How to appreciate Chinese calligraphy – A primer

(This is a thoroughly reworked version of an old article).

Chinese calligraphy finds fewer western admirers than it deserves. This is largely because, informed by the 19th and 20th century art theories which define art as a system of symbols conveying a meaning, they naturally assume that as the object of calligraphy is a text, understanding the text and being able to read it is essential to any appreciation of the art. When faced with a work of Chinese calligraphy, therefore, most non-Chinese/non-Japanese/non-Koreans simply do not afford the work the attention necessary to realize that this assumption is wrong.

But it is.

Like all art, Chinese calligraphy can be appreciated on many levels of perception, from the level of inborn cognitive mechanisms shared by all human beings, through the levels of trained mechanisms of perception which do not require sinological training and those which do require it, to trained mechanisms which require training in Chinese calligraphy specifically.

I will now discuss some of these mechanisms in that order.

1. Inborn mechanisms of perception

As current brain researchers will tell you, the human mind is a kludge – a more or less haphazardly (in the order in which they evolved, rather than according to any central plan) lashed-together collection of more or less independent devices each of which serves well a very specific purpose. What we experience as mentation (thinking, reflection, meditation) is a process by which we try to make sense of the often incongruous outputs generated by these independent mechanisms. This often involves using those mechanisms for a purpose for which they were not designed (“misusing them”).

All art appreciation to some extent relies on “misusing” our inborn apparatus of perception. Appreciation of Chinese calligraphy exploits at least three such mechanisms shared by all human beings and used by them for purposes unrelated to art.

a.  Sense of balance

The first is the sense of balance: a mechanism which we all use to balance our bodies and our tools in nature and to predict their movement. A Chinese character is typically composed of several parts and their relationship can be manipulated by the calligrapher: some can be written higher and others lower, they can be closer or further apart, some can be written smaller and others longer, they can be written as of even thickness, or they can be written as either narrowing or flaring out towards the end, horizontal elements can be written horizontal or can be written with a slight variation from the horizontal – rising or falling a little, straight strokes can be written as straight or they can be written with a bit of curvature, etc. As a result of these variations, a written Chinese character appears to be more or less balanced. At a certain level, the appreciation of the balance of the character is open to all healthy human beings: to the extent that we all move and act in nature, we can sense whether a character is in balance or not.

In gross simplification, balanced characters are seen as more visually pleasing; inscriptions consisting of a single character, therefore, will be evaluated for the balance of the way that character is written. A learned reader of the character may notice that some parts of the character are written in a new, unusual way, which requires a balancing act – an unusual writing of another part of the same character so that the end result is still properly balanced; and he may derive an additional pleasure out of the novelty of the solution; but the overall sense of balance and order which he experiences in the end will be the same as the sense of balance and order experienced by a totally illiterate viewer of the same character.

To illustrate the point:  here is how the character Song is “properly” written (or, rather, typed):

And here is how a calligrapher might write it:

Can you see how the calligraphic version is “novel”, “original”, “innovative”, “odd”, “fresh”, “creative”, “off-center”, “odd” and yet appears as balanced as the original version?

Since a calligraphic text usually consists of more than one character, the calligrapher can produce the sense of balance dynamically: i.e. while individual characters may appear out of balance – leaning one way or another – other characters in the same inscription may lean in the equal and opposite manner so that overall a sense of order and balance is achieved. See how this group of characters, each off-kilter, balance each other to make a pleasing, harmonious group:

Again, the perception of overall balance does not require understanding of the script or the text. Any healthy human being can appreciate it in the same manner in which he or she can appreciate a precariously balanced rock or well-shaped tree.  Look at this well-shaped, precariously balanced character: it even looks like a tree.  Or is it — a dancer executing a pirouette?


Or is it an old man with bushy eye-brows pinching his lips in discontentment?

b. Facial recognition

The second universal perception mechanism which can be used in appreciating Chinese calligraphy is the face-recognition apparatus. Reading faces both for recognition and for psychological insight is an ability which all healthy human beings share; its outputs are usually among the most important aspects of cognition and produce powerful emotional responses: some faces or facial expressions appear threatening and others calming, some are mysterious and some beautiful. The fundamental importance of this perception mechanism means that we try to apply it in all situations — as if our minds were trying to make sure that there isn’t a face hiding in the bush, for instance. (This is what happens when you suddenly see a face in the way a cloud has changed its shape: your face recognition apparatus will have “noticed” something).

Our brains attempt to apply the methods of the face-recognition mechanism in all kinds of situations; and therefore it is of fundamental importance in art appreciation – in architecture, for instance, we speak of buildings having “facades” — literally, faces; that some facades are more pleasing than others has a lot to do with our sense of balance, but also a lot to do with impressions derived from the (misapplied) face-recognition apparatus: a human face with similar “features” or “expression” would produce a certain kind of reaction in us. That reaction, or its trace, appears as a an emotional note in the overall impression produced by the work we are admiring. This mechanism works as much in appreciation of Chinese calligraphy as it does in appreciation of facades of buildings or abstract textile patterns. Even illiterate viewers of Chinese characters will note faint emotional responses they have to individual characters.

c.  Rhythm

The third inborn cognitive mechanism shared by all human beings which is used to view Chinese calligraphy is the sense of rhythm. What precise role this plays in our cognitive apparatus remains unclear; but all human beings everywhere respond strongly to rhythm and its variation. The sense of rhythm, like the sense of balance and the face-recognition mechanism, can be (and is routinely) applied to the appreciation of Chinese calligraphy: to the extent that a Chinese text consists of a succession of characters; and each of these ideally fits into an identically-sized square space (as tall as it is wide); a Chinese inscription therefore appears to organize space into a series of lines each consisting of a number of bars or beats. Some inscriptions strive to make all characters appear the same size conveying an overall sense of even-paced, harmonious progression – a mood described in western musical terminology as andante (literally “walking”); while others intentionally set out to vary the size of characters introducing a kind of variation from the usual, which can be constant, introducing a sense of repetitive rising and falling motion, or, on the contrary, varied (or, in musical terms, syncopated).  Here is an inscription varying the size of the characters according to the pattern:  Large – small – large – small – medium:

All of these ways of appreciating Chinese calligraphy are open equally to all healthy human beings. Everyone viewing a Chinese calligraphic inscription is capable of seeing the work simultaneously using all three mental mechanisms; and the interplay of the outputs produced by the three results in a sensation of “depth” (complexity) of the “je ne sais qua” variety: even the most experienced connoisseur of Chinese calligraphy experiences difficulty when trying to describe just what he experiences: our every day life does not train us to analyze and report the way our perceptions of rhythm, balance and facial expression interact; this does not subtract from the power of the experience; and often, on the contrary, the sense of mystery thus awakened only increases it.

2. Non-sinological, trained mechanisms of perception

In addition to inborn, more or less automatic mechanisms of perception discussed above, human beings are capable of developing trained responses to repeat experience. The one most applicable to the appreciation of Chinese calligraphy stems from the experience of writing or painting. This comes in at least two varieties: just as a vinyl record records the sounds of an orchestra; and playing it reproduces the sound; so the calligraphic inscription records the movements of the calligrapher’s body and the viewer of the inscription, following the lines left on paper by the calligrapher’s brush, can sense the dynamic of the calligraphers movement. (Indeed, observing viewers of calligraphic inscription suggests this is a very common way of appreciation calligraphy: the viewers bodies often sway gently in response to the perceived movement; and sometimes their hands appear to trace some parts of these movements in the air as if they themselves were holding the brush).

An experienced brush-handler will literally “hear” (with his mind’s ear) the sound produced and feel (with his mind’s hand) the resistance offered by the paper at each point of the inscription. Although both these responses are trained – i.e. they would not be possible in anyone who has never handled a writing implement – they are in no way sinological. Anyone who has ever written anything can appreciate a Chinese inscription in this manner..

The other variety of the experience has to do with the perception of the wetness and/or dryness of the brush. The calligrapher dips his brush in ink and proceeds to write, and as he writes his brush gradually dries resulting in a changing sensation of contact with the underlying paper from smooth to ever more scratchy. How fast his brush dries not only indicates whether his writing is slow or fast; and therefore whether his movement is uniform or speeds up and slows down in turn; but also how much pleasure he is taking at each particular moment form the response of the paper.

Somewhat similar to music, longer inscriptions are thus often divided into “bars”: each “bar” starts with a wet brush and ends when the calligrapher interrupts writing in order to get more ink. Here is an inscription subdivided into such “bars” for you:


3.  Sinologically trained mechanisms of perception

There are however certain aspects of Chinese calligraphy appreciation which do require familiarity with Chinese script. Chinese characters are written in particular order of strokes, generally starting from upper left corner and ending at lower right (with exceptions). And they are written with a large but finite vocabulary of strokes (the horizontal long line called “yi heng” etc.) A person familiar with the practice will be able to appreciate how the calligrapher abbreviates or elides certain movements, or how he varies the appearance of the same strokes, or how he varies the appearance of the same character throughout the text depending where it appears in the phrase, or how he introduces a kind of flowing wave in the straight lines of the character meaning “river”.

4. Chinese-calligraphically trained mechanism of perception

Familiarity with the existing body of calligraphic classics also affects one’s pleasure at viewing an inscription. Knowing that Huang Ting Jian, who was a certain kind of person, wrote in a particular manner, while Mi Fu, who was a different kind of person, wrote in a different manner; affects the way one views a particular inscription if it appears to imitate either one of these writers or the other. Knowing that a particular style of script has been used in the past for religious inscriptions, or magical incantations, or legal documents, or in a particularly famous piece of calligraphy also affects one’s perception of a particular inscription: one wonders, and sometimes thinks he understands, why the calligrapher chose the particular style of script, or shape of paper, or size of brush, or an especially wet or dry ink. This is not different from western painting appreciation when an educated viewer might realize that the painter is making a reference to early Italian renaissance, or to Turner, or to medieval illuminated manuscripts. While this kind of reference-reading enriches one’s experience of Chinese calligraphy, it is neither the only pleasure it affords; nor indeed, the most important one, either.

Final note regarding emotion

Finally, a word about emotion.

One hears constantly the (erroneous, in my view) opinion that art is a way of expressing emotion, that it is an emotional language. This is taken to mean that art is another way of saying “I love you, baby” or “I am sexually frustrated” or “I hate capitalism”; the truth is that very little appreciation of Chinese calligraphy relies on the understanding of these kinds of non-calligraphic content. A very famous work – Su Shih’s Cold Food Observance – a letter in which a political dissident describes his utter poverty and hunger in exile is celebrated for its agitated style, expressive of the writer’s powerful emotion at the time of writing:

but no one considers it an especially good calligraphic work or takes it as an example of good style.

Chinese calligraphy, like all visual art, does manipulate the viewer’s perceptions and emotions, but the feelings and or thoughts which it celebrates or expresses are specific to the art itself: just as a musician suddenly modulating from D-major to B-flat is really interested in the feelings and perceptions related to the modulation itself; so a calligrapher writing an inscription is principally interested in the perceptions and feelings related to a particular gesture, or movement, or sense of balance rather than those having anything to do with the meaning of the underlying text.

By and large, Chinese calligraphy can be – and is – appreciated without any reference to what the words themselves mean. Which is why neither being Chinese, nor speaking Chinese, nor yet being familiar with the Chinese culture are really required to enjoy the art; and why we should all be able to do so.


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3 responses

  1. Not wanting to leave this fine effort to pass without comment — I really do think that it’s far more valuable, and interesting, to monologue about “How Sir Gawain appreciates XXX” rather than to depersonalize and academicize it with “How to appreciate XXX” — because, above all, an aesthetic experience is personal: specific to a time, place, family, and body of experience.

    And you, itinerant, rogue, art-loving aesthete that you are, should recognize that more than anyone else who writes about the arts.

    Your discomfort with the “Cold Food Observance” is quite interesteing — not because I share that discomfort — or think it should be shared — but because it fits the person who has been presenting himself on the internet for several happy years now.

    Your show-and-tell trips to the National Museum are the highlights of my many wasted hours on the internet.

    February 24, 2012 at 00:24

  2. “above all, an aesthetic experience is personal: specific to a time, place, family, and body of experience. ”

    it’s an old theme with you, old friend, and one which you fulfill beautifully at your blog; unlike you, i do find it interesting to know why others think/feel about things the way they do — provided they do; if X tells you that he likes or dislikes Z it’s one thing; but if he tells you why — and the reasons are aesthetic (rather than ideological, i.e. “this is truly Polish art”; or associative, i.e. “makes me think of Silesian miners”) — his saying so allows me to take a second look and perhaps notice something i have not noticed before; i have benefited hugely from “appreciation courses” (for lack of better name) in the past and i continue to benefit from conversations with other aesthetes about their likes and dislikes; this works because aesthetic appreciation isn’t merely personal, but to the extent that we share similar cognitive apparatus, shared; so, i try to explain here why I like the things i like; or do not like the things i do not like; or what i have noticed about the likes and dislikes of others; this may not interest you, which I regret, but it interests me, so i am afraid, you will just have to bear it — just skip over any stuff that bores you!

    February 24, 2012 at 11:07

    • “above all, an aesthetic experience is personal: specific to a time, place, family, and body of experience. ”

      is it, though? if i find myself appreciating the art of a man from the other side of the planet dead these one thousand years — isn’t there something universal at work? if i read Mi Fu’s commentary on Su Shi’s calligraphy and it strikes a deep cord with me — indeed, I am struck with the impression that Mi Fu’s is in fact putting into words my own experience isn’t there something un-Polish/Chinese, un-20th/11th-century, un-my/his-family, un-this/that-place about it? is this not… at least — interesting? indeed, fascinating? does this not fly in the face of the established theories of art and culture? does this not tell us something about human nature and the nature of art?

      February 25, 2012 at 07:23

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