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4th century work by Wang Hsi chih
Calligraphy is a system of aesthetic Chinese writing expressed through a variety of brush movements and compositions of dots and strokes. Largely unintelligible to Westerns, calligraphy is regarded by Chinese as "the supreme art form” higher than painting and sculpture and more able to express lofty thoughts and feelings than words.

Fusing poetry, literature and painting into one art form, calligraphy was considered so important that ancient scholars could not pass their examinations unless they were masters at it. Good calligraphy possesses rhythm, emotion, aesthetic, beauty, spirituality and, perhaps most importantly, the character of the calligrapher. One ancient Chinese historian wrote: "calligraphy is like images without form, music without sound."

Describing the work of calligrapher Zhao Mengli the New York Times art critic Holland Carter wrote, the script ‘seems to have an aural dimension, like a dramatic reading. So expressive are the linear twists and turns of the brush. The pressure and weights of the ink, the sartorial; punctuations, that you can practically hear his voice.”

From an early age Chinese children are taught that calligraphy and beautiful handwriting are reflections of their character and personality. Rendered in quick fluid strokes calligraphy is more concerned with flow and feeling than skill and precision and is supposed to come straight from the heart. The characters themselves are a kind of poetry. To produce great works calligraphers must tap into the forces of “qi, which Taoists believe permeate nature and the universe.

Most of works by famous calligraphers displayed in museums come from the eastern Chin dynasty, Tang, Sung, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties.

Water calligraphy is a poetic activity that you can observe in many Chinese parks: Artists use a large brush to write Chinese characters using water instead of ink. Minutes after the characters are written, they disappear. Media Artist Nicholas Hanna built a tricycle that writes Chinese characters on the ground as it moves. [Source: Jeremy Goldkorn,, September 23, 2011]

Websites and Resources

Calligrapher at work
Good Websites and Sources on Calligraphy : China Page ; University of Washington ; China Vista Brushes China Vista ; Calligraphy Masters on China Online Museum ; Chinese Painting: China Page ;University of Washington ; Chinese Painting Collection Blog ; China Vista ; Books: “Chinese Painting by James Cahill (Rizzoli 1985). “Possessing the Past: Treasures from the National Palace Museum, Taipei by Wen C. Fong, and James C. Y. Watt (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1996). Wen C. Fong, Professor of Art and Archeology at Princeton, is the consultive chairman of the Asian Art Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Good Websites and Sources on Chinese Art: China --Art History Resources ; Art History Resources on the Web ; Art of China Consortium ;Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC) Visual Arts/ ; Asian ; China Online Museum ; Huntington Archive of Asian ; Qing Art Museums with First Rate Collections of Chinese Art National Palace Museum, Taipei ; Beijing Palace Museum ; Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Sackler Museum in Washington ; China Page Museum list

Chinese Culture: Cultural China (site with nice photos ; China ; China Culture Online ;Chinatown Connection ; Transnational China Culture Project China Research Paper Search ; Book: “The Culture and Civilization, a massive multi-volume series on Chinese culture (Yale University Press).


Importance of Calligraphy in Chinese Art

Dawn Delbanco of Columbia University wrote: “Calligraphy, or the art of writing, was the visual art form prized above all others in traditional China. The genres of painting and calligraphy emerged simultaneously, sharing identical tools—namely, brush and ink. Yet calligraphy was revered as a fine art long before painting; indeed, it was not until the Song dynasty, when painting became closely allied with calligraphy in aim, form, and technique, that painting shed its status as mere craft and joined the higher ranks of the fine arts. [Source: Dawn Delbanco, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

“The elevated status of calligraphy reflects the importance of the word in China. This was a culture devoted to the power of the word. From the beginning, emperors asserted their authority for posterity as well as for the present by engraving their own pronouncements on mountain sides and on stone steles erected at outdoor sites. In pre-modern China, scholars, whose main currency was the written word, came to assume the dominant positions in government, society, and culture.\^/

“But in addition to the central role played by the written word in traditional Chinese culture, what makes the written language distinctive is its visual form. Learning how to read and write Chinese is difficult because there is no alphabet or phonetic system. Each written Chinese word is represented by its own unique symbol, a kind of abstract diagram known as a "character," and so each word must be learned separately through a laborious process of writing and rewriting the character till it has been memorized. To read a newspaper requires a knowledge of around 3,000 characters; a well-educated person is familiar with about 5,000 characters; a professor with perhaps 8,000. More than 50,000 characters exist in all, the great majority never to be used.\^/

“Yet the limitation of the written Chinese language is also its strength. Unlike written words formed from alphabets, Chinese characters convey more than phonetic sound or semantic meaning. Traditional writings about calligraphy suggest that written words play multiple roles: not only does a character denote specific meanings, but its very form should reveal itself to be a moral exemplar, as well as a manifestation of the energy of the human body and the vitality of nature itself.\^/

Chinese Painting and Calligraphy

In imperial times, painting and calligraphy were the most highly appreciated arts in court circles and were produced almost exclusively by amateurs--aristocrats and scholar-officials--who alone had the leisure to perfect the technique and sensibility necessary for great brushwork. Calligraphy was thought to be the highest and purest form of painting. The implements were the brush pen, made of animal hair, and black inks made from pine soot and animal glue. In ancient times, writing, as well as painting, was done on silk. But after the invention of paper in the first century A.D., silk was gradually replaced by the new and cheaper material. Original writings by famous calligraphers have been greatly valued throughout China's history and are mounted on scrolls and hung on walls in the same way that paintings are. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Painting in the traditional style involves essentially the same techniques as calligraphy and is done with a brush dipped in black or colored ink; oils are not used. As with calligraphy, the most popular materials on which paintings are made are paper and silk. The finished work is then mounted on scrolls, which can be hung or rolled up. Traditional painting also is done in albums and on walls, lacquerwork, and other media. *

Maxwell Hearn of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “The discipline” of painting this kind of mastery requires derives from the practice of calligraphy. Traditionally, every literate person in China learned as a child to write by copying the standard forms of Chinese ideographs. The student was gradually exposed to different stylistic interpretations of these characters. He copied the great calligraphers' manuscripts, which were often preserved on carved stones so that rubbings could be made. He was also exposed to the way in which the forms of the ideographs had evolved. Over time, the practitioner evolved his own personal style, one that was a distillation and reinterpretation of earlier models. [Source: Maxwell Hearn, Department of Asian Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

History of Chinese Painting and Calligraphy

Maxwell Hearn of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: Chinese ideographs evolved from “their earliest appearance on bronzes, stones, and bones about 1300 B.C. (known today as "seal" script, after its use on the red seals of ownership); their gradual regularization, culminating with the bureaucratic proliferation of documents by government clerks during the second century A.D. ("clerical" script); their artful simplification into abbreviated forms ("running" and "cursive" scripts); and the fusion of these form-types into "standard" script, in which the individually articulated brushstrokes that make up each character are integrated into a dynamically balanced whole...The practice of calligraphy became high art with the innovations of Wang Xizhi in the fourth century. [Source: Maxwell Hearn, Department of Asian Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

Beginning in the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907), the primary subject matter of painting was the landscape, known as shanshui (mountain-water) painting. In these landscapes, usually monochromatic and sparse, the purpose was not to reproduce exactly the appearance of nature but rather to grasp an emotion or atmosphere so as to catch the "rhythm" of nature. In Song dynasty (960-1279) times, landscapes of more subtle expression appeared; immeasurable distances were conveyed through the use of blurred outlines, mountain contours disappearing into the mist, and impressionistic treatment of natural phenomena. Emphasis was placed on the spiritual qualities of the painting and on the ability of the artist to reveal the inner harmony of man and nature, as perceived according to Taoist and Buddhist concepts. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Beginning in the thirteenth century, there developed a tradition of painting simple subjects--a branch with fruit, a few flowers, or one or two horses. Narrative painting, with a wider color range and a much busier composition than the Song painting, was immensely popular at the time of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). *

During the Ming period, the first books illustrated with colored woodcuts appeared. As the techniques of color printing were perfected, illustrated manuals on the art of painting began to be published. Jieziyuan Huazhuan (Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden), a five-volume work first published in 1679, has been in use as a technical textbook for artists and students ever since. *

Chinese Artists and Calligraphers

Unlike artists in the West who were either skilled craftsmen paid by the hour or professional artists who were commissioned to produce unique works of art, Chinese artists were amateur scholar gentlemen "following revered ancients in harmony with forces of nature."

Calligraphy and painting were seen as scholarly pursuits of the educated classes, and in most cases the great masters of Chinese art distinguished themselves first as government officials, scholars and poets and were usually skilled calligraphers. Sculpture, which involved physical labor and was not a task performed by gentlemen, never was considered a fine art in China.

Works of calligraphy and paintings were generally not painted on canvas like Western painting. They appear as murals, wall paintings, album leaf paintings, hanging scrolls and handscrolls. Hanging scrolls are hung on walls as interior adornments; handscrolls are unrolled on table tops; and album leaf paintings are small paintings of various shapes collected in book-like albums with "butterfly mounting," "thatched window mounting" and “accordion mounting."

Calligraphy and Painting Tools


The tools and brush techniques for painting and calligraphy are virtually the same and calligraphy and painting are often considered sister arts. The traditional tools of the calligrapher and the painter are a brush, ink and an inkstone (used to mix the ink). Chinese calligraphers and painters both used brushes whose unique versatility was the result of a tapered tip, composed of careful groupings of animal hairs. Chinese calligraphers prized bamboo brushes tipped with hair from the thick autumn coats of martens.

Many brushstrokes depict things found in nature such as a "rolling wave," "leaping dragon," "playful butterfly," "dewdrop about to fall," or "startled snake slithering through the grass." Natural terms such as "flesh," "muscle" and "blood" are used to describe the art of calligraphy itself. Blood, for example, is a term used to describe the quality of the ink.

Calligrapher’s paper is still made by hand in some places by smoothing oatmeal-like pulp made of inner tree bark and rice and pressing and drying it.

Painting, Calligraphy and Poetry

Poetry is much more fully integrated into painting and calligraphy in Chinese art than it is into painting and writing in Western art. There are two words used to describe what a painter does: “Hua hua means "to paint a picture" and “xie hua means "to write a picture." Many artists prefer the latter.

Poetry, painting and calligraphy were known as the "Three Perfections." Poems are often the subjects of painting. Painters were often inspired by poetry and tried to create works with a poetic, lyrical quality.

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Plum and Bamboo by Wu Zhen

Recalling a series of twelve poems by Su Shih (1036-1101) that inspired him, the great master painter Shih T'ao (1641-1717) wrote: "This album had been on my desk for a year and never once did I touch it. One day, when a snow storm was blowing outside, I thought of Tung-p'o's poems describing twelve scenes and became so inspired that I took up my brush and started painting each of the scenes in the poems. At the top of each picture I copied the original poem. When I chant them the spirit that gave them life emerges spontaneously from paintings." [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin]

When a painting did not fully convey the artist feelings, the artist sometimes turned to calligraphy to convey his feelings more deeply. Describing the link between writing and painting, the artist-poet Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322) wrote:

“Do the rocks in flying-white, the trees in ancient seal script
And render bamboo as if writing in clerical characters:
Only if one is truly able to comprehend this, will he realize
That calligraphy and painting are essentially the same.

Other times the message of the calligraphy was more mundane. An inscription on the side of “Sheep and Goat by Zhao Mengfu read: "I have painted horses before, but have never painted sheep, so when Zhongxin requested a painting, I playfully drew these for him from life. Though I can not get close to the ancient masters, I have managed somewhat to capture their essential spirit”.

Ideals and Goals of Chinese Calligraphy

Consider two Tang-dynasty texts that describe calligraphy in human terms, both physical and moral. Here, the properly written character assumes the identity of a Confucian sage, strong in backbone, but spare in flesh: 1) "[A written character should stand] balanced on all four sides . . . Leaning or standing upright like a proper gentleman, the upper half [of the character] sits comfortably, while the bottom half supports it." (From an anonymous essay, Tang dynasty). 2) "Calligraphy by those good in brush strength has much bone; that by those not good in brush strength has much flesh. Calligraphy that has much bone but slight flesh is called sinew-writing; that with much flesh but slight bone is called ink-pig. Calligraphy with much strength and rich in sinew is of sagelike quality; that with neither strength nor sinew is sick. Every writer proceeds in accordance with the manifestation of his digestion and respiration of energy." (From Bizhentu, 7th century). [Source: Dawn Delbanco, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

Other writings on calligraphy use nature metaphors to express the sense of wonder, the elemental power, conveyed by written words: 1) "[When viewing calligraphy,] I have seen the wonder of a drop of dew glistening from a dangling needle, a shower of rock hailing down in a raging thunder, a flock of geese gliding [in the sky], frantic beasts stampeding in terror, a phoenix dancing, a startled snake slithering away in fright. (Sun Guoting, 7th century). 2) A dragon leaping at the Gate of Heaven. (Description of the calligraphy of Wang Xizhi by Emperor Wu [r. 502-49]). \^/

And so, despite its abstract appearance, calligraphy is not an abstract form. Chinese characters are dynamic, closely bound to the forces of nature and the kinesthetic energies of the human body. But these energies are contained within a balanced framework—supported by a strong skeletal structure—whose equilibrium suggests moral rectitude, indeed, that of the writer himself.\^/

Beauty, Control and Morality of Calligraphy

From their inception there has been a link between Chinese writing and art that does not have a counterpart in the West. Calligraphy has given Chinese poems, essays, letters and even official government documents a beauty that transcends the contents of what was written. There is no fixed relationship between the written Chinese language and the aesthetic beauty of calligraphy, but what is written with calligraphy does have meaning---and this relationship between the aesthetics of writing and meaning of the words is unique to Chinese calligraphy.

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Standard (regular) script

The beauty of calligraphy is often described with imagery from nature. Sun Kuo-t'ing wrote in the “Manual of Calligraphy, calligraphy can be "heavy like piled-up clouds, light like the wings of a cicada." If one leaves the writing alone "it flows like a stream, stop it and a mountain sits in majestic serenity." Sun Kuo-t'ing also compared calligraphy to human images calling it “a lovely maiden adorning her hair with flowers," with "full veins and flesh brimming with beauty."

Some have compared calligraphy to music in terms of the speed and rhythms of the movements and the fluidity of the characters. Zong Baihua wrote in “Aesthetics of Chinese Calligraphy: "Variations in density of composition, light and heavy strokes, slow and fast brushwork all affect form and content. It is like picking out notes from the myriad sounds of nature in musical or artistic creations, developing laws of combining those notes, and using variations in volume, pitch, rhythm, and melody to express images in nature and society and the feelings in one's heart."

As is true with painting, one of the goals of calligraphy is to develop a calm mind, a cultivated memory. The characters, like objects of a painting, express reverence for nature and project a metaphor for the nobility of man.

Dawn Delbanco of Columbia University wrote: ““Expressive as calligraphy is, it is also an art of control. A counterbalance of order and dynamism is manifested in all aspects of Chinese writing. In traditional Chinese texts, words are arranged in vertical columns that are read from right to left. Traditional texts have no punctuation; nor are proper nouns visually distinguishable from other words. The orderly arrangement of characters is inherent in each individual character as well. One does not write characters in haphazard fashion: an established stroke order ensures that a character is written exactly the same way each time. This not only makes the formidable task of memorization easier, but ensures that each character will be written with a sense of balance and proportion, and that one is able to write with an uninterrupted flow and rhythm. The calligrapher and the dancer have much in common: each must learn choreographed movements; each must maintain compositional order. But once the rules have been observed, each may break free within certain boundaries to express a personal vitality. [Source: Dawn Delbanco, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

Brushwork in Chinese Calligraphy

Dawn Delbanco of Columbia University wrote: “How can a simple character convey” so much? “The use of brush and ink has much to do with it. The seeming simplicity of the tools is belied by the complexity of effects. A multiplicity of effect is produced in part by varying the consistency and amount of ink carried by the brush. Black ink is formed into solid sticks or cakes that are ground in water on a stone surface to produce a liquid. The calligrapher can control the thickness of the ink by varying both the amount of water and the solid ink that is ground. Once he starts writing, by loading the brush sometimes with more ink, sometimes with less, by allowing the ink to almost run out before dipping the brush in the ink again, he creates characters that resemble a shower of rock here, the wonder of a drop of dew there. [Source: Dawn Delbanco, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

The brush, above all, contributes to the myriad possibilities. Unlike a rigid instrument such as a stylus or a ballpoint pen, a flexible hair brush allows not only for variations in the width of strokes, but, depending on whether one uses the tip or side of the brush, one can create either two-dimensional or three-dimensional effects. And depending on the speed with which one wields the brush and the amount of pressure exerted on the writing surface, one can create a great variety of effects: rapid strokes bring a leaping dragon to life; deliberate strokes convey the upright posture of a proper gentleman.\^/

The brush becomes an extension of the writer's arm, indeed, his entire body. But the physical gestures produced by the wielding of the brush reveal much more than physical motion; they reveal much of the writer himself-his impulsiveness, restraint, elegance, rebelliousness Abstract as it appears, calligraphy more readily conveys emotion and something of the individual artist than all the other Chinese visual arts except for landscape painting, which became closely allied with calligraphy. It is no wonder that twentieth-century American Abstract Expressionists felt a kinship to Chinese calligraphers.\^/

Five Basic Calligraphy Scripts

Dawn Delbanco of Columbia University wrote: “The Chinese written language began to develop more than 3,000 years ago and eventually evolved into five basic script types, all of which are still in use today. The earliest writing took the form of pictograms and ideographs that were incised onto the surfaces of jades and oracle bones, or cast into the surface of ritual bronze vessels. Then, as the written language began to take standardized form, it evolved into "seal" script, so named because it remained the script type used on personal seals. By the later Han dynasty (2nd century A.D.), a new regularized form of script known as lishu or "clerical" script, used by government clerks, appeared. It was also in the Han that the flexible hair brush came into regular use, its supple tip producing effects, such as the final wavelike diagonal strokes of some characters, that were not attainable in incised characters. [Source: Dawn Delbanco, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

“Increasingly cursive forms of writing, known as "running" script (xingshu) and "cursive" script (caoshu), also developed around this time, both as a natural evolution and a response to the aesthetic potential of brush and ink. In these scripts, individual characters are written in abbreviated form. At their most cursive, two or more characters may be linked together, written in a single flourish of the brush. As the individual brushstrokes of clerical script were inflected with the more fluid and asymmetrical features of cursive script, a final script type, known as "standard" script (kaishu), evolved. In this elegant form of writing, each brushstroke is clearly articulated through a complex series of brush movements. These kinaesthetic brushstrokes are then integrated into a dynamically balanced, self-contained whole.\^/

Over the centuries, calligraphers were free to write in any of the five script styles, depending on the text's function. Beginning by emulating the styles of earlier masters, later writers sought to transform their models to achieve their own personal manner (2000.345.1,2). The calligraphic tradition remains alive today in the work of many contemporary Chinese artists.\^/

Early History of Chinese Calligraphy

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Cursive script

There are basically five categories of calligraphy: seal, clerical, cursive, standard, and running. All five categories are still used today. The first examples of calligraphy are found on Shang Dynasty (1766-1122 B.C.) on oracle bones and bronze inscriptions. The writings that appeared on bronze vessels before 200 B.C. consisted of rigid, complex characters with many strokes. The complexity was reduced somewhat with the invention of seal script which was engraved on stone and on bamboo and silk.

Seal script was the first form of calligraphy. Clerical script, which developed from seal script, was very complex and laborious to write. It was used mainly in official documents. A short hand form of clerical script known as "rough draft" script evolved into the cursive form.

Before the Qin Dynasty (221 B.C.-206 A.D.) there were no names for script forms and calligraphy was referred to simply as "writing (“wen) or "characters" (“tzu). The first Chi'in emperor standardized the Chinese writing system, absorbing different regional forms, into "large seal script" (“ta-chian) which was later simplified into more regular, flowing "small seal script" (“hsiao-chuan).

During the late Qin and early Han dynasties, "clerical script" (“li-shu) evolved out of small seal script. Clerical script was characterized by simplified, squarer and more angular brush strokes. By the eastern Han period clerical script featured thickening and thinning brush lines, energetic slanting strokes, and wavelike forms.

Later History of Chinese Calligraphy

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Running script

Cursive style developed out of clerical style in the early Han period. It was preferred over other forms of calligraphy because it was easier and faster to write. In the late Han dynasty cursive style was simplified and standardized into smooth, flowing "draft cursive." The modern style of cursive in which many strokes were connected developed out of "draft cursive."

The cursive script is the most abstract and culturally simple of Chinese scripts. Its natural fluidity and charm made it attractive to scholars for personal correspondence and artistic expression. Cursive calligraphy later developed into an art form that so captivated some of its practitioners they forgot to eat or sleep.

Standard calligraphy, which slightly resembles clerical script, appeared in the late Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.) and early Wei-Chin (265-420 A.D.). Running script, a combination of standard and cursive styles, developed shortly afterwards.

After the Northern and Southern dynasties (386-589), standard and running scripts were the most common forms of calligraphy, widely used in practical, everyday affairs. During the Tang dynasty (618-906), standard script prevailed and the methods and rules were firmly established so that Tang dynasty standard script became the model for later generations.

During the Tang dynasty, calligraphers experimented with free, liberated forms of cursive script. In the Sung Dynasty (960-1279), calligraphers experimented with running script and developed a multitude of styles in which they expressed their ideas and feelings in their writing. In the Yuan (1279-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911), calligraphers returned to the past for inspiration.

Great Chinese Calligraphers

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4th century work by Wang Hsi chih

Pioneering calligraphers in the Han dynasty created styles that became models for later calligraphers. Wang Hsi-chih (Wang Xizhi AD 321-379), the Sage of Calligraphy, is often regarded as master of the flowing semi-cursive script. His original manuscripts were greatly coveted by a the 7th century Emperor Taizong who tired to obtain them by trickery from monk who was sworn to destroy them. One Tang Emperor so admired Wang's work he took the calligrapher’s famous “Preface ro the Gathering at the Orchid Pavilion with him to his grave. Wang’s son Wang Hsien-chih (Wang Xianhi, 344-386) was also a great calligrapher.

Wang Xizhi was reportedly inspired by the flight of geese: the bend of their wings, the curves of their necks and they way they held up before landing in a river. According to a well-known legend in China, Wang once met a monk with a flock of lovely geese. Wang offered to buy the geese but the monk refused to sell. After a log bargaining session, punctuated with arguments and tense words, the monk relented and told Wang he would trade the geese for two chapters of a Taoist scripture by Laozi in Wang’s calligraphy. After devoting an entire afternoon to the project, Wang finished the work and received the geese which one is led to believe he set free on a mountaintop.

Chang Chih is regarded as the sage of cursive script. Chang Hsu from the mid-Tang period is famous for his "tipsy" cursive that provided an alternative to the classic style of Wang His-chih. Whenever Chang painted when he was drunk it was said that his brushes flied and danced with unbridled emotion. Huai Su was even less restrained than Chang Hsu. He was famous from his extremely fluid and spontaneous "wild" cursive.

Chu Yun-ming, a very emotional and extroverted person, stressed the emotive side of calligraphy. The Qing calligraphy master Wang To is known for his skill in numerous styles and his attention to detail.

Record Prices for Traditional Chinese Art and Calligraphy in 2010

At the 2010, spring sales draw a number of ancient Chinese paintings and calligraphy works were sold for record prices. Several pieces fetched more than 100 million yuan ($18 million) each at sales hosted by domestic auction giants Beijing Poly, China Guardian and Beijing Hanhai, with one reaching 436.8 million yuan ($63.8 million). Apart from the astronomically-high sales, a large number of works went for around the 20-million-yuan ($2.94 million) mark. [Source: Wu Ziru, Global Times, June 2, 2010]

“This is an all-ascending market that you could have hardly imagined before,” Zhao Li, professor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, told the Global Times. “Collectors and investors just keep bidding, as long as there is a rare piece.” “It used to be beyond our imagination that a piece of Chinese work, no matter how precious it is, could be sold for hundreds of millions of yuan,” commented Hu Jiaojiao, vice director of China Guardian. “Things are changing so fast today. Now we are confident that the market is sound and healthy, with so many collectors interested in classic paintings and calligraphic works.”

Hand scroll Dizhuming by poet and calligrapher Huang Tingjian from the Song Dynasty (960-1279) was one of the most hotly pursued items. It finally sold for 436.8 million yuan at Poly's spring sales to an undisclosed buyer, the price far beyond the expectations from both the auction house and collectors alike.

The sale set a new record for any genre of Chinese work - from antiques to contemporary pieces, almost doubling the previous high of 230 million yuan ($34 million) for a piece of blue and white porcelain from the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), which sold at Christie's in London five years ago.

The 15-meter-long calligraphic hand scroll, Dizhuming, was completed in 1095. The original length of the hand scroll was 8.24 meters, but was then extended to 15 meters over the span of 800 years as its collectors, including prominent ancient Chinese scholars and royal court officials, added additional inscriptions to the piece.

Six Chinese classic paintings and calligraphic works each selling for over 100 million yuan. Temple in Mountains in Autumn, a landscape painting by Yuan Dynasty artist Wang Meng was sold for 136.64 million yuan ($20.1 million). Hand scroll painting Mount Yandang by Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) painter Qian Weicheng went under the hammer for 129.92 million yuan ($20 million), five times its former record price of 24.08 million yuan ($3.5 million) at China Guardian's 2007 spring auctions.

Not only people from auction houses, but also many experts see the record-breaking prices as a good thing for the Chinese art market, saying there is still a large gap to be filled in terms of catching up with the international scene.

More and more wealthy people are turning to buying artwork as they think about how to spend their money, according to art market expert Zhao Li. “Ancient Chinese works are their favorite because of their scarcity, plus, the value would be steady compared with contemporary ones.”

Calligraphy Teaches Chinese Bankers Strategy

Tang Shuangning, president of EverbrightBank, a fast-growing lender that recently applied for a stock marketlisting, has suggested that managing a bank in China is no more complicated than executing a fine work of calligraphy. “Approaching a piece of white paper to write calligraphy is like mapping out a strategy in China's economy,” Tang told Reuters, “The lines of your writing are where you want to lead the money flow. And it all depends on how you make use of your potential power.”

Describing a a meeting of master calligrapher Simon Rabinovitch of Reuters wrote: “In a smoky hotel room in Beijing's old imperial center, he gathered together a small group of top officials and scholars. They talked in hushed tones...the assembled few discussed...Tang's calligraphy, of course. One after the other, over the course of four hours, they admired, praised and critiqued his handiwork, the swirling black brush strokes on white scrolls.” Book: “Brushes with Power” by Richard Curt Kraus is about elite calligraphy

Square English Calligraphy

Xu Lin wrote in the China Daily: When Deng Shenyi used a brush to write calligraphy in New York City in 2008, most of the audience couldn't understand the pictographic words. "Although they look like ancient Chinese, they are all English words written in a Chinese style," said Deng, a member of the China Association of Inventions. "On a second look, one can identify these words," said Deng, 49. "After my explanation, the audiences began to understand the words and tried to read them aloud." He calls this new artistic form "square English", a combination of the English language and Chinese calligraphy. [Source: Xu Lin, China Daily, January 5, 2012]

Like Chinese characters, each square English word is the same size, no matter the number of letters. The English letters are like the parts of Chinese character, and the writing sequence is from top to bottom, and left to right, following the path of Chinese characters. "Culture can stimulate the development of society. I'm not changing Western culture, but promoting a Chinese thinking pattern. It's easier to promote Chinese calligraphy among foreigners too," he said.

Since 2008, his works have been exhibited in such places as Beijing, New York City and Las Vegas. He spent about a month finishing the work of the Charter of the United Nations in square English, which was collected by the UN in 2008. He also wrote the works of English versions of Chinese classical poems, prose and novels. "It's neat, pretty and saves paper. For the UN Charter, there are 117 pages in the English version, 95 in Chinese, but only 80 in square English," he said. He said the calligraphy could also be promoted in other languages such as French and German.

"It's very creative. If the special calligraphy is promoted to the world, so is Chinese culture," said Gu Xiangyang, a calligrapher and professor from Peking University. Deng said the writing of the 26 letters remains pretty much the same as in English, but they are assembled in different ways to make the words diversified.

Square English follows English grammar, too. For example, capitalized words in English remained capitalized. In addition, Deng divides the words by syllables and writes one after another according to the writing sequence of Chinese characters. "It's easy to pronounce the word when one sees the divided syllables, especially for Chinese, who are used to the top-to-bottom and left-to-right thinking pattern," he said.

After years of research, Deng has created about 8,000 words in square English, each of which has a fixed form. If he has to write an unfamiliar word, he will first make a draft, to think about the perfect structure of the word. Deng said the idea struck him when he first came to the United States in 1997 as a visiting scholar. "My English was so poor that I even had difficulty reading the street names. If I could combine English and Chinese languages, I thought maybe it would be easier to learn English," he said.

At first he scrambled the letters so that the words looked beautiful, but even Americans couldn't understand them. After numerous failures, he found the right way to write the English calligraphy in 2003. "For Westerners, square English is art, while for Chinese, it's a new and fun way to learn English," he said. He said a square English dictionary will soon roll off the press in Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland. The dictionary has more than 8,000 common English words, with Chinese explanations and Chinese pinyin.

He has joined with the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies to produce square English typewriting software, which will come out in a year or so. One only has to type the first and last letter of a word, and a list of words will pop up to choose from. "It's easy to type and avoid mistakes, as you don't have to type all the letters to get the word. People will love it," he said.

Apart from square English, Deng leads a productive life of inventing with more than 160 patents under his belt, about half of which have been brought to market. He is also adept at both oil painting and Chinese ink-and-water art. His inventions of a wide variety include an anti-fake liquor bottle that can't be refilled, a wine made of vegetables and herbal cosmetics. "He is such a versatile inventor and generous about sharing his creations. He doesn't invent for money, but out of interest," said his friend Shen Jie, a member of China Association of Collectors. Deng said many of his patents have been violated by companies, who stole his formulas in the name of cooperation. "But I don't bother to file lawsuits. As long as the public benefits from these inventions, I'm happy," he said.

Image Sources: 1,8) Palace Museum Taipei; 2) All, Search Chinese Art; 3, 5) Nolls China website ; 4) University of Washington; 6, 7) Metropolitan Museum of Art

Text Sources: Palace Museum, Taipei, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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