Religion and Philosophy in Chinese Calligraphy – The Influence of Confucianism on Calligraphy


Confucius (孔子/Kong Zi/K’ung Tzu): Forming a Chinese Social Identity

Throughout the world, perhaps no single Chinese historical personage is as recognized as Confucius is. Indeed, the writings of Kong Zi (the correct transliteration of his name) are comparable in their effect on the Chinese, and Asian, world view as are the Classical philosophies of Plato and Aristotle are in the West.

Kong Zi lived in the Warring States Period, and his writings reflect the political instability of that time. He was deeply concerned that society be provided with a standard of moral conduct that would allow effective governance and felicitous relationships between people. He focused his attention on the family and government as the defining relationships of humanity and attempted to rationalize and stratify these systems into a complete guide to virtuous conduct.

Central to Kongzi’s ideals of both filial piety and efficacious government was the idea of Ru (儒), or ritual. For centuries even before his time, ritual was an important aspect of Chinese social life insofar as it linked the present generation to past ancestors and cemented political relationships. In the decline of the Zhou, Kong Zi saw the dilution of Ru. This inspired him to redefine the ritual conduct of rulers and families so that the moral demands placed on humanity, and rulers especially, would be satisfied.

Confucius and Canon: an Empire of Words

The Confucian classics did not become entrenched in the Chinese social fabric until centuries after his death. With the rise of Qin, and the erasure of so many thousands of competing texts by the First Emperor, Confucian principles became the primary political discourse in China, and were officially promoted by every successive dynastic regime. It may be argued that the privileged status of literacy, and hence the literati and scholarly class of courtiers and officials in general, was in large part due to the strength of the textual tradition that Confucius initiated. While dynasties rose and fell Confucianism, perhaps more than Taoism and Buddhism, ensured that a stable political system based on ancient philosophical texts endured up to the 20th century.

Confucianism and Art: Positioning the Individual

From the very first moves toward a centralized imperial society, Chinese perspectives on art, and calligraphy especially, have been inflected by Confucian views of proper individual conduct. As Confucianism dwell on the position of the individual in society, so calligraphy and the criticism of it often dwells on an evaluation of the individual’s correspondence to these moral values. Those calligraphers who were seen to conform to a certain perception of the noble gentlemen could have even their most informal and seemingly chaotic works take on new meanings. In a certain sense, the act of writing itself was a Confucian act insofar as it was an attempt to delineate and express one’s perception and conduct in a hierarchical, textualized society. In a world bound together by a strong literary tradition, the very form of the written character was to take on a whole host of individualized meanings seldom present in societies who forgot or were separated from their ancient moral codes.