Chinese Calligraphy Technique and Learning: An Introduction to the Basic Brush Strokes

An Introduction to Chinese Characters

It is very easy for the novice Calligrapher, especially if they are unfamiliar with Chinese Characters, to be daunted by the complexity of Characters. It is heartening to learn, however, that Chinese Characters all rely on a very limited set of strokes, or brush movements. In fact, there are only eight basic strokes from which the astounding variety of Characters is made up. Focusing on these strokes will give the beginner a good basic understanding of the building blocks of all characters. Once you are familiar with them, and with Stroke Order, you should be able to figure out how to correctly and beautifully write just about any character you can find.

The Horizontal Stroke (橫/Heng) in Chinese Calligraphy

Perhaps the most common stroke you’ll encounter is the Horizontal Stroke. Executing a good, strong Horizontal stroke will be absolutely crucial in beginning your Calligraphy practice. Although it may seem quite simple to just draw a horizontal line, it is important for the structure of the Character that these lines are well controlled and imbued with a life of their own. That is, Horizontal Strokes are the best place to start focusing on the Bone Structure of your characters. Bone Structure refers to the ability of brush-written Strokes to possess their own dynamic tension. The name comes from the bone-like appearance of a well-executed Stroke. As you can see from the diagram, this appearance is achieved by first moving the away from the intended axis of motion so as to create a visible thickening of the beginning of the Stroke respective to the middle. At the end of the Stroke, this motion is repeated in reverse, albeit with slightly less emphasis, to fold the Stroke back on itself. The resulting stroke should thus be weighted at both ends, with the left side being slightly more pronounced than the right.

The Vertical Stroke (竪/Shu) in Chinese Calligraphy

The next major Stroke is the vertical. Pairing of strong Verticals and Horizontals will create excellent dynamic structure in your characters. While many Verticals end at a Horizontal, there are a couple variations of this stroke to keep in mind. As you can see in the diagram, The most common is the so-called Needle Stroke which is executed when a Character has a very pronounced stroke that drops beneath the rest of the character. Instead of folding back the brush at the end of this stroke, it is common to just smoothly pick the brush off the paper so that a definite point is created. Too much of a point, or too little, could spoil the look of the character, but with practice your needles will add a lofty sense to your characters.

The Turn Stroke (折/Zhe) in Chinese Calligraphy

Next, we turn to the Turning Stroke. This is basically when a horizontal stoke turns into a descending. It is vital to note that due to the behavior of the brush, and to the general preference of right-handed Brush Work, Turning Strokes are only executed when the Brush is making a right-hand turn. Left turns are instead executed with two separate strokes. When it comes to zig-zag-like characters or radicals, as pictured, it is important to keep this in mind so that you keep control of your brush by breaking up the element into correct, individual strokes. It is not proper to turn back toward the left of the page, and so a weaving element will inevitably have a few simple horizontal strokes to break it up.

The Downward Strokes (撇/Pie,捺/Na) in Chinese Calligraphy

Chinese has both Downward Right (捺/Na) and Downward Left (撇/Pie) Strokes. The Downward Right Stroke has the most well-defined ‘foot’ of the two, and tends to be slightly longer than the Downward Left. Try to start with a relatively thin line that widens toward the end before quickly flattening into a point that runs almost horizontally, as pictured. The Stroke should end along an imaginary horizontal line and not curl up into a Hook. The Downward Left Stroke has more variations, some of which begin as a Vertical Stroke. In general, the final end of a Downward Left Stroke has more of a point than the other Downward Stroke, and is not flattened into the horizontal but retains sharper angularity. As shown, the Downward Left Stroke can also have a much more obvious curve than many other Strokes.

The Upward Right Stroke (提/Ti) in Chinese Calligraphy

It can be difficult to determine, when starting to write, whether an Upward Right Stroke is called for instead of a Downward Left Stroke (Downward Left Stroke article). Referring to a good Stroke Order Resource for individual characters can be helpful, as can Copying other works. In general, though, you can tell am Upward Right Stroke be a few helpful differences. Firstly, the finest point of the stroke will be at the end. Thus, any stroke with a point at the top and right of the page is likely an Upward Right Stroke. Also, this Stroke tends to be considerably shorter than most Downward Strokes. Upward Right Strokes also commonly occur either as a ‘cap’ on the top of a character or cross a vertical element.

The Hook (鈎/Gou) in Chinese Calligraphy

Hooks are vitally important in the correct writing of Chinese Characters. Leaving off, or improperly executing a Hook is a very common beginner mistake, and will totally alter, or eliminate the meaning of a character. Hooks can go either on the left or right of a Vertical stroke, or may arise from the end of a Descending Stroke as pictured. In every case, they are a sudden change of Brush direction followed by a swift pointed end. Copying is the best way to get to grips with creating well-proportioned Hooks.

The Dots (點/Dian) in Chinese Calligraphy

Dots are very common in Chinese Characters and add very interesting opportunities to the Calligraphy. Placing a dot in reference to other elements without touching them is a constant test of a Calligrapher’s eye and hand. As shown, there are a great many variations of Dots, but they have a few common attributes. First, Dots are never perfectly round. They sometimes have a slightly curved appearance, much like a western apostrophe. At other times they are more linear and look slightly like a human eye. This is not accidental, as dots are often called the eyes of a character, an element that instills them with a sense of life.