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.

Xia Guo-Xian, calligrapher, second visit

The entrance makes the strongest impression — which is why you enter in the first place, of course.  The mounting silk and the color of the wall are matched to the color of the paper, so it appears almost as if the words were the sole object there.

It’s huge, too:  an cheap trick, perhaps, but it works:

This is where I got glued on the second visit:

You what?!?!

Imporantly, it’s all very good.  There isn’t one weak work here.  I mean, how about this:

Or this:

Or the rest of it, really:

Show and Tell: At the National Palace Museum again

[A show and tell]

The National Palace Museum in Taipei was built to house the art collection of the Emperors of China. This collection was carried off from Beijing by Chiang Kai Shek in 1947 when he fled from the mainland before the advancing communist armies. It was subsequently housed in a nuclear bomb shelter in deep shafts mined into the side of the mountain to prevent it being damaged in any Chinese attempted takeover of Taiwan.

Chinese art plays a special role in the China-Taiwan conflict.  Chinese definition of China is not genetic but cultural:  one is never born Chinese; one becomes Chinese by absorbing Chinese culture — one becomes cultured, or, in a Chinese expression, “cooked through”.  For millenia China was threatened by northern barbarians who sometimes conquered her.  China remained Chinese in the face of her conflict with uncultured barbarians by assiduously preserving and maintaining her culture; and, at times, by educating her barbarian conquerors into her cultural ways.  The Chinese government’s function has always been to preserve and maintain culture (since its job is to protect the people’s livelihood and culture makes for a livable state); and a Chinese government is only legitimate to the extent that it preserves and maintains culture.  Seizing the cultural treasures of China is a route to legitimacy; destroying them, as communists did during the Cultural Revolution, destroyslegitimacy.  One could say, perhaps, that if the contents of the National Palace Museum were to be destroyed, China would cease to exist.

The collection, assembled over millenia, is vast: the museum features a small permanent collection and rotating displays changed every few weeks. On a strict rotation schedule, it would take fourteen years to show the entire collection. But some works are so precious (imagine fifth century AD ink and paper paintings) that they are hardly ever put on show.

When I lived here, I visited the museum every week in order to make sure that I miss nothing. And whenever I return, I make sure to go back there again. Every time I visit I leave deeply moved by something, usually something new. On my visit today I came across three new items never before seen.

1.  A new (for me) painting by my personal hero, Wen Zhengming (Ming Dynasty, fifteenth century) — a long (11 meters) horizontal scroll called Guan Shan Ji Xue — “Mountain Passes in Gathering Snow”:

The size of the reproduction does no justice to the incredible detail of the painting (even though the scroll is only about 3 x larger than the reproduction): trees have detailed bark; empty surfaces (water and sky) are covered with an irregular, scored ink wash which suggests falling snow; in places, huts buried in show are conveyed with a combination of two thin strokes of the brush and a kind of brightening of the underlying wash; the figure of the lonely traveler in a red jacket on a black ass — which appears every foot or so as you view the scroll from right to left and eventually, about the middle of it, comes home (he is seen sitting in an open window) can barely be made out, while in the original it jumps at the eye like a raspberry in cream; above all, with the reproduction you cannot do what you can do in the museum: step about 5 feet back from the scroll and let your eye wonder over the undulating landscape: as you roll your eyes from right to left and then back again the effect is strangely musical: it is like gliding your gaze over a musical score: the peaks and valleys rise and fall rhythmically, with a slight, shimmering rubato. 

You can see the full reproduction of the scroll here.

2.  A vertical scroll which I had never seen by one of the greatest painters of the Song Dynasty (tenth century), Ma Yuan, entitled Xue Jing — Snow Landscape. Again, the reproduction (at the top of this post) fails: the painting is monumental – two and a half meters tall – and painted in fantastically powerful, confident, angular strokes, as if chiseled in ice and crystal. Yet, the mood it conveys is the opposite of hard: it uses an air perspective to suggest gentle mist in the air – a just above zero temperature and wet, melting snow. I kept returning to stand before Snow Landscape; and whenever I managed to peel myself off, reluctantly, to look at other paintings, or calligraphy, I could feel – my inner ear could hear – its tiny but insistent voice calling me back. I would return and stand before it again, glued to the glass, filled with intense longing. As Buddha would say, desire enters through the eye, but not consummation. Experience of rapture of art is a pointless stoking of suffering (i.e. unfulfilled desire) with no prospect of satisfaction; and museums are the worst place in the world for it of all: they close.  See it above (at the top of this post) or here.

3.  There was also a long fifteenth century scroll illustrating a second century BC poem about a Han Emperor’s hunting preserve (“Shangling Park”), a nice enough work, but to my mind fairly unremarkable — except perhaps for the fact that its painter had begun his career as a lacquerer, a fact clearly seen in the way he paints with sharply defined detail: in his painting even clouds and waves on the water have clear sharp edges; with – and this is the point — a very beautifully calligraphed text of the poem attached as a colophon.  The calligraphy is fanciful: the same character is written in a number of different ways – especially when text calls for repeats — and some characters appear to be the writer’s own invention (look for one that looks like Macdonald’s Golden Arch) – which works when its meaning can be guessed from the context.

You can see the whole thing, painting and colophons, here.

4.  Finally, I came upon an old friend, Xi Shan Mu Xue, “Snow at Dusk over mountains and streams”, by an anonymous Song Dynasty (tenth century) painter which I had first seen (and spend hours viewing on my knees) during the Da Guan show back in 2008. It had then occasioned the same kind of searing longing which Snow Landscape occasioned now; I knew to approach it gingerly. I was delighted to see it, but my desire remained focused on its rival and the old passion was not reawakened — I walked away without a heartbreak. I have sung the praises of this painting elsewhere; here suffice it to say: note the details of the fog in the middle of the painting – how the landscape incredibly, imperceptibly slips into and out of it.

Note how to the left, in the dense fog below the group of houses in the valley, a darker spot can be made out. What is it? Is it a stain – the painting is more than a thousand years old, its surface is uniformly darkened and may be discolored in places – or is that a clump of trees slinking in the fog? Much Chinese and Japanese ink painting employs this kind of suggestion: is there something there? Am I really making it out or is my mind playing tricks on me?


And while on the subject of Ma Yuan, it is never wrong to mention (and show) my favorite painting by him (favorite, that is, until I saw the
Snow Landscape) – The Evening Banquet. Note how unevenly the dusk falls: quickly on the ground, more slowly up above, where the sky remains luminous and gradually fading for a quarter of an hour after sunset. Down at the bottom, in the darkness of the pavilion, someone is lighting a lamp.

Incidentally: all of these reproductions are tiny; in searching for a good one, I came across this, and it is worth seeing: it is an up-to-scale reproduction (my guess is that its scale is about 1:2) of a small section of a large vertical painting like most others several meters high. This tiny fragment gives you a sense of the texture of detail in these paintings: an important part of painting appreciation – East and West – is looking at the texture, at the individual strokes of the pen, at the ripples of paint and how it interacts with the underlying texture of the fabric; stepping back to see the overall impression, then coming back up close, nose nearly nudging the painting, looking at the details.


Xia Guo-Xian, calligrapher

Xia Guo-Xian, b. 1951, neither mounts his calligraphy nor hangs it as dramatically as Yang Jianming. He also practices a narrower range of styles — it is mostly “grass” — but it is damn good grass with plenty of wet/dry contrast and a very graceful deviation in his verticals. On show at the same Chiang Kai Shek Memorial.

Yang Jianming, calligrapher

Yang Jianming, b. 1960, on show at the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial in Taipei, is a calligrapher of a great range of styles and an extraordinary grace of execution (just look at YJM(2)!)