Theories of Chinese Calligraphy

T7: Metaphysics

In Chinese calligraphy our goal is to vividly and honestly convey our mind image and intention. It does not only depend on the strokes or appearances. The substance must be over or no less than the form in a Chinese calligraphy work. Chinese calligraphy is also called “Heart Painting.” We may paint a tree or landscape. But how can we “paint” our heart in a highly encrypted or abstract form that can both convey beauty and be understood? This is not an easy subject. 


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Liang Kai

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Wei Heng

Liang Kai

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Wang Hsi-Chih

Looking at the above works, they all used the least amount of strokes and the artists’ intentions were clearly understood. Their simplicity, transcendent, boldness, and honesty were all exemplified.


In paintings of the Sung Dynasty, one could find animals, birds, flowers, and humans that were not only accurately depicted in shape and manner. Their internal substance, emotions, ideas, and aspiration were also captured by the artists. Compared with Chinese brush painting that has a physically observable subject, Chinese calligraphy has a more abstract subject to paint – the mind. Even though Chinese calligraphy relies on its character form, structures, and brushwork, then in what approach can a Chinese calligrapher paint his/her heart? This is why all Chinese calligraphers emphasize that the mind always leads the brush.


In the Tang Dynasty, both Hsu Hao (  ) and Yen Jen-Ching (  真卿 ) inherited Wang Hsi-Chih’s calligraphy. Critics said Hsu Hao got his “skin and hair” in appearance so his work looked like Wang’s; however, Yen Jen-Ching inherited Wang’s internal substance so his work did not look like Wang’s.


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Wang Hsi-Chih

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Hsu Hao

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Yen Jen-Ching



Stone Drum Inscriptions ( 鼓文 ) on ten stones are a highly regarded Zuan Shu work throughout the Chinese history. There have been numerous calligraphers practicing emulation of the work. One of the most recent and famous emulations was done by Wu Tsun-Shuo  ( 昌碩 ). He did not emphasize on appearance and his emulation totally looked different from the original. He encrypted a high level of metaphysics and symbolized ideas to capture the spirit and essence of the original work.


Stone Drum Inscriptions (original)

"Yi Lin" by Wu Tsun-Shuo

Emulation “as is”


Since Chinese calligraphy is also known as "heart painting" and a heart has no appearance or a physical object, the study of philosophy and metaphysics are required for calligraphers at all stages.


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