Calligraphy at a Glance – What is Calligraphy?

Calligraphy: The Basics

Essentially, Calligraphy is a visual art that makes use of linguistic signs to create an aesthetic experience that transcends or complements the literal embodied meaning. Calligraphy may thus be seen as an extension of writing wherein the artist or author subjects the form of linguistic signs to aesthetic modulation.

Numerous books have been written about calligraphy in general. For further reading, Donald M. Anderson’s “Calligraphy: The Art of Written Forms” is a good survey. This site also provides information and images describing the worldwide scope of calligraphy as art.

Clearly, the limits of Calligraphy are difficult to clearly define. Any time we intentionally alter our writing in order to evoke meanings that lie outside the linguistic, we may be using a calligraphic method. Nevertheless, there are many instances of writing whose extra-linguistic, aesthetic qualities overtake the literal written meaning to the extent that the concrete meaning may be partially or wholly obscured by the choice of increasingly abstracted visual forms.

A Definition of Chinese Calligraphy

Chinese Calligraphy enjoys perhaps the most long-standing and coherent history of any written art form. Chinese Calligraphy most often refers to artistic writing that makes use of Chinese Characters. However, one may wish to expand this definition to include works that make use of the traditional materials and/or methods that have become the central means of calligraphic production in China. If one uses the Four Treasures and Chinese calligraphic strokes, but writes in another language, can that be defined as Chinese Calligraphy? As one can clearly see, when it comes to totalizing general definitions of artistic concepts, there must always be room left for overlap.

While defining “Chinese Calligraphy” may lead us to an unnecessarily totalizing concept, a sense of “Traditional Chinese Calligraphy” is easier to grasp. By historicizing the concept of Chinese Calligraphy, we may more easily point to the Four Treasures, Traditional Scripts, and certain aesthetic principles such as Wholeness, Balance, Wetness and Dryness or Regularity and Flow.

Calligraphy beyond China / Calligraphy from China to Japan

Although this website is dedicated to providing the materials and knowledge necessary to begin a Traditional Chinese Calligraphy practice, it is important to keep in mind that calligraphy is not limited to China. In the cultures of Europe and North America, however, calligraphy is not often seen as a visual art of the status of painting or sculpture. Yet, personal penmanship, typeface production, creative typesetting and even public sign production or graffiti can all be considered calligraphic.

In Islamic communities throughout the world, calligraphy has also served as an important aspect of the aesthetic presentation of concepts and passages from the Qur’an (or Koran). Such calligraphy is highly spiritualized, seeking to draw the viewer toward a more direct apprehension of the spiritual truth of scripture. For further reading in Islamic Calligraphy and Art, one might read Sheila S. Blair’s “Islamic Calligraphy”, or David J. Roxburgh’s “Writing the Word of God: Calligraphy and the Qur’an”.

It is also worthwhile to note that in Japan, calligraphy has enjoyed much the same status as it has in China. Indeed, the Japanese writing system is based upon China’s. Before the introduction of local alphabets, Japanese Calligraphy closely followed the Chinese tradition. Indeed, the works of Wang Xi Zhi were very closely emulated up to the ninth century. Later on, however, the two cultures drifted further and further apart when it came to aesthetic concerns. In Japan, Calligraphy was dominated more by Buddhist teachings than was the case in China. The development of different character sets to allow for the differences in the two languages also fed into a growing difference between the two traditions. In Japan, Calligraphers quite rapidly began using wildly different line weights and proportions within individual works. The links to a spiritual, and hence artistic freedom associated with Buddhism is perhaps more prevalent in Japanese calligraphy than in China, where tradition has reigned supreme. Despite all this, traditional Japanese calligraphy still makes use of essentially the same materials as does the Chinese tradition. For further reading, refer to Boudonnat and Kushizaki’s “Traces of the Brush: the Art of Japanese Calligraphy” or Stephen Addiss’s “The Art of Zen: Paintings and Calligraphy by Japanese Monks, 1600-1925”.