Theories of Chinese Calligraphy

T2: Excerpts from Essays & Biographies

Though diligent and consistent practice is very important to an artist, understanding, insights and reading literatures are also important. Chinese used to call a man who has calligraphy skills yet without enough knowledge or depth a “calligraphy artisan” rather than a calligrapher. Knowing the historical background and life experiences of ancient calligraphers will give us better understanding and hints for practicing Chinese calligraphy.


A. Tsao Shu Posture : Tsui Yuan (77-142) of the Han Dynasty

“… Trying to examine the structure and posture of a Tsao Shu character, whether it’s tall, low, up or down, it obeys strict methodology. So don’t assume that they don’t fit into rules. Some characters look slanted, with left side low and right side high. These resemble beasts lifting heads before running, or birds cheering up before flying. It also looks like a frighten rabbit running but not started yet …”

“The writing of Tsao Shu with precipitous structure looked far away like a falling clip by the river; however its strokes are undetachable when examined close by. The delicacy and nuances within this wonder is …”


Note: An insightful artist who does not know the Chinese language may think those descriptions were exaggerating when s/he is reading those excerpts and appreciating some Chinese calligraphy works commonly seen in public medias. It depends on what Chinese calligraphy work you have seen. Those we have seen at Wang Hsi-Chih’s time were almost duplicates by the Tang Dynasty calligraphers and the level of art had gone down quite a lot – spirit changed, appearance not quite the same … Those calligraphers before him almost left no works on original paper. (Some call these the "ink on paper" versions.) The works we see today have been duplicated many, many times throughout each dynasty. Of course, the spirit was lost forever on tablets and cannot show the ink nuances of the original calligraphy. Furthermore, the pictures of rubbings of ancient Chinese calligraphy works are usually lower quality scans without enough pixels in many books or web sites.


B. Zuan Shu Postures  : Tsai Yong (132-192) of the Han Dynasty

“ … Some strokes are very light with some turning, and the ink nuances are different at the start and end of a stroke. It’s so well connected that it looks like dew traveling alongside a silk thread and gathering at its end.”

“ … This kind of Zuan Shu looks like a group of flying bird far away. When we approach for a better look, we cannot tell how each stroke and character started as if it came from nowhere.”


C. Map of Strokes Disposition "Bi Zhen Tu  " : Madame Wei (272-349) of the Jin Dynasty adame Wei (272-349) of the Jin Dynasty

“ When the prime mister Lee Si witnessed Zhou Mu Wang’s writing, he kept praising for seven days but thought it lacked backbones.”


D. Talking About Calligraphy: Wang Sen-Chian ( , 426-485) of the South Chi Dynasty

“Tsai Yong did not want to write unless it’s a very delicate silk or cloth…”


E. Article on Zhong Yao's Calligraphy: Emperor Wu Di (464-549) of the Liang Dynasty

“When Wang Hsi-Chih emulated Zhong Yao’s work, the posture of each character was delicate and detailed. However, when he practiced alone from memory, the level of each character just went down.”

“Wang Hsian-Chih was not as good as Wang Hsi-Chih just as Wang Hsi-Chih was not as good as Zhong Yao. Learning Wang Hsian-Chih’s work is like painting a tiger; learning Zhong Yao’s work is like painting a dragon.”


F. Talking about Wang Hsi-Chih: Emperor Tang Tai Zong

“I examined all calligraphy works with tiny details of ink from ancient times until now. I only find Wang Hsi-Chih as the most perfect calligrapher … His works look like mist surrounding, dews condensing, connecting as if not connecting … upright as if slanted.”


G. Autobiography : Huai Su (725-785) of the Tang Dynasty

“… to describe the shape of a Tsao character… It looked like light smoke around an ancient pine tree, but suddenly it opened up like a high cliff of 10,000 yards…I only see lightings and electricity twinkling under the brush. Once the work was finished even a crouching dragon will fly away.“


(Click for complete picture)


H. Biography of Huai Su : Lu Yu of the Tang Dynasty. (Lu Yu wrote three rolls of scriptures about tea tasting and was referred to as the “god of tea.”)

“Wuu Dan told Huai Su, “There are many styles of Tsao Shu. Because Wang Hsian-Chih’s Tsao Shu looks like leafless, stiff, and dry trees in the winter, Tang Tai Zong did not like it. Zhang Shui (  ) had told me in private that the lively postures and movements of Tsao Shu writing resemble a scene of a high tent with flying sand blown up from nowhere …“”


I. Biography of Liu Gong-Chuan 

“… Emperor Tang Mu Zong sometimes was odd in running government affairs. Once he asked Liu Gong-Chuan about the perfect way to hold a brush. Liu replied, “Operating the brush is from the heart. If the heart is upright, then the brush will be upright.” As the emperor realized his hint, he felt sorry …”


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