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Home History and Culture History of Chinese Calligraphy
History of Chinese Calligraphy
Learn Chinese - History and Culture

altAs the art of writing Chinese characters (hàn zì 汉字), Chinese calligraphy, or shufa, is closely related to the latter in its formation and development, boasting as long a history as that of China itself. It is one of the highest forms of Chinese art, serving the purpose of conveying thoughts while also showcasing abstract beauty of lines. Calligraphy is one of the four basic skills and disciplines of the Chinese literati, together with painting (huà 画), stringed musical instruments (qín 琴) and board games (qí 棋). However, rhythm, lines, and structure are more perfectly embodied in calligraphy than in the other three skills. 

According to historical records, it was during about the later half of the 2nd and 4th centuries that Chinese calligraphy came into being in the real sense. However, this does not mean ignoring, weakening or denying the artistic value of previously existing calligraphic forms. Chinese calligraphy of each period in Chinese history had its particular forms and styles.

Jiaguwen (jiǎ gǔ wén 甲骨文) (scripts on tortoise shells and animal bones), and pictographic characters (known as xiangxing zi in Chinese), though with differences in the number of strokes or the degrees of complexity in like characters, showed the laws of symmetry and balance. Besides, changes in the organization of lines and landing of strokes had taken on signs of calligraphy that was to come into existence. Therefore, the pre-Qin calligraphic art not only falls within the scope of Chinese calligraphy, but also represents a good example for later generations as a reference.

The course of Chinese civilization is one influenced by a periodical and linear process, and it is against such a background that Chinese calligraphy has been staging its development. During its burgeoning period, namely, from the Shang Dynasty to the Three Kingdoms Period, Chinese characters evolved from Jiaguwen,Jinwen to Kaishu (regular hand) and Xingshu(running hand). In the next period, namely from the Jin Dynasty to the Tang Dynasty, the art entered a phase, with Caoshu (cursive hand), Xingshu (running hand) and Kaishu (regular script) taking the place of Zhuanshu (seal script) and Lishu (official script) to become the mainstream. The appearance of Wang Xizhi, the greatest calligrapher of all time, was a phenomenon of that period, whose artistic achievements were highly appreciated even until the Tang Dynasty. Meanwhile, a great many calligraphers were rising at that time, such as Ouyang Xun, Yan Zhenqing, Liu Gongquan, each with different a style.

The Tang Dynasty also witnessed improvement of calligraphic theories, with the publishing of some theoretical books, such as Shu Pu (Manual of Calligraphy) and Shu Yi (Etiquettes in Calligraphy), which cast significant influence on later books. Due to the chaos caused by wars and the unstable political situation in following dynasties from the Five Dynasties to the Yuan Dynasty, the development of calligraphy also took on complications. Calligraphers of that period chose to express their inner feelings and interests through calligraphy. More theoretical books came out, providing theoretical guidance for the later generations.

The calligraphy in the Ming Dynasty was basically an inheritance and development of that of the Song and Yuan dynasties, and that of the Qing Dynasty was generally divided into two periods. The two dynasties also witnessed the rising of many famous calligraphers who left behind a great many excellent calligraphic works.

Chinese calligraphy is an Oriental art. Like the use of chopsticks, calligraphy was once entirely Chinese, but as Chinese culture spread to Korea, Japan, and Singapore, calligraphy became a unique feature of Oriental art.

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


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