Cultural Sources of Chinese Calligraphy – The Interaction of Chinese Calligraphy and Poetry

The Role of Chinese Calligraphy as a Literary Art in Poetry

While most of the articles on this website focus on calligraphy as a visual art, it is also a literary art. The words chosen for a calligraphic work are just as important as the excellence of their realization. While short propitious phrases, tracts from philosophical or religious texts, essays, and even personal letters have all been cites of calligraphic work, poetry is perhaps the most common focus of calligraphy.

This propensity of calligraphers to make use of poetic verse is unsurprising when one considers that traditional Chinese poetry is governed by very strict literary conventions. In particular, the use of lines of a consistent number of characters is very helpful when laying out a calligraphic composition. Moreover, Classical Chinese poems are not very long, running from four to about eight lines of five or seven characters apiece. This makes Classical Poetry ideally suited to calligraphy: the entire work may be easily written, evaluated and displayed on a single sheet. In a similar vein, the rhyme schemes of Chinese poetry can lend a verbal, spoken beauty that complements the visual interest of the piece, further enriching both visual and literary experiences.

Presenting Poetry in Chinese Calligraphy Script

While calligraphers certainly responded to and emulated the artistic writing styles of past Masters, they also responded to the sentiments and imagery conveyed in the works of poets. Before print media became commonplace, handwriting was in fact the only way to record or reproduce poems. As such, a calligrapher would often produce works that sought to present the words of a poet in an inventive and expressive script. The ability of written works to be perceived as visual artworks allowed the poetry of ages past to be revived again and again and thus continue to influence current styles.

Chinese Calligraphy and Poetry to Define Social Status

Literacy in China has long been reserved for the elite classes. The management of the vast bureaucracy of China has, in every historic dynasty, nevertheless demanded a great number of literate scribes and lesser officials. This extended community of civil servants was united by the socio-political values of Confucianism. In a society with such an emphasis on felicitous social relations, it was not uncommon for literate individuals to send their friends personalized artworks as gifts of respect and admiration. In such contexts, well-written calligraphic poetry would have been highly prized, at testing to the piety, humility and refinement of both the author and recipient. In this way, literary and visual arts together served to maintain extended social networks and reinforce prevailing Confucian notions. Yet, this type of artistic production was not intended for wide distribution, but rather to cement social relations within a small group. Thus, this type of writing served to further separate the literate elite from the illiterate commoners.