Cultural Sources of Chinese Calligraphy – The Connection of Chinese Calligraphy and Brush Painting

Calligraphy and Painting – The Sister Arts of the Chinese Literati

In China, traditional painting and calligraphy may be taken together as the defining visual arts of the historical elites. These two art forms, sharing the very same materials, have for centuries defined the aesthetic sensibilities of the lettered classes. In the West, we often think of words and images to be entirely different modes of communication. In China, this stark separation has not been created. Here, we’ll attempt to decipher some of the ways in which Calligraphy and Painting influenced each other in the Chinese tradition so that we can understand each discipline a little more fully.

Pictographs in Chinese Calligraphy – The Connection of the Written Symbol and the Real World

Chinese writing has never truly shed its reliance on the correspondence between sign and referent. Individual characters may often be linked back to an archaic depiction of the thing they are meant to signify. In this way, Chinese writing is related just as much to the actual form of things as it is to the verbal utterance of words. In the West, this is not so: the development of an alphabetic writing system long ago severed representational link between the written symbol and the real world.

When we take this into account, it is not difficult to see how the disciplines of painting and calligraphy could maintain a much stronger bond than they did in the West. Furthermore, when we consider the ancient attitudes toward written language, we see that the correspondence between speech, symbol, and referent were assumed to be divinely inspired and integral to the socio-political worldview of early Chinese civilization. One need look only to the myths of the creation of writing associated with Fu Xi (伏羲/Fu Hsi) to see that writing was considered a divine tool that could expose the essential mechanics of the metaphysical world.

Writing as Painting, Painting as Writing: How Emulation and Copying Impacted Chinese Calligraphy

While the ancient origins of writing and painting as descriptive languages set the stage for a worldview in which words and images were essentially inseperable, later developments would create many interesting correspondences between the two traditions. Since at least the Period of Disunion, masters of the arts have been celebrated and copied by students as a way of achieving mastery. The status of the Masters meant that by the Ming at the latest, it was very common to consider artworks according to their use of modes taken from much earlier works and styles.

On the one hand, the forms of characters and uses of different Scripts may be likened to the different genres of painting such as landscape, court, portrait or bird and flower. On the other hand, specific ways of rendering different types of rocks, plants and animal were, over time, linked so strongly to individual masters that a sort of standardized painting lexicon emerged. Painters thus did not so much paint from nature as they did select the different pre-defined elements that they wished to use, just as the calligrapher would select the characters for a composition. In either case, the Chinese literati artist became in some senses more concerned with the graceful and controlled movements of the Brush on Paper than they were with the apparent content of a given piece.

Chinese Painting and Chinese Calligraphy Writing: Inseparable Traditions

Aside from certain formal an abstract aesthetic connections, Chinese painting and calligraphy (Glossary) are often linked in individual works. Indeed, it is very uncommon for a painting to contain no writing. Traditionally, painted works would include a title, dedication, date and signature of the artist. Extended commentaries regarding the reason or context of a given work were also common. Over the years, scholars might even be privileged to add a few lines of their own thoughts directly to a painting. In the West, this would have been anathema to the idea of artistic integrity and the sanctity of the original work. However, if we can think of paintings as more like texts than pictures, the addition of such commentaries may seem less intrusive.

Indeed, when we consider the contexts in which Chinese artworks were traditionally viewed, the use of words and images together makes more sense. We often think of artworks as objects suited to public display. In the literati tradition, however, it was very uncommon for art to be publically displayed.

Allowing a colleague to view one’s collection was a very intimate invitation that spoke to mutual respect and reverence. Formally, the handscroll and the album speak to this more private concept of art. A handscroll is not meant to be viewed in gestalt as is a hanging painting, but rather to be slowly rolled and unrolled as a pictorial journey through a scene or narrative. Likewise, albums could not be viewed all at once, but provided intimate sketches to be viewed in sequence. In both cases, pairing words and images created an artistic experience that was just as literary as it was depictive. Albums might have a painting on side and a calligraphic work on the other. Some handscrolls sometimes contained a narrative structure in which the images and text told a continuous story. In sum, image and text have served together to create the traditional Chinese arts in a much more fluid way than in the Western tradition.