Theories of Chinese Calligraphy

T8: From Structures to Styles

The ancient calligraphers view the structure of a Chinese character as the “character's posture  .” They often referred to a calligrapher’s beautiful characters as flying dragon, jumping tiger, clouds and sunset, and some other natural wonders. This section of theory will discuss briefly strokes, postures, structures, and styles as inseparable components of a good Chinese calligraphy style.


「永」字具中國書法之各種筆法之最佳字例,因此談中國書法筆法以「永」字為例。惟楷、行、草各種筆法取向角度及結構因人而異,宜多練習他字帖後乃能熟各種字體的筆法。若有教人單單練習「永」 字者,恐有以偏概全之虞。

(This Chinese character "forever" contains all basic strokes. It is often adopted by most calligraphers for teaching purposes. However, it's not advisable to practice this character alone. The student should get familiar with various strokes in different styles because the strokes are different in Kai, Hsin, and Tsao Styles in terms of angles and characteristics.)


Strokes are the building blocks of a Chinese character’s structure. Character structures then form a calligrapher’s style. If we compare a calligraphy style to a city’s landscape, then the characters’ structures will be the buildings' curb appeal while the strokes will be the interior design of a building.

Traditional aesthetic theory has valuated individual brush strokes according to four qualities, which should be perfectly balanced in a flawless writing:







Once the strokes are established appropriately for a character’s structural design, every stroke is enlivened. Since Zhong Yao (151-231) and Wang Hsi-Chih, the norms of creating a structure in Kai Shu had been set. As Chinese calligraphy develops, the two keys to good calligraphy are methods of holding and operating a brush and structure of the character – and these have not changed since three thousands years ago! Since the Jin and Tang Dynasties, there were more and more calligraphers and the calligraphy methodologies became even more sophisticated; however, the artistic level of Chinese calligraphy was going down. Only few outstanding calligraphers could comprehend the secrets and principles of operating a brush and structuring a character. They studied the essence and spirit of previous calligraphers’ works and then created their own unique styles.   Zhao Meng-Fu ( 孟頫 ) of the Yuan Dynasty once said, “Learning Chinese calligraphy relies on appreciating ancient masterpieces and comprehending the ancient calligraphers’ operating principles of brushes.” He also said, “ Chinese calligraphy should focus on operating brushwork as well as character structures. The character structures may change over time but the principles of operating brushes never change.”


Since Zhong Yao and Wang Hsi-Chih, no matter how Kai Shu changed and new styles were invented, the norms set by Zhong and Wang were not violated in most cases. For every founder of a new calligraphy style in each dynasty, they were not only great artists – they were also wise men with broad range of knowledge and life experiences. Some were scholars, politicians, officials, musicians, generals, or martial artists. Their insights to creating the structures of characters brought new life to Chinese calligraphy.


The founding principles of a character’s structure can be analyzed into the following characteristics:

All the five major styles of calligraphy follow those principles. For Zuan Style, symmetry is also required. To design a new style of structure is not an easy task. It requires artistic insights and inspirations. The structural design is also closely related to operation and disposition of strokes, spacing, rhythm, and etc.







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