top of page

Chinese Calligraphy: A Gateway to Ancient China

Updated: Jan 17

Last semester I took a course covering Chinese calligraphy, 中國書法 or zhōngguó shūfǎ. What I didn’t know going into the course was that the teacher spoke very limited English, meaning the class was to be conducted almost exclusively in Mandarin. I had taken one semester of Mandarin the spring before, but that wouldn’t help me much past an initial introduction and asking to use the restroom.

Despite the daunting prospects, I decided after only a single class that I was glad the class was delivered in Mandarin. Not only was I able to pick up more Mandarin phrases that I’d never been taught in Chinese 101, but I was able to be transported into a very authentic environment every week without booking a single flight. As with any culture, Chinese culture comes with a closet full of assumptions and habits, beliefs and quirks. By the end of the class, I had a much greater sense of Chinese culture. My further understanding of Chinese people and their culture will certainly be longer lasting than my limited calligraphy skills!

Introducing Calligraphy

Before we can dive into ancient China and its affect on modern Chinese culture, it is important to understand the very basics of calligraphy. All one needs to practice calligraphy is a collection called the Four Treasures. These treasures are 1. an inkstone 2. an inkstick 3. a calligraphy brush and 4. rice or bamboo paper. Traditional calligraphy ink is formed into a solid stone, which is then ground over a finely abrasive stone while submersed in water. This process takes place anew for every calligraphy session. The inkstone and inkstick, and this grinding process is now often replaced by pre-made liquid ink.

The first few lessons were focused on general techniques: sit with a straight back, feet parallel to each other, one arm supporting the other elbow for smooth brushstrokes.

We then learned the 8 main strokes, which together form characters. Our first characters were rather simple: 一 (yi), 二 (er), 三 (san), 十 (shi), 白 (bai), and 子 (zi).

We were then able to move onto more complex characters like 水 (shui), 馬 (ma), and 貝 (bei). The only complete phrase we learned happens to be central to millennia of eastern philosophy. This is the concept of wu wei. The characters are visibly more complex: 無為. However, the principle is all about simplicity and wu wei roughly translates to non-action.

This connection between calligraphy and philosophy is our gateway to the hearts and minds of the Chinese people, both ancient and modern.

Understanding Chi, the Dao, and Wu Wei

Chi at its most basic level is life force. Yes, you can imagine it as the force from Star Wars. Chi flows through every aspect of nature, including ourselves. Chi is the universe's vital energy within us.

This notion of chi has influenced many aspects of life in China, and gave rise to practices like Feng shui and tai chi. Other art forms also draw from this notion of chi, such as some culinary practices, traditional court music, and calligraphy.

The Dao, or 'the way', is a sister principle of chi. Where chi is the energy powering the universe, the Dao is the governing force that orders this power. Essentially, the Dao is the pushing and pulling that directs the patterns and processes of life. This concept of 'the dao' is so crucial to Chinese thought that there is even an entire philosophy, and some might even call it a religion, named after it. Daoism.

One of the patterns observed in the Dao is represented by the well known yin-yang. This symbol has taken on many meanings in modern society, but at its core it is an expression of the Dao. The light half of the yin-yang is called Yang, and represents strong elements of life traditionally considered strong such as masculinity, day, summer, action, and boldness, structure, and exactness. The darker half is the yin, representing feminine energy, the night, the moon, darkness, winter, patience, passivity, chaos, and the unknown.

The Dao is fueled by the never ending cycle of yin-to-yang energy, just as each half in the yin-yang symbol is at its strongest only when it holds a part of its opposite. Nature is in complete harmony with this symbol of ever-transitioning yin-to-yang energy. Daoism and other Chinese Philosophies have long been advocates of striving to match this harmony. This is why living in harmony with nature is a key element in many ancient Chinese teachings.

Wu wei, as mentioned previously, is often called non-action. Wu wei doesn’t mean giving up goals or living in a lazy manner, as some initially assume, but rather demands knowing when to wait and when to move forward. To be 'wu wei' means understanding when to embrace the yin, and when to embrace the yang. To act in ‘wu wei’ is to allow life to flow on in its natural course without trying to stop or alter the direction of its flow. The Sages believed that life would cease to be hard once one had fully aligned himself with the Dao.

Perhaps, then, the principle of wu wei is better termed 'effortless action.'

So, what do these philosophies have to do with calligraphy?

Each of the seven strokes expresses an overall energy of yin or yang. Additionally, complete characters can be classified as yin or yang. Thus, practicing calligraphy was long valued as a powerful way to hone ones ability to see the Dao in action.

Strokes of Calligraphy

Remember those 8 main strokes of calligraphy? These are each taught by likening their energies to actions observed in nature or everyday life for the ancient Chinese. My teacher taught us these ‘likened motions’ with great vigor and rapid Mandarin explanations, at times miming flapping birds, kicking balls, trotting horses, and a variety of other charades I never pieced together. In the end, I understood, at least in part, the general feeling intended behind each stroke.

Here are some of the motions the teacher described:

点 diǎn (dot) - bird or crane landing

横 hèng (horizontal line) - reigning in a horse

竖 shù (vertical line) - drawing a bow

钩 gōu (hook) - jumping

提 tí (tick) - kicking a ball, an upwards horse whip

撇 piě (sweep left) - woodpecker, combing hair

捺 nà (sweep right) - petals falling, taking large steps

We were encouraged as a class to to focus on feeling these strokes through our heart and down to the page through our brush hand. we were instructed to always be thinking in the back of our mind about the energy behind each stroke, wether still and slow, or dramatic and swooping.

Most characters begin with a horizontal or vertical stroke. The first stroke is commonly the strongest, or most yang of the entire charaacter. Similarly, vertical strokes directly following horizontal strokes are often prominent yang strokes, bold and more saturated with ink. Yin strokes are generally more difficult because they require a very slow, steady hand. For beginners, at least, they typically come out looking blurry and blobby as opposed to tranquil and elegant.

Understanding chi was important in the classroom apart from learning the calligraphy strokes. Through a classmate's help translating temporarily, we were all taught that we should come to class with a positive attitude and a fresh mind. In other words, only bring good chi to class. He then said if we had a bad day and were in a rotten mood it would be best to simply not come, so that we wouldn’t ruin the experience of others and the atmosphere of the class by bringing negative chi with us. To further enhance the good chi of the classroom, our teacher often played traditional zither, erhu, or dizi music. This was meant to aid us in emptying our mind of our critical inner voice, and help the chi to flow without stagnation in any or all chakras of our body.

Two Life Lessons from Master Gu

My teacher, Master Gu, used calligraphy to teach us important life lessons along our class journey. These moments often became very tender as he pleaded with us to learn these things before we were his age.

The first lesson was that all things are valued and necessary.

The 8 strokes of calligraphy are all incorporated in the Chinese word 永 (yong). This is another important word that means eternal or forever. The class practiced this character alone for a solid two weeks without deviation. Our teacher emphasized repeatedly that eternity is made up of all the parts of life, just as 永 is a combination of all 8 calligraphy strokes. He went on to explain that we have to experience the sad, to be able to enjoy the sweet. We have to understand death to value what it is to live.

This concept of unity in life experiences reaches back to the principle of the yin and the yang. Life cycles through the dark times and the light times, and as Master Gu said, together this creates eternity.

The second lesson was to embrace our uniqueness.

One day as we sat at our desks, practicing our strokes, listening to a guqin recording, I found myself frustrated that my strokes were consistently different from what I saw our teacher exemplify at the front of the class. After one particularly messy blot on my rice paper a gasp of, "Ew!" escaped me. The rest of the class laughed, resonating with my accidental expression of dismay. I was embarrassed, but Master Gu used the moment to stop us all and share something he wish he'd learned earlier. Even though I had to ask my Taiwanese friend for a translation after the lecture to fully comprehend what Master Gu was expressing, I could tell that his words were deeply important.

He started by explaining that in the end, the goal of calligraphy is not to create an exact replica of any other person's calligraphy, even a Master's. All calligraphy was equal. There was no good or bad, wrong or right, so long as we felt the energy of each stroke in our hearts. So long as we focused our chi, the character would be 'tai hao' or very good. Everyone's calligraphy will be a little different, or even a lot different.

He pointed out that my calligraphy was smaller and tighter than that of my neighbor, who's strokes were generally thicker and stockier. He then motioned to the two of us and explained that it made sense, because our characters were an expression of who we are. Me? I'm a 5'2 woman with a desire for structure and efficiency. My friend and classmate? He's a well built army officer who values freedom and strength. Master Gu revealed that he, as well as other calligraphy masters, understood the connection between student's personalities and their calligraphy so well that he can tell just by looking at our homework who it belongs too... and he was right! I had never even thought to put my name on my calligraphy homework, and yet my grades were always put in accurately, and he had always brought our homework back to us with individualized tips and suggestions. This was one class period that will forever standout against my countless days of listlessly listening to unrelatable lectures about calculus, syntax, wars, and ribosomes.

Not all of Master Gu's classes were as deep and philosophical as this. To be sure, Master Gu was not always serious and contemplative. While we listened to somber traditional music during our calligraphy, Master Gu also showed us clips of his favorite Chinese comedian, talked about his favorite hot pot, and showed us pictures of his grandchildren.

To me, Calligraphy became a lesson in wu wei: embracing who I was and where my life was going. After relinquishing my need for perfection, calligraphy became an example of effortless wu wei, going with the flow. Like the ancient sages and modern masters, I came to more fully accept my own strengths and weaknesses... calligraphy being one of them! I may not have exceeded in the art of calligraphy, but I learned something much more valuable. Each of us are unique. Contentment comes from abandoning comparison and criticism.

Bonus: Here's a YouTube video that shows each stroke being performed in action!


Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page