Calligraphy is considered to be one of the most important art forms in Chinese culture. Only in Islamic art does calligraphy also rank so highly. Why? In both cases, beautiful writing constitutes what is most precious and sacred to the culture. In China, calligraphy represents not just writing and art, but beliefs, education, literature, performance, and social values. Calligraphy can be large or small in scale and execution; it can be produced very quickly or very slowly and carefully. It can be created with relatively few materials, and it is easily transportable. It is, along with painting and poetry, the most personal and expressive of Chinese art forms. It is no wonder that calligraphy, painting, and poetry in China are referred to as the “Three Perfections.”
Naturally there is a close relationship between calligraphy and painting, since both were produced by the skillful use of brush and ink. Which art form came first? It appears that in China writing first developed through the use of pictographs, so from a very early time, writing and making pictures were closely intertwined.
Chinese characters trace their origins to sacred writing on ancient oracle bones and bronze vessels nearly four thousand years ago. Writing on oracle bones served the purpose of ritual divination. Inscriptions on bronze vessels consisted of dedications accompanying some event, not unlike later dedications inscribed on Buddhist artworks. Soon, scribes began to record important events and royal decrees on wood and bamboo slips. By the Han dynasty (206 BCE–CE 220), new script styles began to be written on silk and paper. Beautiful writing began to be collected as an art form and was transferred to stone monuments to be used like libraries as archives and historical markers. Some of the most ancient writings to be collected and revered as works of art were fragments of letters, particularly the writings of Wang Xizhi and his son, who lived in the 300s during the Jin dynasty (1206-1234). This was the beginning of cursive script styles, written with more rapidity and with greater freedom of expression. At about the same time, standard script styles began to replace the earlier clerical scripts of the Han dynasty (206 BCE–CE 220). This standardized fourth-century script is the basis for standard forms of calligraphy that are used today.
The importance of calligraphy is undoubtedly related to the Confucian-based education system which placed such a high value on writing and knowledge. Scholars were expected to demonstrate skillful calligraphy as a component of their qualifying exams, in addition to knowing the content of classical texts. A famous exercise was developed during the Liang dynasty (late 400s) that involved writing one thousand different characters (qian zi wen) made up of 250 sentences, all rhyming, with each sentence containing four characters, and none of the characters repeated. This exercise formed a critical part of the curriculum for scores of aspiring calligraphers by the Tang and Song and for centuries thereafter.
Originality and individuality do not play the same role in much of Chinese art as in familiar examples of post-Renaissance Western art, where artists are appreciated for striking out in entirely new directions. Chinese calligraphers often studied former masters for decades before reaching a point where their calligraphy could be identified by any sort of personal style. In fact, for many Chinese artists it could be said that originality was how one interpreted the works of others more than how one’s art differentiated itself from everyone else’s.
During the Tang (618–906) and Song (960–1279) dynasties, a number of emperors took a great personal interest in calligraphy. Both dynasties had Imperial Academies of Calligraphy. The top calligrapher was permitted to wear a golden girdle over a purple gown, indicating that his court position was at the highest level. Tang Taizong (reigned 626–649) was impassioned by the works of Wang Xizhi. The emperor composed texts and then had court calligraphers create the calligraphy using individual characters traced from the work of Wang Xizhi. This new work was engraved and adopted as the official style in 670. It was said that Taizong was buried with the calligrapher’s most famous work, the Preface to the Orchid Pavilion or Lanting Xu. Indeed, Tang court catalogues list over two thousand works by Wang Xizhi, but by the Song that number had decreased to only 243, and the Orchid Pavilion was not listed among them. Song Huizong (reigned 1101–1125) added an Imperial College of Calligraphy in 1104 and appointed Mi Fu as its first Dean. Huizong himself practiced a very elegant form of calligraphy using very thin strokes. His paintings of natural subjects and those of his court artists were equally meticulous.
By the Song, appreciation of calligraphy—and painting—had reached very sophisticated levels. Artists looked for specific, but subtle qualities in each other’s work. They wanted to see dynamic energy or qi that captured the essence of life, breath, vitality. They wanted works to project the artist’s innate humanity, the nature and character of the person, or xing. They even appreciated a deliberate awkwardness, or the ability to overcome the desire to show off, called cho. Many of these same principles applied to theories about painting.