Calligraphy: Chinese and Japanese Calligraphy

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Four thousand years ago, it is alleged, the Chinese sage Cang Jian, whose pastime was to observe birds' footprints in the sand and trace their patterns, conceived China's first writing. These were pictographs or stenographic sketches of familiar objects, animals, or birds, still more or less easily recognized. They formed no sentences or concepts, merely incomplete ideas and phrases. In the pre-Confucian, pre-Buddhist China of the Shang dynasty (15001050 bce) such scripts were used to inscribe the shells and bones used for divination. Early writing is next encountered in China during the Zhou dynasty (1122221 bce) in the stiff, cold, classic, formal ideograms of the "great seal" style (da zhuan ) that covered ceremonial bronzes with messages of felicity in the afterlife. These vessels, suitable for cooking or wine, were entombed with their masters, who might need such comforts as they journeyed to join their ancestors. "Great seal" was the writing Confucius read and wrote, and it is still used in China and Japan for signature seals (chops) or ornamental inscriptions of a particularly exalted sort.

Following the unification of China in 221 bce, the first emperor of the Qin dynasty simplified and regularized the written language into the "small seal" style (xiao zhuan ). Writing continued in use as ceremony and religious observances, but its importance increased enormously in response to the central authority's demand for records, accounts, and the issuance of edicts and orders throughout the provinces. Within a century the "regular" style (zhen shu ) developed and became the standard form still employed today.

Wang Xizhi (321379 ce), China's greatest calligrapher, created a cursive or "running" script (xing shu ). He arrived at this elegant form of speed writing, which reduces the rigid formality and clarity of "regular" style to impressionistic essentials instantly comprehensible to the expert, after studying geese. He saw in their graceful, turning, supple necks precisely the strength and flexibility required of the calligrapher's brush strokes. The result was that another convenience, and yet another level of artful beauty entered writing.

Many Chinese characters are in a sense pictures (pictographs) representing "things" such as sun, moon, tree, or house; others (ideographs) represent "ideas." But by far the majority of all Chinese characters are now recognized as "logographs," that is, as graphs that represent, strictly, neither pictorial image nor brute idea but words, through a complex system of semantic and phonemic constituents that long ago escaped from a purely visual medium of representation. By combining these graphs in an endless variety of ways to make new words and then compounding them with still others, any word or idea can be expressed. For thunder and lightning, for example, combine rain and paddy field. For cash money, put the word for gold next to that for a guardian spear. Modern notions can be incorporated into the language by the same process. For electricity, write thunder and lightning, add a tail, and make a compound with the word for feeling. The system suits China's monosyllabic language perfectly and adapts into Japanese most conveniently. When the Chinese or Japanese regard a character, they at once see a picture, hear a sound, and perceive a meaning.

Unabridged Chinese and Japanese dictionaries list upward of forty thousand characters today. A knowledge of five thousand is sufficient for reading a newspaper. The number of strokes within a single character ranges from one (meaning "one") to thirty-three (composed of three deer, meaning "rough," "rude," or "wild"). Each stroke is either thick or thin, strong or soft, curved or straight, heavy with ink or dry and faint, pushed against the paper or lightly withdrawn from it. A character, regardless of its number of strokes, must occupy the same amount of space within an invisible square, and must be equidistant from all others on the page. Each stroke composing the ideogram must be written in correct orderfrom top to bottom, left to right, vertical strokes before horizontal ones.

In 405 ce, Wani, a Korean scribe well versed in Chinese classics, was hired by the imperial court of Japan as tutor to the crown prince. Japan had no written language of its own, and it had become increasingly necessary to communicate with its powerful neighbor, the "center of the universe." Within a century China began sending presents to Japan's emperorimages of Lord Buddha, sūtras translated into Chinese from the Sanskrit and Pali, and the teachings of Confucius. Scholars arrived from China bringing with them books, music, medicines (tea among them), the craft of calendar making, and the art of divination. And with them also came the "four perfections of calligraphy"the brush, paper, ink stick, and ink stone.

Calligraphy in Japan is called shodō, "way of writing," and is a way of life, a path or pursuit, like bushidō, the path of the warrior, sadō, the cul of tea, or Shintō, the way of the gods. In the Nara period (710784 ce) priests began the practice of shakyō, the copying over and over of sūtras, the Buddha's teachings and commentaries thereon, a custom that continues to this day. A Chinese priest had said, "If you do not understand, write the sūtra. Then you will see its inner meaning." Obediently, priests spent lifetimes at this labor in search of enlightenment (which sometimes came in the middle of an ideographic stroke), as penance, and as a means of raising temple funds. Spiritual merit accrued not only to the writer but to the beholder and to anyone who purchased the manuscript.

Japan's earliest poems were in Chinese, but gradually the Japanese broke free and began adapting monosyllabic, short, concise, and tonal Chinese to their own spoken language, which is polysyllabic, highly inflected, and periphrastic with affixes for adjectives and prefixes for nouns. In the ninth century the women of the Heian court devised brief cursive signs called hiragana, a syllabary that derived from Chinese and, remotely, was probably inspired by the Sanskrit alphabet known in Chinese translation.

At present, calligraphy is held in highest esteem in Japan. Scholars practice hitsudan, or communicating with each other by exchanging notes across a table. (They can also communicate with modern Chinese this way without knowing the pronunciation of a single spoken word.) Great calligraphers are paid as much as fifty thousand dollars a word, and specimens of fine writing adorn shopping bags, cigarette boxes, or signs outside a shop window. Kabuki actors are applauded for their calligraphy, and an onnagata (a player of female roles) will mix a touch of lipstick in his ink to add eroticism to an autograph. Kakizome, the first brush writing of the new year, occurs annually on January 2, and at "calligraphy meets" more than a thousand participants ranging in age from five to sixty gather in the Great Martial Arts Hall of Tokyo to compete for prizes.

Although the typewriter and the fountain pen have removed calligraphy from the daily life of the average Japanese, many men and women practice it as a form of spiritual discipline. As Aoyama San'u, one of the greatest living calligraphers, expresses it, "In calligraphy you see the reality of the person. When you write you cannot lie, retouch, ornament. You are naked before God."


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New Sources

Barrass, Gordon. The Art of Calligraphy in Modern China. Berkeley, 2002.

Ellsworth, Robert Hatfield. Later Chinese Painting and Calligraphy 18001950. New York, 1987.

Gaur, Albertine. A History of Calligraphy. London, 1994.

Sturman, Peter Charles. Mi Fu: Style and the Art of Calligraphy in Northern Song China. New Haven, 1997.

Zeng, Youhe. A History of Chinese Calligraphy. Hong Kong, 1993.

Faubion Bowers (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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Calligraphy: Chinese and Japanese Calligraphy

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