An Overview of Chinese Calligraphy Books – Historical Surveys and Instructive Guides of Chinese Calligraphy

Instructive Guides of Chinese Calligraphy

When it comes to starting your calligraphy practice, you will likely find it helpful to purchase one or two books for easy reference. The instructive guides discussed here should all help you get off to a good start, and many of them provide you with tools for copying your first characters. Kwo Da-Wei’s 1981 book entitled “Chinese Brushwork in Calligraphy and Painting” may appear somewhat dated in its format, but it is nevertheless an excellent addition to any calligrapher’s library. Kwo is a fine calligrapher and accomplished painter in his own right, and he carefully explains the methods of writing and painting. Moreover, his historical and aesthetic analysis is very thorough and engaging. For anyone interested in the Chinese art tradition, this book is an excellent purchase: despite its age it is still in print, and with good reason.

Qu Lei Lei’s “The Complete Guide to Chinese Calligraphy” is much more recent, being produced in 2007. Qu’s book is not as dense as it Kwo’s but it provides numerous step-by-step guides to writing, is very well illustrated and provides some interesting examples of art projects for the home making use of different script types. The book also has a good number of character examples in the back, although it lacks good copying texts.

Wendan Li’s “Chinese Writing and Calligraphy” is a very thorough study and practical guide. Each chapter ends with some discussion questions and writing practice tasks. As such, it could easily be used by a group learning together. Li’s ability to intersperse his practical analysis with more in-depth historical perspectives makes the book relevant to students at all levels of proficiency and knowledge. The back of the book contains a decent number of writing exercises that the author invites us to copy and use for study.

Rebecca Yue’s “Chinese Calligraphy Made Easy” is sparing in its explication, but exhaustive in its focus on the movements of the brush. Each type of brush stroke is discussed and explained step-by-step. Strictly as a practical guide, this volume is accessible and complete.

Historical Surveys and Monographs of Chinese Calligraphy

Even in the West, a great deal of art historical writing has taken Chinese Calligraphy as its subject. In many cases, however, writing about calligraphy gets folded in to more expansive surveys of Chinese culture and art. Finding accurate and exhaustive material is further complicated by the sheer length of time that a complete history would have to engage. The brief selection of works presented below contains a both broad, ambitious histories and more limited monographs dealing with more limited time periods.

If you are looking for very high quality reproductions, the survey entitled “The Embodied Image: Chinese Calligraphy from the John B. Elliot Collection” is without peer in the West. Edited by Robert Harrist and Wen C. Fong and published in 1999, this oversize volume presents works from across history along with essays and commentary from the pre-eminent scholars of the modern era. While it is expensive, this book could form the centerpiece for a serious calligraphy library.

Clocking in at just over 400 pages, Yu-ho Tseng’s “A History of Chinese Calligraphy” is just what it says: a complete historical survey. Tseng divides his discussions up according to style and script, giving the full evolutionary lineage of each. The book is lavishly illustrated. In fact, the only mark against the volume might be that we wish some of the figures were more detailed. Of course, providing details on all the relevant works would necessitate a multi-volume set. For those wishing to immerse themselves in the vast history of Chinese calligraphy, this volume is surely indispensible.

For more focused histories, one might turn to Amy McNair’s “The Upright Brush: Yan Zhenqing’s Calligraphy and Song Literarti Politics” of 1998. This volume may be fewer than 200 pages, but its scholarship is of the highest quality. While the focus of the work is on Yan Zhenqing, McNair by necessity deals with other calligraphers of the Song in an attempt to position Song Literati culture within the calligraphic tradition at large.

In a similar vein, Qianshen Bai’s “Fu Shan’s World: The transformation of Chinese Calligraphy in the Seventeenth Century” takes in in-depth look at the formation of the Stele School, and specifically Fu Shan himself. This work is considerably longer than Mcnair’s, dealing as it must with a larger cross-section of calligraphic history.

Finally, for those interested in the modern history of Chinese calligraphy, Gordon S. Barrass’s “The Art of Calligraphy in Modern China” more than adequately covers the major artists and movements of the post-dynastic epoch: from the end of the Qing to its publication in 2002. Richly illustrated, Barrass provides two chapters of general historical background before providing the reader with twenty-five artist-specific biographies along with their major works.