Huiwen Li (李惠文) and Yueming Yu (于月明)


Chinese calligraphy, 书法[1]/書法[2]/Shū Fǎ[3], is defined by Cihai (辞海, an authoritative, comprehensive Chinese dictionary) as “用毛笔书写篆、隶、正、行、草各体汉字的艺术” (the art of writing stylistic scripts of Chinese characters including the seal, clerical, regular, running, and cursive scripts, using a Chinese writing brush). It has been widely practiced both in China and elsewhere, and has played a very important role in defining and refining Chinese culture.

Chinese calligraphy “began with the creation of Chinese characters” (Qian & Fang, 2007, p. 100). It has existed in China for at least three thousand years (Li, 2009; Qiu & Mattos, 2000). Before modern pens and computers were invented, calligraphy was used as a primary way of record-keeping and communication. Therefore, it was a key component in people’s daily lives. Starting from the Han Dynasty (208 BC-220 AD), as new and different scripts were developed, calligraphers began to study how to write calligraphy more aesthetically and artistically. It was then that calligraphy was first regarded as an art form of writing Chinese. This made people realize and appreciate the aesthetic value of calligraphy.

From the Sui Dynasty (581-619 AD) to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 AD), the Imperial Civil Service Examination System was set up and employed to select knowledgeable and talented individuals for civil services in China. During this long period of Chinese history, calligraphy served as a requisite for all candidates to be qualified for a government position. Therefore, it was widely understood that calligraphy was a crucial course that students and trainees were required to take. As a result, calligraphy became one of the four most important skills (i.e., musical instrument playing, chess playing, calligraphy writing, and painting) when evaluating a person’s scholarship.

To learn calligraphy, one must learn the rules. Over several thousand years, Chinese calligraphy has developed five primary scripts (in Chinese, 篆, 隶, 楷, 行, and 草; in English, seal, clerical, regular, running, and cursive) from Oracle-bone script (in Chinese, 甲骨文), the very first form of written Chinese characters. All these scripts share basic calligraphy rules, although each has its unique appearance. These rules cover stroke writing, component layout, character shaping, composition of the entire work, and others. This makes performing calligraphy writing similar to drawing or painting. To make or evaluate high-level calligraphy, extra rules were also established. Based on these rules, for example, good calligraphy should be able to express the essence of the content and convey the calligrapher’s mental and emotional state. To apply these rules, or in other words, to produce good calligraphy, calligraphers need to apply their technical skills and talents in sizing (of individual strokes, characters, and components), lining, spreading, coloring, coordinating, and (writing) pacing.

From the audience’s perspective, however, a piece of calligraphy cannot only be judged by technique and appearance. Another important dimension are hidden insights, which may include the dynamics, rhythm, emotion, and even the calligrapher’s personality. The beauty and complexity of Chinese calligraphy has developed this art form to be called “无言之诗、无形之舞、无图之画、无声之乐” (in English, “wordless poetry,” “figureless dance,” “imageless picture,” and “soundless music”) (Liu, 2012). Western scholars have praised Chinese calligraphy for the beauty of an image in painting, the beauty of dynamism in dance, and the beauty of rhythm in music (Guo, 1995). Additionally, calligraphy writing techniques must be based on traditional Chinese philosophical ideas such as the balance between Yin and Yang from Taoism, and the Golden Mean from Confucianism (Qian & Fang). Calligraphy requires additional effort from both the performer and the evaluator, such as qing [mood, emotion], qi [energy, vital force], shen [spirit], jing [realm, standing], yun [elegance], fa [discipline], yi [expressiveness], fengge [style], and qidu [manner] (Ni, 1999) (in Chinese, 情, 气, 神, 精, 韵, 法, 意, 风格, and 气度 respectively). Therefore, Chinese calligraphy is the quintessence of Chinese culture (Chen, 2003).

As time went on, calligraphy fully developed its form by absorbing components from other cultural forms, including the Chinese language, ideas on aesthetics, and philosophy (Qian & Fang). According to Peveto (2010), Chinese calligraphy “began at the dawn of China’s history and has continued throughout the centuries to the present, remaining a significant element in Chinese culture.” So “understanding its role in history and society allows a glimpse into China’s past and its present” (p. 44). Therefore, by studying and practicing calligraphy, people can learn those components and deepen their understanding of Chinese culture. This is especially true for students of the Chinese language and culture.

In addition to seeking deeper understanding of Chinese culture and enjoying its beauty, people treat calligraphy as a means of developing a good moral code, sound personality, and improved physical and mental health. This benefit is supported by multiple research studies. A longitudinal study conducted by Zhou, Liu, and Sang (2005) showed that calligraphy practice has had a significant positive effect on 13 personality factors such as warmth, reasoning, and emotional stability. In another study these researchers (2009) also found that children with calligraphy experience showed positive emotional intelligence development.

Kao (2006) studied Chinese calligraphic handwriting for health and behavioral therapy. Positive effects were found on multiple dimensions related to health such as (1) cognitive improvements in reasoning, judgment, facilitation, and hand steadiness in children with mild retardation, and (2) enhanced memory, concentration, spatial orientation, and motor coordination in Alzheimer’s patients. Findings also included positive behavioral changes in individuals with autism, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), psychosomatic diseases of hypertension and diabetes, as well as mental diseases of schizophrenia, depression, and neurosis. In addition, practicing Chinese calligraphy is commonly accepted as a contributing factor to longevity. Kwok et al. (2011) investigated the effects of calligraphy therapy and showed that it was effective for enhancing cognitive function in older people with mild impairment. Ni (1999) also reported the benefits of moral development from practicing calligraphy. It is very likely that practicing Chinese calligraphy has additional benefits yet to be discovered.

Chinese calligraphy has not only borne great significance domestically, but also elsewhere especially throughout Asia. In countries such as Japan, Korea, and Singapore, calligraphy is widely practiced and highly valued. In Korea, Chinese was used as the official script until the 19th century even after the invention of Hangul in 1447. Calligraphy is also widely practiced in Japan and has been incorporated into current school curriculum. In the West, Picasso was fascinated by the interplay of Chinese characters, the strength and economy of their construction, and stated, “If I were born Chinese, I would not be a painter but a writer. I’d write my pictures” (Claude Roy, 1956). Additionally, traces of Chinese calligraphy can also be easily recognized in the paintings of another famous European artist, Henri Mattise (Li, 2009). Hence, it can be said that the beauty and significance of Chinese calligraphy has been recognized and appreciated around the world for many years.

Chinese calligraphy is both an historical method for documentation and communication, as well as a form of artistic expression. Its significance in China and across the world has been enormous. It is a great cultural treasure. Both historical and empirical evidence clearly demonstrate a compelling necessity to pass on this knowledge and skill from generation to generation through teaching and training. In UNESCO’s Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity (2001), different cultures are no longer regarded as national properties, but rather as the common heritage of humanity. To promote an awareness of the positive value of cultural diversity, the declaration encourages all levels of education to take actions on both curriculum design and teacher education.

This book is an attempt to introduce to adult beginners the key points of Chinese calligraphy both as a cultural phenomenon and writing skill. It specifically includes the history of Chinese calligraphy, types of calligraphic script, tools and materials, and writing techniques. For teaching purposes an assignment part is also added. Users can take advantage of it to enhance the effects of teaching and learning. If users intend to know more about Chinese calligraphy, the book lists extended reading materials at the end of each chapter. Regarding teaching, it is suggested that one chapter be completed within four teaching hours. However, final say is up to each instructor. It is the authors’ ultimate hope that users can benefit the most from this publication.


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Kwok, T. C. Y., Bai, X., Kao, H. S. R., Li, J. C. Y., & Ho, F. K. Y. (2011). Cognitive effects of calligraphy therapy for older people: a randomized controlled trial in Hong Kong. Clinical Intervention in Aging, 6, 269–273.

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  1. Simplified writing form, currently used in mainland China and many other Chinese-speaking countries and regions.
  2. Traditional writing form, currently used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and some other areas.
  3. Pinyin, a set of phonetic symbols created in mainland China.


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Chinese Calligraphy and Culture 中國書法與文化 by Huiwen Li (李惠文) and Yueming Yu (于月明) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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