Religion and Philosophy in Chinese Calligraphy – Daoism In Chinese Calligraphy: Dualism, Harmony and Contemplation

Lao Zi and the Dao Jing: Ancient Philosophy

Alongside Confucianism, Taoism forms the fundamental basis for much of Chinese Culture. Its origins lie in the philosophical works of Lao Zi, (老子/Lao Tse), in particular the Dao De Jing (道德經/Tao Te Ching), or Classic of the Virtuous Way. The name of the tradition itself comes from the central idea of ‘dao’, or ‘the way’.

For Lao Zi, who saw the strife and unrest that plagued the Warring States Period, the world was clearly in a state of perpetual change. However, he maintained that all things, despite their variety, were part of a fundamental unity: this is the Dao. Moreover, he posited that the Dao encompassed both the positive and negative aspects of all existence, which he termed Yin (陰) and Yang (陽). He further developed this theory to imply that all apparently opposed forces were in fact part of an overarching unity, and that no force or quality could exist without its corresponding antagonist. The result of this is a philosophy that stresses balance above all.

This Philosophical basis of Daoism does not account for ‘all’ Daoism. Beginning in the early Han, the philosophical tradition of Taoism was developed into much more ‘religious’ practices and myths. Central to this new movement was the idea of striving for immortality through personal perfection and/or an elixir of life. A sort of pantheon of ‘Sages’, ‘Worthies’ or ‘Immortals’ said to have achieved immortality were mythologized along with a host of deities and spirits of the natural world. Furthermore, incredible numbers of local folk practices have often been termed ‘Daoist’ even if they have only the most tangential relationship with the original texts.

Daoism in Calligraphy: Balanced Mind, Balanced Hand, Balanced Writing

When it comes to calligraphy, it may be argued that many of the aesthetic values that have been promoted in the art have their roots in Daoism. Indeed, calligraphy can be an outlet for the Daoist practitioner to embody the principles of Daoism that include De (德/Te), Wu Wei (無為) and Pu (朴/P’u). The Two Wangs were devout Taoists, and often wrote on Taoist themes. As these two artists were so critical in the development of calligraphy, it is easy to see how Daoist ideals have permeated the pursuit of the art over the centuries, and is never too far from view.

De, in the Daoist sense, refers simply to the active cultivation of the Dao. This means essentially living a life that focuses on balance, not on extremes. In Calligraphy, one might use calligraphy in order to balance the active, chaotic freneticism of modern life with a more reserved, quiet, meditative pursuit. In this way, calligraphy’s place in one’s lifestyle can be a reflection of one’s De, or virtue.

The Wu Wei is the ‘not-doing’ of the Daoist practitioner. Lao Zi is recorded as saying that ‘if one does nothing, then nothing is left undone’. This type of apparently contradictory statement expresses the idea of Wu Wei: it cautions against the arrogance of assuming that one can control the natural order of things. Daoism assumes that the Dao controls all things: only in letting go of our egoistic grip on reality is the Dao able to flourish and achieve balance. In calligraphy, this is often seen in the Cursive styles. In ‘not-doing’ the Standard Script , the balance and correspondence between the artist’s inner emotions and the writing on the page is clearly visible.

Finally Pu, translated as ‘uncarved block’, refers to the state of mind that casts off all preconceived notions and simply perceives the world as it is. In calligraphy, this can relate to both the writing and appreciation of calligraphy. In keeping the mind ‘uncarved’, the brush flows freely and the characters can be a reflection of the true Dao without mediation by a troubled mind. Further, when we look at calligraphy, we can discard the things we think we know about either the natural world or the literary one, and simply perceive the rhythmic Yin and Yang of the brush-strokes.