Saturday, July 27, 2013

Chinese Calligraphy[1]
Art Essay

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

The word calligraphy is originally a Greek word meaning “beautiful writing”. Chinese calligraphy has been practiced for several thousands of years, originating from abstract symbols carved on cave walls, animal bones and tortoise shells. Only about 1,400 of the 2,500 known oracle bone script logographs (symbols) can be identified with later Chinese characters and thus have been deciphered by paleo-graphers.

Inscriptions on Oracle Shells.
Shang Dynasty (1600 - 1046 BC).
Courtesy reference[1].

Ancient "Official-Script" Characters Written on Silk.
Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD).
Courtesy reference[1].

In my installation Codes – Lost Voices I used the vagaries of the Kangi pictograms to suggest a lost message.

ArtCloth: Kangi Rendition (foreground).
Technique: Dyed, lino-block, screen printed and laminated motifs on silk and velvet.
Size: 1.4 meters (width) x 2.6 meters (length).

Calligraphy is embedded within the Chinese culture. With a newborn baby's first photo album containing congratulations written by relatives with a brush and ink to the calligrapher’s styled embroidered “double happiness” on the pillowcases of a married couple to the inscription on the tombstone engraved by a calligrapher - calligraphy interacts with all the important events in the lives of the Chinese.

Double Happiness – ABC Embroidery Design Sets.

Calligraphy is closely related to traditional Chinese paintings, both art forms using brushes but with calligraphy restricted to black ink only. A painting is thought to be more substantial if it is accompanied by a poem composed by the painter and scripted using calligraphy.

Qi Baishi (1864 - 1957).

Shrimp by Qi Baishi.
Note: The simple strokes and different shades of ink producing shrimps in an imagined water stream. Also, the red stamp at the bottom of the calligraphy is the stamp of the artist.

An important principle in Chinese painting is to display the world in simple lines and colors. Ni Zan (1301 - 1374) landscapes consisted of little brush work and very few figures in order to evoke in the viewer a hint of what is in his minds eye. The calligraphy complements this conciseness.

Picture of Six Gentlemen by Ni Zan.
Note: The simplicity enraptures a tranquility of sorts.
Courtesy reference[1].

The Cambridge University Press has and will publish a large number of monographs as an “Introduction To Chinese Culture”. Of interest to the readership of this blog are such monographs as:
Chinese Ceramics
Chinese Clothing
Chinese Bonze Wear
China’s Museums
China’s Cultural Relics
Chinese Folk Arts
Chinese Painting
Chinese Sculpture
Chinese Arts And Crafts

…just to mention a few!

This art essay focuses on Chinese Calligraphy [1] - one of at least 10 must buys in the Cambridge University Press series!

Chinese Characters
Languages based on alphabets have words that contain four basic attributes: the words are built from the letters of the alphabet; the words have a two-dimensional aspect – length and width; the words have meaning; the words suggest the pronunciation. On the other hand, Chinese characters only have two of these attributes: shape and meaning - with the latter slightly related to the character itself.

The shapes of Chinese characters are based on a square grid. For example, the Chinese character for “permanence” is “yong”. It has eight strokes that are written in a particular order.

Written Chinese Character - “Yong”.
Note: The eight basic strokes are illustrated, and they are written in order 1 to 8.
Courtesy of reference[1].

There are a total of 90000 Chinese characters that exist, with 3500 being the most commonly used, and they are constructed using thousands of combinations of shapes. In order to read Chinese you need to understand the context of at least 3500 set of the most commonly used Chinese characters.

Chinese Scripts
There are five different Chinese scripts, with the first three given below being commonly used.

Formal Or Regular Script
This script is more than 1,000 years old and is the fundamental style for Chinese writing and so is used for printed matter and is employed in computerized fonts. Therefore, it is the style that is common for shop names, on billboards, in newspaper headlines, for official documents and on tombstones etc.

Its standard strokes, rigorous rules, and slow writing speed, makes it easy to read. The "Regular Style" preserves the precision and modulation of line width and so is less formal and heavy in appearance. The horizontal lines generally slope upwards but do not have the final tilt at the end of the stroke. The vertical lines are kept strictly vertical and do not lean away from the center of the character. Students of calligraphy have traditionally mastered this style before attempting the others.

Regular Style.
Courtesy of Columbia University (USA).

Running Script
This style developed as a quick way of writing the formal script and sits between the formal (above) and cursive scripts. It is used for everyday writing such as in letters and postcards etc.

As the name suggests, it allows for more freedom and fluidity in movement. The strokes and dots that are written separately in the "Regular Style" are joined together in a single sweep of the brush, thus producing a feeling of speed and fluency. It is looser than the formal script with more lines between the dots and strokes. Most characters have slanted shapes.

Running Script.
Courtesy Of Columbia University (USA).

Cursive Script
The cursive script is written at high speed and so the form of the characters is dissimilar to the formal script. The characters are irregular, with some of the strokes joined together, and parts of the strokes or whole strokes are sometimes omitted. This makes the characters more difficult to read but makes the appearance of the characters interesting.

Cursive Script of Wang Xizhi (265 – 420 AD)

Great Seal Script
The "Great Seal Script" covers a broad range of styles that came into use during the Chou dynasty (1122 - 221 BC) These characters are more rounded at the corners and show a mixture of thick and thin strokes. Many of the surviving examples of this style, such as the one below, come from inscriptions that were cast on bronze vessels. At the bottom of the first column is the pictograph (picture-word) for "house". The first word in the second column is also a pictograph. It shows "carriage" from a bird's eye view — a compartment with two wheels on either side, joined by an axle.

Although people today find the characters difficult to read, they are seen to be full of mystery and charm.

Great Seal Script.
Note: It contains few strokes, with no dots, hooks or turning strokes, and the lines are consistently thick.
Courtesy Of Columbia University (USA).

Small Seal Script
In 221 BC the first unifier and Emperor of China ordered that the writing system be standardized and established the writing style of his native state, Ch'in, as the model script of the empire. The round contours of this script, later known as the "Small Seal Style", make it similar to the "Great Seal Style". However, the lines are all of an even thickness and the characters are very elongated so that they might be imagined to fit neatly into a vertical rectangle.

Small Seal Script.
Courtesy Of Columbia University (USA).

Clerical or Official Script
During the Han dynasty (207 BC - 220 AD) the "Small Seal Style" was surpassed in popularity by another script, which could be written more quickly and easily with a brush. This style became known as the "Clerical or Official Script" because more samples of this script were found on official documents such as government records of taxes, census records, deeds etc.

The "Official Script" differed from the "Seal Scripts" in that the strokes were no longer drawn in an even thickness, and the pictographic and ideographic features of the "Seal Scripts" were largely diminished or lost. Notice the upward tilt at the end of the horizontal strokes, which gives each character a fluid quality.

Clerical or Official Script.
Courtesy Of Columbia University (USA).

Art Of Calligraphy
The outputs of the Chinese calligraphers have been prolific and still remains unabated.

Calligraphy is the first art that the Chinese people learn. It has been liken to “ …a painting without images, a piece of music without sound”. Its practitioners have been heavily influenced by “The Book Of Rights” (a Confucian classic) and by “Laozi” a classic of Taoism.

Part of the Inscription on the Tablet to Zhang Qian in "Official Script".
(Eastern Han Dynasty, 25 -220 AD).
Courtesy of reference[1].

"Running-Cursive" hand of Wang Xun (Jin Dynasty, 350 - 401 AD).
Boyuan copybook.
Courtesy of reference[1].

"Seal Script" of Li Yang Bing (Tang Dynasty, 618 - 907 AD).
Part of Record of Three Tombs.
Courtesy of reference[1].

"Wild Cursive" hand of Hau Su (Tang Dynasty, 618 - 907 AD).
Courtesy of reference[1].

Calligraphy was quickly digested in the Western art. Sir Herbert Read [1] claimed that abstract expressionism was an extension of Chinese calligraphy. It clearly influenced the work of Joan Miro and Paul Klee.

Paul Klee, Boats in the Flooded Waters.

What is not appreciated is the influence it had on more modern movements of art - such as Graffiti Art. Asian Graffiti artist Tsang Tsou-Choi (who passed away in July of 2007 aged 86) forged typography with thought and so brought both these streams to the fore into his contemporary Graffiti artworks.

Hong Kong's Graffiti King Tsang Tsou-Choi.
Note: He is seen here posing with a Daihatsu car he decorated with his calligraphy during the "Japan@Cool Expo" show in Hong Kong in August 2002.

[1] C. Tingyou, Chinese Calligraphy, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne (2010).