History of Calligraphic Ink and Brush Drawing in China.

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Chinese Calligraphy (206 BCE - 1911 CE)

What is Calligraphic Art?

First seen in Chinese art, calligraphy is the fine art of stylized writing (viz. the art of converting Chinese characters into expressive images using responsive rice paper and the pressure of a tapered brush), which verges on a form of drawing. It requires the correct formation of characters, the ordering of the various parts, and general harmony of proportions.

Calligraphy requires decades of dedicated study to achieve mastery. For example, an aspiring student will practice inscribing the Chinese "yong" character hundreds (if not thousands) of times in order to produce the eight essential strokes which together make up the character.

The two great forms of calligraphy derive from the Arabic and Oriental languages (Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and Korean), although it has been regularly practised in the languages of India, Tibet, Persia, Latin and others.

• See: History of Calligraphy/Famous Calligraphers.
• See also: Materials Used.

For a list of important dates about
movements, styles, famous artists,
see: History of Art Timeline
For profiles of all major periods,
see: History of Art.

For the importance of calligraphic art
to Muslim culture and visual arts, see:
Islamic Art.

See: Chinese Painters (220-present)

For a list of the world's greatest
museum and library collections
of Muslim Qur'anic calligraphy in
the Kufic or Naskhi script, see:
Museums of Islamic Art.

Highest Form of Chinese Art

Ever since it was first practised in China, around 1700 BCE, calligraphy has been a rich and varied source of artistic expression. For centuries it has been regarded as the highest form of Chinese painting, and shares many features of Chinese wash-painting, which is performed using similar implements and materials. In addition, it has influenced many styles of Asian art, including "sumi-e", a type of Chinese and Japanese art (painting) based entirely on calligraphy. See also: Prehistoric Art Timeline.

The Five Types of Calligraphic Scripts

There are five basic styles of calligraphic writing:

Seal (Chinese: Zhuan-shu. Japanese: tensho)
Clerical (Chinese: Li-shu. Japanese: reisho)
Cursive (Chinese: Cao-shu. Japanese: sosho)
Semi-Cursive (Chinese: Xing-shu. Japanese: gyosho)
Regular (Chinese: Kai-shu. Japanese: kaisho)


History of Calligraphy

Early Writing

From its earliest origins dating back to the Xia Dynasty culture (2100-1600), Chinese calligraphy passed through several early stages before the present-day script - known as Kai-shu - emerged. These stages involved the scripts known as: Jiaguwen (chia-ku-wen), Jinwen (chin-wen), Dazhuan (hsiao chuan) and Li-shu (li-shu) scripts. The Jiaguwen and Jinwen scripts were used by Chinese calligraphers during the era of Zhou Dynasty art until 220 BCE, when the Emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered the development of a new unified script known as Dazhuan. This was soon followed by a new clerical script called Li-shu, and ultimately by Kai-shu, the present-day regular script, which has been in existence now for almost 2000 years. For historical context, see: Chinese Art Timeline (c.18,000 BCE - present).

Historical Development of Calligraphy Since the Han Dynasty

Here is a brief guide to the evolution and development of Chinese Calligraphy from the Han Dynasty onwards, with details of selected famous calligraphers.

Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE)

Although practised in rudimentary forms since the 16th century BCE, it was not until the publication of a series of articles towards the end of the era of Han Dynasty art, that the foundations for Chinese calligraphy were properly established.

During the Han era, students were obliged to use "Ba Ti" clerical scripts in state exams. Ba Ti was a group of 8 different scripts, of which the most useful was Li-shu. Therefore Li-shu became the No 1 script, in fact, throughout the four centuries of Han rule, the vast majority of all tablets were written in Li-shu and Han calligraphers became the foremost Li Shu draughtsmen.

Famous Works of Calligraphy of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE)

Li Qi Bei, Zhang Qian Bei, Yi Ying Bei, Cao Quan Bei, Shi Men Song, Kong Zhou Bei, Shi Chen Bei, Hua Shan Bei, Heng Fang Bei, Xian Yu Huang Bei, Chao Hou Xiao Zi Bei, Zhang Jing Bei, Xi Ping Shi Jing.

Famous Calligraphers of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE)

Cui Yuan (77-142).
Zhang Zhi (119-192).
Cai Yong (132-192)

Wei Dynasty (220-265) and Jin Dynasty (265-420)

During this period, calligraphy acquired the status of an art form. Also, numerous theoretical studies were published, such as "Bi Zhen Tu" by Wei Shuo (272–349), which discussed the concepts of flow and law of calligraphy, as well as the various brush and ink techniques, and principles governing the yan (the ink container). Other important calligraphic articles included "Li Shu Ti" by Cheng Gong Sui, "Cao Shu Fu" by Yang Quan, "Fei Bai Shi Ming" by Liu Shao, and "Shu Lun" (On Calligraphy) by Wang Xizhi. During the Jin Dynasty, the regular or standard Kai-shu script began to rival Li-shu.

Famous Works of Calligraphy of the Wei and Jin Dynasties (220-420)

Lan Ting Xu, Sheng Jiao Xu, Sang Luan Tie, Yue Yi Lun, Ya Tou Wan Tie, Di Huang Tang Tie, Bo Yuan Tie, Shi Qi Tie, Luo Shen Fu Shi San.

Famous Calligraphers of the Wei and Jin Dynasties (220-420)

Handan Chun
Wei Guan (220-291)
Su Jing (239-303)
Wei Heng (252-291)
Wei Shuo (272–349)
Wang Xizhi (303–361)
Wang Xianzhi (344–386)

Note: Calligraphy was introduced to Korea during the Six Dynasties period, around the 4th century CE - possibly along with Buddhism. For more about culture in Korea, see: Korean Art (c.3,000 BCE).

Tang Dynasty (618-907)

The era of Tang Dynasty art witnessed a systematic development of the theory, practice and techniques of calligraphy, as well as a significant growth in the number of calligraphers. Popular styles included Kai-shu, Xing-shu, Li-shu and Cao-shu. Calligraphy became a recognized subject in the China's National Academy of Sciences, and was even used to assess the character of an individual when applying for government posts. Influential calligraphic publications included "Shu Duan" by Zhang Huaihuan, in which he outlined the history and characteristics of 10 separate scripts. Another important contribution was "Shu Pu" by Sun Guoting, which explained a step-by-step study method. (For a guide to the aesthetic principles behind Oriental arts like calligraphy, see: Traditional Chinese Art: Characteristics.)

Famous Works of Calligraphy of the Tang Dynasty (618-907)

Kong Zi Miao Tang Bei, Jiu Cheng Gong Li Quan Ming, Yan Ta Sheng Jiao Xu, Duo Bao Ta Bei, Ma Gu Shan Xian Tan Ji, Yan Qin Li Bei, Xuan Mi Ta, Ji Zhi Wen Gao, Yun Hui Jiang Jun Bei, Wen Fu, Gu Shi Si Tie, Zi Xu Tie, Shu Pu.

Famous Calligraphers of the Tang Dynasty (618-907)

Yu Shinan (558-638)
Ouyang Xun (557-641)
Chu Suiliang (596-659)
Xue Ji (649-713)
Li Yong (678-747)
Lu Jianzhi (585-638)
Sun Guoting (648-703)
Yan Zhenqing (709–785)
Huai Su ( 737–799)
Liu Gongquan (778–865)
Yan Zhenqing (709-785)
Xu Hao (703-782)
Huai Su (725-785)
Shen Chuanshi (769-827)
Liu Gongquan (778-865)
Yang Ningshi (873-954)

Song Dynasty (960-1279)

The status of calligraphic writing declined during the era of Song Dynasty Art (960-1279), along with the power of the Chinese nation itself, not least because of the anti-scientific bias of Confucianism. At any rate, although it continued to develop, Chinese calligraphy never achieved the heights of creativity attained under the Tang and earlier dynasties.

Famous Calligraphers of the Song Dynasty (960-1279)

Cai Xiang (1012-1067)
Su Shi (1037-1101)
Huang Tingjian (1045-1105)
Mi Fu. Mi Fu is the best calligrapher in Song dynasty.

Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)

There were few notable calligraphic works produced during the three hundred years of Ming Dynasty art (1368-1644).

Famous Calligraphers of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)

Huang Ruheng (1558-1626)
Shi Kefa (1601-1645)

Others include: Wang Chong, Song Ke, Wen Zheng Ming, Dong Qichang, Zhu Runming, Wang Shizhen, and Tang Yin.

Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)

Archeological excavations provided some impetus for a revival of interest in Han era and other pre-Tang calligraphic scripts. As a result, the standard of calligraphy in Qing Dynasty art is generally higher than that of the Ming era.

Famous Calligraphers of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)

Wang Duo (1592-1652)
Fu Shan (1607-1684)
Zheng Qian (1693-1765)
Liu Yong (1719-1804)
Liang Tongshu (1723-1815)
Weng Fanggang (1733-1818)
Deng Shiru (1743-1805)
Yin Bingshou (1754-1815)
He Shaoji (1799-1873)
Kang Youwei (1858-1927)
Qi Gong (1912-2005)

Modern Calligraphy

Some 20th century Western painters have studied calligraphy and applied its ideas to painting. One of the best exemplars is the American abstract expressionist painter Mark Tobey (1890-1976), who was highly influenced by Oriental culture and religion.

Calligraphic Materials

The primary tools on a calligrapher's desk are: paper, ink, brush, and inkstone, known collectively as the Four Treasures of the Study.


Chinese calligraphers traditionally employ Xuanzhi paper, made from the Tartar wingceltis, as well as other materials including rice, bamboo, hemp, to name but a few materials used. Paper must be of high quality with a consistent rate of absorption to facilitate straight lines. Instead of paper, parchment or vellum may be used, which allows the artist to make corrections with a knife.

Ink and Inkstone

The best forms are produced from soot, in the form of inksticks which must be rubbed with water on an inkstone to achieve the correct consistency, although cheaper varieties of bottled ink are now available. Traditional calligraphy is practised exclusively with black ink, but modern exponents also employ colour. It is traditionally water-based rather than oil-based.


The traditional writing implement in Chinese calligraphy is the brush - whose stem is typically made from bamboo, or sometimes red sandalwood. The brush hair can be taken from any one of a number of different animals, including wolf, rabbit, goat, deer or even tiger, to name but a few. Modern calligraphers also use a pen (either flat or round-nibbed) and a brush. Where extra decoration is required, multi-nibbed pens may be used.

Other Tools

Other essential items for a working calligrapher include: a variety of paperweights (to minimize slippage); a desk pad ( to ensure correct positioning of the paper); and a light-box (to assist the creation of straight lines).

Use of Computers in Calligraphy

Needless to say, the art of Chinese calligraphy does not permit the use of computers or computer fonts. Computer-based or digital calligraphy would be no more artistic than digital Impressionism or digital Cubism.

In the West, calligraphy is considered to be one of the crafts, rather than an art form.

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