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:

Food in Taiwan (2): The Importance of Eating: Food as art

Cong zhua bing:  a Taiwanese art object

To an European arrival, Taiwan is a very exotic place and Taiwanese are a surprising people in many ways, but probably the most noticeable feature of the Taiwanese and one which strikes the visitor earliest is their dedication to – indeed, to some European minds – obsession with — food.

The most common greeting on the island is Chi baole mei?Have you eaten? (And God forbid you should ever answer truthfully “No”, since your confession will be treated as an emergency requiring immediate remediation). Many, perhaps most, idiomatic expressions refer to eating — a solid job is a “steel rice bowl” (i.e. safe source of food), prurient interest is “eating tofu”, jealousy “eating vinegar”, suffering is “eating bitter”.

Life is entirely organized around the three main meals of the day – after 11:45 no business can be transacted anywhere as the whole island goes into a kind of high level emergency with absolutely everyone heading at high speed for the troughs. People eat or snack constantly, throughout the day and night. Food is available cheaply and instantly everywhere and around the clock: whole armies of outdoor cooks grill, steam, boil, and fry at every street intersection 24/7 making sure no one goes hungry unnecessarily. One of the most commonly listed hobbies is “going out to eat” (which may be going to a specific restaurant to eat something; or just wondering aimlessly through the night market and eating this and that along the way).

Food is constanlty discussed – one of the most common conversation fillers (the sort of remark which in Europe might be made about the weather) is “I feel like eating x”; but most food oriented conversation, and there is a lot of it, is on a very sophisticated level:

A: Yesterday I have eaten x and it was unlike any x I have ever had, because the cook did this and that.

B: Ah, yes, there is a place like that in y; it is very famous, they have been there for three generations; what they do is z.

C: Yes, yes. I have had something like that once, but if you eat it with w, it is especially good.

A: You can also make it with v, a completely different feeling.


Pre-prandial conversations (the complex conversation-negotiation regarding choice of food style and venue which takes place in any group who decides to lunch together prior to them setting out in a particular direction) are especially notable:

A: How about x?

B: No, no, I have had that yesterday. How about z instead?

C: Z is good, but let’s not go to y to eat z, because I went there about a week ago and have been really disappointed.

D: Yes, yes. The old owner has retired and his son has taken over and I don’t think he is as good. It tends to be a little oily and the spicing is off. But how about t, they do a very good z.

A: I find t a little too heavily flavored. It’s good if you want to eat more rice, but that makes for a very filling meal. What about v, they do a good z.


In some sense, to a Taiwanese, the whole world is a place one experiences through his mouth. Tourists returning from Europe – or Japan – will be asked about how their trip went and the first comment ouf of their mouths will be about how they did (or did not) enjoy the food. My four year old nephew’s response to his first sight of snow (on TV) was: is it tasty?

This explains sights like this:

No, these are not people lining up for a brand name sale; or to collect free gifts; or visa to the United States. These are people waiting to eat at famous establishments. (The first photo is in front of a Cantonese restaurant Ding Tai Fong in Hsinyi Road, the second at a cong zhua bing – shredded onion cake – stand in Yongkang Street, the third at Hei Tang Qin Wa, a black-pearl milk tea stand in Gongguan).

Now, take a look at these photos: this is a side street off Yong Kang Street;

and this is a back street of Gongguan:

every single shop sign you see in these photos — absolutely every one of them — is a place to eat. Both neighborhoods are flooded from early morning till very late at night by whole rivers of humanity out to “have fun” (i.e. to eat). Taiwanese beat all world statistics for consuming the largest number of calories per day of all nations on earth: 4000 calories per capita on average.

Why should this be so?

Partly, it is simply lack of prohibition. No religion in China prohibits or slights enjoyment of eating. On the contrary, popular wholistic theories of the world stress the importance of correct diet for personal well-being, social harmony and even — balancing of all forces of the universe. Daoists will tell you that correct diet will fix an aching belly, restlessness, joint pains, and excessive venerity. Chinese medicine practitioners’ first advice to their patients invariably concerns diet.

But there are special local factors: in contrast to the rest of China, throughout its history Taiwan has had low levels of literacy and a high abundance of food. Although today the Taiwanese are among the best educated nations on earth, the old habits remain: Taiwanese don’t really read for pleasure, or attend theater, or discuss philosophy, or practice calligraphy; they eat.

Which is a manifestation of a certain interesting fact of life: that nations do not develop all aspects of culture equally, but tend to focus on certain areas. This is in part because life – with its requirements for work and sleep — does not leave us enough time to do everything we would like to do; and in part because it is more rewarding to explore one kind – or at most several kinds — of activity in greater depth than many kinds of activity but only a little. Cultural activity in a particular area feeds on itself: the more people engage in x, the more interesting and rewarding and fun it is to engage in x, the more people engage in x, and so on. And the fewer people engage in other kinds of activity.

The illustrative contrast here is between the eating nation – Taiwan – and the dancing nation – Bali. Although Balinese like the food they eat and will never concede that it is in any way inferior, it is: it is remarkably unvaried, taste and texture-wise uninteresting, and generally indifferently cooked with few spices and generally inferior ingredients. Compared to the richness of food in Taiwan, Bali’s fare is almost incredibly poor. I believe the reason for this is that the Balinese dance – all Balinese dance, and all Balinese view and critique dances; and they do it with a passion, and very well. Dance, not eating, is where their time and energy is invested – and to very good purpose.

Taiwanese intense interest in food does not just prevent the Taiwanese from dancing or practicing calligraphy. It also prevents them from enjoying other pleasures in life. Leisurely walks in nature occupy a remarkably small part of Taiwanese consciousness; interest in sex is at best cursory; interior design is uniformly abysmal; on the national map of pursuits, dance appreciation scores big fat zero.

But they eat like almost no other nation on earth. 

Now, one way of looking at art — the way this website promotes — is that art is a set of especially developed techniques used to manipulate human pleasure. In which case, cooking is an art, and consuming it is a matter of connoisseurship. In which case looking at the way cooking and eating operates in Taiwan is well worth the while of any aesthete.

Food in Taipei (1): North Chinese Breakfast – Why Taipei’s Food is so good

Sheng Yuan Dojiang, on the corner of Hangzhou South Road and Aiguo East Road in Taipei, just across from the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial (sarcastically called by some — ever since the formerly Chiang Kai Shek International Airport was renamed Taoyuan Airport — The Taoyuan Memorial), is one of the very many places in Taipei serving… North Chinese breakfast.

The ubiquity of North Chinese breakfast establishments in this once South Chinese town is perhaps the most visible sign of Taipei’s specialness among all cities where Chinese live and eat: not only has Taiwan, then perhaps 10 million strong, received nearly 3 million Mainland Chinese in 1947 when the Nationalists, defeated by Mao, evacuated to the island; and is therefore one of the most “mixed” of all places in the world where the Chinese reside – food of all eighteen provinces of China is represented here; but it has also received proportionally more cooks than almost any other profession: for although the official histories of the revolution will tell you that rivers of blood of evil Chinese landowners were shed by Mao, the truth is that most landowners were not stupid enough to hang around for him to get them; unable to kill the landowners, Mao had to content themselves with killing whoever he could instead – and settled on the “hangers-on of the ruling class” — “natural allies of the enemy” — butlers, tailors, shoemakers, florists, jewelers, and — yes — cooks.

Which is why Taiwan, and especially Taipei, has ended up with nearly all the good chefs of China; and why mainland China has hardly any decent cooking left. Today, moneyed and eager to spend and represent themselves, mainland Chinese are paying astronomical sums to woo Tapei’s chefs back. But it will be a long time yet before anywhere in mainland China comes close to Taipei’s culinary excellence; and, barring another Mao, no place on earth will ever have its variety.

Add to this the fifty year occupation by the other food-fixated nation of Asia – Japan — which has left the island with the legacy of some of the best Japanese cooking in the world — Japanese gourmet tours regularly visit the island to try its famous, special variety of Japanese — and you will begin to understand why of all places in the world this provincial, out of the way, ugly-duckling of a city would just happen be one of the best places in the world to eat.

A few notes on the food:

Two principal aspects differentiate North Chinese from South Chinese cooking:  a) North Chinese are wheat-eaters; and b) they bake. Here are two examples of baked North Chinese foods at Sheng Yuan:

1.  xiake huang (“crab-cake yellow”), made with a kind of philo (layered) dough and stuffed with green onions fried in duck fat:

2.  conghua bing, made with rolled yeast-dough and stuffed with green onions fried in duck fat:

The shop also serves xiaolongbao (“small steamer buns”), filled with meat and fat;  the skin is supposed to be very soft (the bun feels like a loose bag); and during steaming the fat melts:  when you bite the bun, the melted fat explodes in your mouth for an added sensation:

Some also swear by its shuijianbao (water fried buns).  The term jian describes a cooking technique whereby the food is placed on a lightly oiled hot metal surface and allowed to sear on one side only.  Shuijian describes an aspect of the same cooking technique:  food is placed in a deep skillet, a little water is added and the skillet it heated until the water first boils and then eventually evaporates (thereby steaming the food); at which point oil is added to the pot to produce food which is partly boiled, partly steamed but which has a crispy-fried bottom:

Both the xiaolongbao and the shuijianbao illustrate Chinese interest in food texture:  good food should not merely taste good; it should also feel interesting in the mouth — a variation of chewy and crunchy, for instance, is better than just chewy or just crunchy.

Sheng Yuan is a very busy place.  It serves breakfast from 6.00 till 12.00 or until food runs out (usually a little before noon).  It is always busy, but busier on weekends than it is on weekdays — a sign of its having become a destination in its own right (rather than just a functional convenience).  On weekends, people come here from outside of the city to eat and it has recently been featured in Japanese gourmet guidebooks.  Today, Japanese food tourists, arriving early Saturday morning, will take a taxi directly to Sheng Yuan to start a day of sight…  -eating.


Chiang Kai Shek, a.k.a. Zhong Zheng, the fairly brutal authoritarian generalissimo of Nationalist China, defeated by Mao’s communists, fled to Taiwan where he set up for himself the usual personality cult. The Chiang Dynasty was deposed in late 80’s and Taiwan is today a vibrant democracy, but the Zhong Zheng Memorial, featuring a monumental statue of The Boss complete with daily change of guard, remains. The Airport, located near the town of Taoyuan, was once named after the generalissimo, but, in a sign of changing times, was renamed after the town which it disfigures. No friends of the generalissimo hope the Memorial will likewise one day be renamed.

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.