Image source – Pixabay

“A dragon leaping at the Gate of Heaven,

A tiger crouching at the Phoenix Tower.”

This is the description of calligraphy of Wang Xizhi Emperor.

History of Chinese Calligraphy

Calligraphy is the art form of writing characters stylistically for the visual gratification of the audience, the word calligraphy is literally translated as beautiful writing. The background of Chinese calligraphy can be retraced back to 4000 B.C. To understand and appreciate the importance of Chinese calligraphy in the country’s culture, it is also imperative to understand the love the country shares for the written word. The fixation of the Chinese on calligraphy can simply be understood as their desire to be visually distinctive with their language. It was rightly said by Dawn Delbanco, Colombia University that, “This was a culture devoted to the power of the word.”

The Chinese do not have an alphabetic or phonetic system, in turn, they follow a different form of visual art for literary aspects. The written Chinese word is represented by “characters”, and each character has a corresponding unique symbol. There are more than 50000 characters in the Chinese language. This makes the simple deed of learning to read and write into an arduous process and memorizing and practising. An average Chinese literate knows about 2500 characters. This limitation is also one of the greatest strengths of Chinese calligraphy. Traditional accounts of the Chinese calligraphy background, suggest that written words denote specific meanings, this points to the manifestation of the energy of the human body and the vitality of nature. But ever since the “New Culture movement’ in the country, different phonetic systems have been adopted to homogenize pronunciations to make the language more accessible the common name.

From the Song dynasty to the start of the 20th century, calligraphy has been entwined deeply with ink painting and poetry. Practising these three forms of art was considered significant to earn a scholarly title. Mastery of the combination of all three forms of self-expression was known as the “Three Perfections”, a trinity of expression referred to as the ‘san jue.’

Apart from being considered as the supreme visual form of art, Chinese calligraphy also focuses on character development, self-expression, and cultivation. Although the “characters” are used by everyone for day-to-day communication, the art of calligraphy is diverse and easily distinguishable from bad handwriting. The visual form of Chinse calligraphy symbolizes the beauty and vitality of nature and the energy of the human body. Chinese calligraphy is said to be closely bound to the forces of nature, and it is believed that the personality of a writer is personified in his calligraphy. In fact, the pt can be retraced step by step, and stroke by stroke, to understand the mastery of the writer and his style. The personality of the calligrapher is said to be evident in his style.

Ming of the Han, a first-century emperor, learning of the imminent death of his cousin, asked a messenger to acquire a piece of his writing. He believed that he could commune with his relative in the afterlife with the assistance of his personality in his calligraphy. The belief that the writer’s personality is captured in calligraphy holds much importance in views of the Chinese culture.

Although, it might seem like the stringent rules of calligraphic art with respect to the orderly arrangement of strokes might prevent calligraphers from having an individual style, that is not the case. The monotony in the formation of characters makes the daunting task of memorization easier and makes it easier for the writer to come up with a personal style. It is also imperative that a writer first adapt the balance and proportion of a stroke while making the characters initially.

Chinese Literati and the Cultural Revolution

In the traditional culture of China, calligraphy was considered vital for the Chinese literati, which in turn ensured that the form of art intermingled with the political environment of China. Politicians and government officials were expected to be familiar with the art of calligraphy to assert their importance over others in their field. Since the bureaucrats were appointed by the emperor of China, calligraphy became a prerequisite to earning important jobs in the country. Although they dominated the cultural and local life in China until the 20th century, calligraphy is no longer associated with just the scholarly elite.

Under the leadership of the Mao Zedong, calligraphy was used excessively as a tool for revolution. Revolutionary slogans, banners, and signs were frequently displayed at workplaces and in the streets to convey dissent. The characters were formed differently with bold, block-like structures, which were drastically different from the traditional calligraphy produced through the brush. Modern-day artists like Xu Bing, who understand the importance of working with ink and calligraphy, were radically shaped by the “Cultural Revolution” during Mao’s rule. During the sixties and the seventies, Mao oversaw the development of simplified Chinese. The children were asked to learn and unlearn different characters, this has left a profound impact on the kids belonging to the generation. Artists like Xu Bing have said, “To change a language, even little, changes people’s thinking.” This shows how much calligraphy has contributed to shaping the language, identity, and culture of China.

The style of calligraphy has evolved over the years, and the art of calligraphy is no longer only accessible only to the elite. The reputation of the Chinese calligraphy in modern-day China can hardly be challenged. Calligraphy has now become an ubiquitous part of China’s visual culture. Regardless of whether or not a person is interested in the calligraphic background, every literate in China learns to read and write following the same basic principles of calligraphy. Due to this everyone in the country learns to appreciate and respect the form of art. This personal involvement also helps people appreciate the achievements of master calligraphers and their dedication to the art.

In 2009, UNESCO inscribed Chinese calligraphy into its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Calligraphy is eternally visible everywhere in China, and the traditional manner of calligraphy is in huge demand. Calligraphy has imbued itself in the culture of China so seamlessly that it can be found in doorways of houses, name signs of shops. Some universities even have professors teaching calligraphy and training budding calligrapher-artists.

Chinese calligraphy in contemporary art

Many contemporary Chinese artists like Xu Bing, Yang Yongliang, and Monika Lin are experimenting with calligraphy, exploring the form of art to contextualize and revisit the past of China. Monika Lin, in a recent museum-based performance, painted the character corresponding to the word “rice” 10000 times. This work is considered to be wonderful for its epitome of simplicity, but also for the statement it makes on Chinese history. It shows the cultural divide and the price that the Chinese farmers had to pay for the “elite” calligraphers to pursue their art.

The rice that the farmers produced were taxable, and the farmers could not afford to eat it, in turn, their labour supported the literati who spent their time engaging in leisure. This shocking cultural and class divide led to the onset of the Cultural Revolution led by Mao and caused so much cultural change in China. This has led to free practice of calligraphy by the public, and it’s evident in the form of how much it has become part of the country’s visual and historical culture.


Chinese calligraphy has also made its presence evident in Modern China through the tourist attraction that the background of calligraphy has garnered over the years. Calligraphy is a characteristic cultural symbol, given its historic context and modern renaissance. At the closing ceremony of the Asian Games, Doha, Chinese calligraphy was performed in the promotional programs for the following Asian Games of Guangzhou (China). Since the Han dynasty, the practise of calligraphy and its appreciation has been considered an important part of the country’s leisure. Even today calligraphy is practised as a form by relaxation, and ever since the Cultural Revolution, its practice has become more widespread. Calligraphy gained an elevated position in art ever since Confucius named writing as one of the six essential arts. If one chooses to visit the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, one can witness the magic of traditional calligraphers practicing calligraphy on the pavement with nothing but a bucket of water and their brushes. As they make the strokes of the Chinese characters gracefully on the pavement, the characters beautifully appear fleetingly until the water dries. In whatever ways the influence of modern art and Westernization may affect the fine arts of China, calligraphy will remain instilled inherently in the innate nature of what can be called art. It will continue to live on in the culture of the country, evident in the form of the intrinsic values which the country was built on, and on which the country has prospered. The art of “beautiful writing” still continues to prosper in China.