligraphy.
  • The characters must be aesthetically pleasing.[6] 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.


Calligraphy in Japan and Korea

Japanese and Korean people developed specific sensibilities and styles of calligraphy, 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.[15]

Other arts

Water calligraphy or ground calligraphy is a popular pastime.[16]

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.

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


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. ^ Wang Li; et al. (2000). 王力古漢語字典. Beijing: 中華書局. p. 1118. ISBN 7101012191. 
  4. ^ "Shodo and Calligraphy". Vincent's Calligraphy. Retrieved 2016-05-28. 
  5. ^ Shu Xincheng 舒新城, ed. Cihai (辭海 "Sea of Words"). 3 vols. Shanghai: Zhonghua. 1936.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g 田蘊章《每日一題每日一字》 - Internet video series on Chinese calligraphy
  7. ^ a b Song Guoding (2004), The Cinnabar Inscriptions Discovered at the Xiaoshuangqiao Site, Zhengzhou. Chinese Archaeology. Volume 4, Issue 1, Pages 98–102
  8. ^ 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. p. 13. ISBN 978-0-89659-774-7. And so the first Chinese dictionary was born, the Sān Chāng, containing 3,300 characters 
  9. ^ a b c d e Blakney, p6 : R. B. Blakney (2007). A Course in the Analysis of Chinese Characters. Lulu.com. p. 148. ISBN 978-1-897367-11-7. 
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ "Chinese - Brushwasher in the Form of a Leaf". The Walters Art Museum. 
  12. ^ (Stanley-Baker 2010b, pp. 9–10)
  13. ^ "New calligraphy classes for China's internet generation". BBC NEWS ASIA-PACIFIC. 27 August 2011. Retrieved August 29, 2011. 
  14. ^ Chan, SCC (2017). "Chinese Calligraphy Writing for Augmenting Attentional Control and Working Memory of Older Adults at Risk of Mild Cognitive Impairment: A Randomized Controlled Trial". Journal of Alzheimer's Disease. 58 (3): 735–746. doi:10.3233/JAD-170024. PMID 28482639. 
  15. ^ Daikynguyen.com Archived 2011-07-08 at the Wayback Machine.
  16. ^ Li, Wendan (2009). Chinese writing and calligraphy. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press. pp. 14–15. ISBN 978-0-8248-3364-0. 
  • Burckhardt, O. “The Rhythm of the Brush” Quadrant, Vol 53, No 6, (June 2009) pp. 124–126. A review-essay that explores the motion of the brush as the hallmark of Chinese calligraphy.
  • Daniels O, Dictionary of Japanese (Sōsho) Writing Forms, Lunde Humphries, 1944 (reprinted 1947)
  • Deng Sanmu 鄧散木, Shufa Xuexi Bidu 書法學習必讀. Hong Kong Taiping Book Department Publishing 香港太平書局出版: Hong Kong, 1978.
  • Emmanuelle Lesbre, Jianlong Liu: La Peinture Chinoise. Hazan, Paris, 2005, ISBN 978-2-850-25922-7.
  • Kwo, Da-Wei (David) (1981) [1990]. Chinese Brushwork in Calligraphy and Painting: Its History Aesthetics and Techniques. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications. ISBN 0-486-26481-5
  • Liu, Shi-yee (2007). Straddling East and West: Lin Yutang, a modern literatus: the Lin Yutang family collection of Chinese painting and calligraphy. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. ISBN 9781588392701. 
  • Lu, W; Aiken, M (2004), "Origins and evolution of Chinese writing systems and preliminary counting relationships", Accounting History, 9 (3), pp. 25–51 
  • Ouyang, Zhongshi & Fong, Wen C., Eds, Chinese Calligraphy, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2008. ISBN 9780300121070
  • Qiu Xigui, Chinese Writing, Early China Special Monograph Series No. 4. Berkeley: The Society for the Study of Early China and the Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley, 2000. ISBN 1-55729-071-7.
  • Stanley-Baker, Joan (May 2010a), Ink Painting Today (PDF), 10 (8), Centered on Taipei, pp. 8–11, archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-09-17 
  • Stanley-Baker, Joan (June 2010b), Ink Painting Today (PDF), 10 (9), Centered on Taipei, pp. 18–21, archived from the original (PDF) on 2012-03-21 

External links