Calligraphy painting by C. C. Wang. Calligraphy is one of China’s earliest and most revered art forms, a symbol of culture, education, self-discipline, and erudition. The quality of one’s calligraphy was thought to provide insight into one’s moral character. Calligraphic writing on paintings, a means for imparting wisdom or advice, was often integral to the composition of the images. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

More than just handsome penmanship, calligraphy is an artistic expression of language practiced by all students of written Chinese. Studied and developed over many centuries, the Chinese characters of calligraphy have changed slightly, but the ability to master calligraphy remains a respected art form.

Chinese calligraphy (from the Greek kalligraphia, “beautiful writing”) is the art of writing that educated Chinese have practiced for millennia. All students of written Chinese practice calligraphy, but becoming a good calligrapher requires practice, self-discipline, and an artistic sense. Chinese calligraphy, therefore, is more than just the mere art of penmanship.

The Chinese Character

Written Chinese is ideographic and in some cases pictographic. Thus each Chinese character is a monosyllabic word that conveys an idea. Characters, insofar as they are sometimes pictographic, also provide a visual expression of the ideas that they represent in a way that purely phonetic scripts do not. Characters, each composed of a series of strokes, make up words when written in a particular order. No matter how many strokes a character may be composed of, it must fit perfectly inside an imaginary box that is the same size as those of the characters preceding and following it. A character usually has two components: a radical that indicates meaning in a very broad sense, and a phonetic component that indicates sound, also in a broad sense. These components may be side by side or one on top of the other, inside the imaginary box within which each character is composed. Calligraphy is the art of writing these characters.

History of Writing and Calligraphy

Historically, writing and power have been intimately related in China, and calligraphy has been of much greater importance there than penmanship has been in Western societies. The earliest examples of writing in China appear on oracle bones from the Shang dynasty (1766–1045 BCE). These oracle bones were tortoise shells and scapula of mammals, etched with questions for the gods and then held over heat until they cracked. Shamans (magicians), who had written the inscriptions in the first place, interpreted the cracks as divine answers to the questions. People with the ability to write in ancient China, therefore, had the power to communicate with Heaven and to interpret Heaven’s will. Early Chinese rulers, eager to empower themselves in every possible way, surrounded themselves by those who could write and help them communicate with Heaven.

Although, as the oracle bones show us, writing existed in China at least three thousand years ago, there was not a unified written language in China until the third century BCE. At that time, Shi Huangdi (c. 259–210 BCE), the first emperor of the Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE), who was trying to reshape the numerous kingdoms of the Chinese landmass into a unified empire, standardized writing. The creation of a single, unified written language in a nation full of spoken dialects, where there was no universally comprehensible spoken language, made the written language that much more important.

Over time education in China’s written language became essential to participation in government, and an imperial examination system evolved to test candidates’ skill in written expression. From the Tang (618–907) to the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), calligraphy was considered an important criterion for passing all three levels of these civil service examinations. The quality of one’s calligraphy was thought to provide insight into one’s moral character. Beautiful calligraphy became a symbol of culture, education, self-discipline, and erudition.

Certain people became known for their calligraphy, and the calligraphy of other people became known because the calligraphers themselves were famous or powerful. Writing on paintings, memorials, and other materials became a way for superiors to impart wisdom, advice, and injunctions to their inferiors. Virtually any literate person recognized the calligraphy of the emperor and the most important government figures of the time.

Calligraphic Styles

A variety of styles of calligraphy, or scripts, evolved over time, each coming to be identified with particular types or styles of writing. The script that became standard during the reign of Shi Huangdi is known as small seal (xiaozhuan) script. This script is difficult for people to read today and is generally used only in works of art. Among other scripts that have evolved, the most common is regular (kaishu) script, in which each stroke of a character is clearly written. Because of its clarity, regular script is generally used for printing. The clerical (lishu) style was developed during the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE). It is most commonly used today in inscriptions on monuments and public buildings. Writers of informal notes or letters probably use the running (xingshu) style of script, in which the separate strokes of a given character are often run together. A variation on the running style is the grass (caoshu) style, which actually omits strokes and joins separate characters together. The grass style was particularly popular among literati in the late imperial era.

Calligraphy as Art

Chinese calligraphy is ornamental. Its beauty lies in both the concepts expressed and the form of expression. Throughout the Chinese world, people display decorative calligraphy in homes and businesses. Couplets, often written on strips of red paper, hang at the entrances of homes; lucky characters are pasted on the walls and windows of shops, restaurants, and homes at the Chinese New Year; and scrolls of calligraphy hang in living rooms.

Perhaps because calligraphy is an art form and a means of self-expression rather than simply a vehicle for conveying meaning, works of art—such as paintings, sculptures, and buildings—are themselves often adorned with calligraphy. In many cases the inscriptions on paintings, and the etchings on buildings, monuments, and places of natural beauty are expressions of appreciation, commentaries, or labels appended by later owners or observers (often the emperor). These calligraphic additions are not generally seen as detracting from the original piece, but as adding something to it.

Contemporary Calligraphy

During the twentieth century, China underwent several attempts to simplify the written language. Language reformers, hoping to increase literacy, introduced both phonetic scripts using roman letters and simplified characters, the forms of which, interestingly, are derived in many instances from caoshu, or the grass style of calligraphy. Although the phonetic systems have not become especially popular, more than two thousand simplified versions of commonly used characters were introduced by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the official written form between 1956 and 1964. Their use in the PRC has relegated to the past the more complex forms of characters and the art of writing them for most Chines

Nonetheless, calligraphy has remained important in post-1949 China, and the calligraphy of famous Communist Party members can be seen on various signs throughout China. The characters for the name of the newspaper called the People’s Daily (renmin ribao), for instance, are printed in the calligraphy of Mao Zedong (1893–1976). The presence of Mao’s calligraphy on the front page of every edition of the People’s Daily shows the world that the paper benefited from his patronage.

While the forms of characters may have changed during the twentieth century, the functions of calligraphy have remained essentially the same. Calligraphy is the artistic expression of the power of language by the individual. Both the form and content of calligraphy inform the reader or viewer about the morality, education, and dedication of the calligrapher.

Further Reading

Chiang, Yee. (1973). Chinese calligraphy: An introduction to its aesthetic and technique. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kraus, Richard Curt. (1991). Brushes with power: Modern politics and the Chinese art of calligraphy. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Proser, Adriana G. (1995). Moral characters: Calligraphy and bureaucracy in Han China (296 BCECE 220). Doctoral dissertation, Columbia University.

Fill in the eyes to a painted dragon.


Huà long diǎn jīng

Source: Greene, J. Megan. (2009). Calligraphy. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 261–264. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

A Chinese woman uses a conical sponge at the end of a rod to draw intricate Chinese characters (hanzi) at the Temple of Heaven (Tian-Tan) in Beijing, China. PHOTO BY TOM CHRISTENSEN.

Fish Play by Wang Fang Yu. Calligraphy is now being reintegrated into Chinese art by modern artists. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Calligraphy (Shūfǎ 书法)|Shūfǎ 书法 (Calligraphy)

Download the PDF of this article