Chinese Calligraphy

Chinese calligraphy © HeungSoon/ Public Domain / Pixabay

“If I once lived in China, I must had become a calligrapher rather than a painter,” said Spanish painter Pablo Picasso (Gavin, 2021).

书法 shū fǎ, meaning calligraphy, transcribes as “beautiful writing” (Lachman). “For many, Chinese calligraphy is the world’s most favourable form of art” (Shen-Tien Chi, 2019). Chinese calligraphy is an art invented throughout China’s rich history, and it follows the art of characters. According to legends, characters, invented by Cangjie in 2,650 BCE, “were regarded as a gift from the gods” (Zhan, 2016). Calligraphy is one of the six classic and ancient arts, together with ritual, music, archery, charioteering and numbers (Cartwright, 2017).

Inscriptions of characters were discovered on animal bones, turtle shells and bronze vessels, were produced during Shang dynasty: 1600-1100 BCE (Lachman). Five main scripts are presented in calligraphy: seal script, clerical script, regular script, cursive script and drafting script. Seal script was in use from 1200 BCE for official documents.Clerical script was used from 200 BCE for records kept by clerks and officials. Regular script was in use from 200-400 CE, being the standard form and the most used today. Cursive script used from the 4th century is mostly for paintings. Drafting script from the 7th century is the quickest type of script for calligraphy, making characters difficult to recognise. During the Han dynasty (206 BCE- 220 CE), educated men and women from the court learned calligraphy as a virtue for high society.Calligraphy isn’t simply writing characters but “an exquisite brush control and attention to composition”(Cartwright, 2017).

The Four Treasures of the Study, 文房四宝 wén fáng sì bǎo, are the four materials for calligraphy: brush 毛笔 máo bǐ, ink stone 砚台 yàn tai, ink stick 墨 mò, and paper 宣纸 xuān zhǐ (Zhan, 2016). These are the basics for calligraphy.

  • The brush is made from animal hairs: black rabbit hair, white goat hair and yellow weasel hair are the most popular ones. The hair of the brush is pushed in a tube of bamboo or wood. Other materials are also used for the brush such as jade and porcelain. The hair of the brush can be of different length depending on how the calligrapher wants his characters to look like. But the common point of all brushes is how the hairs are thicker at the base and become thinner at the top of the brush. The brush is characterised by its flexibility, allowing the calligraphic line to be fluid and expressive (Lachman).

  • The ink stone is “a stone mortar for the grinding and containment of ink”. Water is always kept with the inkstone for mixtures of the black ink, depending on the artist wanting different shades of black or grey (China Online Museum).

  • The ink stick “is shaped like a sceptre tribute offering, that conveys wishes for happiness and good fortune”(China Online Museum). The ink is made from “lampblack, a sooty residue created by burning pine resin or oil underneath a hood [...] [and] mixed with glue then pressed into moulds” (Lachman).

  • The paper is very thin and light and can absorb the ink easily (China Online Museum). The most used paper in calligraphy is made out of rice. Other materials can be used for paper such as mulberry, hemp, bamboo and silk (Lachman).

Chinese characters are classified into six methods known as 六书 liù shū. The term was created during the Han dynasty ( 202 B.C-220 A.D) by scholars to categorise Chinese characters (Yeromiyan T, 2021).

The first type is pictograms known as :象形字 xiàng xíng zì. These characters are easier to learn for beginners as they represent an object or phenomenon directly. For example the character “sun” looks like a real picture of the sun: 日 rì.

The second type is phono-semantic characters known as 形声字 xíng shēng zì. These characters are composed of phonetic and semantic components which can help the reader understand the meaning of the character. The reader must read the character’s components from left to right to be able to understand the meaning of the character. For example, the character “mountain path” 嶝 dēng is composed with on the left 山 shān meaning “mountain” and on the right 登 dēng meaning “to ascend”. By so, the reader understands, through the meanings of “mountain” and “ascend”, the character 嶝 dēng meaning “mountain path”.

The third type is simple ideograms known as 指事字 zhǐ shì zì. These characters are also known as “self explanatory” meaning that they are ideogramic characters. For example the characters 上 shàng and 下 xià mean respectively “up” and “down”. By how the character is represented, it is easy for the reader to understand its meaning.

The fourth type is compound ideograms known as 会意子 huì yì zì. These characters are the combination of pictograms or ideograms. For example the character 看 kàn meaning “to look” is composed of 手 shǒu meaning “hand” and 目 mù meaning “eye”.

The fifth type is transfer characters known as 转注字 zhuǎn zhù zì. These transference characters are of three different types: of form (形转 xíng zhuǎn), of meaning (义转; yìzhuǎn) and of sound (音转 yīn zhuǎn). For example the characters 考 kǎo meaning “to test” and 老 lǎo meaning “old” were previously interchangeable for the same meaning, but today they have different meanings.

Finally, the sixth type of characters is the loan characters known as 假借字 (jiǎ jiè zì). These characters are referred to as homophonous. For example the character 来 lài meaning “to arrive” meant “wheat” but it was frequently used for “to arrive”. Therefore, the word "wheat" today is represented by the character 麦 mài .

The calligrapher needs to have the knowledge of the “six basic strokes” (Zhan, 2016) :

  1. héng: horizontal stroke from left to right:

  2. shù: vertical stroke written from top to bottom:

  3. piě: left-slanting downward stroke from top right to left bottom: 丿

  4. nà: right-slanting downward stroke from top left to right bottom:

  5. diǎn: dot stroke from left to right:

  6. tí: upward lifting stroke from left to right:

Chinese strokes are in total 41 but are generalised in eight strokes: 永字八法 (yǒng zì bā fǎ; Eight Principles of Yong) as the character 永 yǒng is made of all eight main Chinese strokes (Chinese Language Institute). The other two strokes are:

  • 折 zhé: folding stroke from top left to bottom right: 𠃍

  • 钩 gōu: vertical hook to the left stroke from top to bottom left:

Chinese calligraphy has rules: rhythm, line and structure must be embodied on the paper. Five rules are listed to have the perfect calligraphy stroke (Gavin, 2021):

  1. Every Chinese character is built up in its own square with a variety of structure and composition.

  2. The drawing consists of only three basic forms: the circle, the triangle, and the square.

  3. For each character, there is a definite number of strokes and appointed positions for them in relation to the whole. No stroke may be added or deleted for decorative effect.

  4. Strict regularity is not required.

  5. The pattern should have a living movement.

Five calligraphers are known as the masters of the art (Gavin, 2021):

  1. Zhong Yao 鍾繇 (151-230) is known as “the father of standard script”. His famous works continue to inspire calligraphers of today.

  2. Wang Xi Zhi 王羲之 (303-361) was the “Sage of Calligraphy” during the Jin Dynasty. His works were copied.

  3. Ou Yang Xun 歐陽詢 (557-641) was a calligrapher during the Tang Dynasty.

  4. Cai Xiang 蔡襄 (1012-1067) was one of the four best calligraphers during the Song Dynasty.

  5. Zhao Meng Fu 赵孟頫 (1254-1322) was a prince and descendant of the Song Dynasty. His career as calligrapher rose during the Yuan Dynasty.

From letters, books, poems, religious texts, notes, engraved stele, tombstones, tablets to being a crucial element in studying Chinese culture and language, calligraphy is one of the main arts of China’s heritage and history.

Prisca Mirchandani holds a trilingual Master’s degree of Global Security and Analysis (French, English, and Chinese) from the University of Bordeaux, France. She is passionate about China-EU relations, China-France relations, and China Hong Kong’s history. You can find her on LinkedIn.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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Cartwright M. Ancient Chinese Calligraphy. World History Encyclopedia.16/09/2017. [Online]:

China Online Museum. Four Treasures of the Study. [Online]:

Chinese Language Institute. The Fundamentals of Chinese Stroke Order. [Online]:

Gavin. Chinese Calligraphy. China Highlights. 02/10/2021. [Online]:

Lachman C. Chinese Calligraphy. Centre for Global Education. Asia Society. [Online]:

Shen-Yien Chi L. The art of Chinese calligraphy. China Daily. 2019-12-09. [Online]:

Yeromiyan T. The Six Types of Chinese Characters. Learn Chinese in China. 26/10/2021. [Online]:

Zhan J. Chinese Calligraphy 101. Shen Yun Performing Arts. [Online]:

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