Chinese Calligraphy Technique and Learning – The Aesthetic Concept of Wholeness

What is the Aesthetic Concept of Wholeness in Chinese Calligraphy?

As an aesthetic value, wholeness is perhaps one of the most difficult to attain in calligraphy. When we speak of wholeness, we are usually referring to the way in which individual characters achieve unity through the placement of elements within the character. If a character is whole, its individual lines and dots relate in an almost effortlessly unified manner. Although there may be many radicals in an individual character, achieving wholeness requires that each part coheres visually and that no part seems strained or unrelated to the whole.

The Impact of Balance and Tension on the Concept of Wholeness in Chinese Calligraphy

A balanced character will often achieve wholeness effortlessly if the artist has maintained balance throughout the composition, in the dynamic relationships between each line and radical. A good way of thinking about this aesthetic principle is to consider each character as having a center of gravity, just like a structure or object in the real world. This is not to say that the center of gravity in each character will be identical. Some characters will have a center that is directly in the center of the character, while others will be weighted to the top, bottom, or off to one side.

In a whole character, irrespective of where the visual center falls, each element will exist in tension with that center. That is, each element will visually relate to the center in a way that is not unlike a gravitational pull. Admittedly, this is a very abstract concept, but the placement of dots and lines must be consistent so that no part seems to be either flying away from the center or collapsing inwards. This is where tension comes in: the proper place of an element is the point at which it balances the push and pull of the center. It is in this way primarily that the concept of balance relates to wholeness. While balance more broadly is concerned with the relationships of each element to the others, the value of wholeness relates to the ability of these individual elements to relate to, and create, the visual center of the character.

The Impact of Shape on the Concept of Wholeness in Chinese Calligraphy

Another helpful way to think of wholeness is to consider the overall shape that a character should create if we were to trace a line around the outside of the character. In practice, we may use square cells to ensure that the size of characters is consistent and that they are all enclosed in a specific area. However, if we think not of how a character is enclosed, but how it expands visually from the center, we can see that the over-arching shape of a character need not conform to a square (although in many cases it should). Characters may be essentially trapezoidal, rhomboid, diamond-shaped or even pentagonal. The image to the left shows how some common characters create such shapes. Evaluating a character according to its ability to be contained in a regular geometric shape is an effective way to determine its