History of Chinese
Calligraphy - Part 2

Kinbun, late Shang dynasty, late 13th century B.C., ink rubbing.

From the 16th century B.C., calligraphy evolves rapidly. Various styles come to life, starting with seal script, clerical script, then, cursive, standard and semi-cursive, respectively. Chinese calligraphy reached its full maturity in early C.E., which is when all of the styles were already in use. Nonetheless, since the Chinese writing system was introduced to other nations, for instance Japan, it kept evolving in slightly different cultural and linguistic circumstances. As a result, it led to the development of new “territorial” styles, such as Japanese kana, also known as onnade (女手, i.e. woman’s hand).

Due to the great importance and emphasis each individual country placed on the growth of the calligraphic art of the Far East, particular styles characteristic to given areas or time periods will be discussed separately. This should provide a detailed perspective and contribute to better understanding and appreciation of this remarkable art.

The question that one may ask at this point is why does such a complex writing system persist, and why it was not ever simplified (although to a degree it was, especially in The Democratic Republic of China). The answer is to be found in culture. The Western world values what is explainable scientifically or logically, thus it is touchable or definable. The East has an opposite approach to life, deeply rooted in the appreciation of nature, belief in cosmic forces, the supernatural, magic and all that is unexplainable rationally. All calligraphic theories were based on nature. Many masters were inspired by the simple sounds of a creek, falling rocks or the graceful moves of a skilled dancer. This is why the art of shodo is so elusive, making it impossible to catalogue or classify. Calligraphy is being created long before it appears on paper; in the very heart of the Universe itself.

Praise for King Xuan, the 11th ruler of Zhou (西周颂鼎), kinbun, Western Zhou, 9th century B.C. ink rubbing.

If we look at the development of painting, the West went through a transformation from realism to abstraction of 20th century. Intriguing is what Picasso once said:

“Had I been born Chinese I would have been a calligrapher, not a painter.”

Yi Ying Bei (乙瑛碑), late Han Dynasty tablet, clerical script, 153 C.E., ink rubbing
Mythical beauty and advanced imagery of calligraphy fascinated him and encouraged him to pursue a highly abstract style in his masterpieces. Now think a moment. Whilst Picasso was a pioneer of the abstract style in painting or sculpture, in the Far East it was a standard for millennia. Still today the Chinese believe that painting and calligraphy are sister arts, and the border between them is fluent. They not only complement each other but are even governed by the same rules: abstract concept, no retouching, use of brush ink and paper, etc.


Continue to Chinese Calligraphy - Part 3

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