What is Special About Asian Calligraphy?
By Aïda Yuen Wong, Professor of Art History at Brandeis University; Founder and Head of Design of Callimode, an Asian American contemporary jewelry brand specializing in luxury designs to express antiracism in Asian calligraphy. Ethical & Sustainable Jewelry with Recycled Gold and Non-Conflict Diamonds.
August 14, 2022 (Expanded on October 19, 2022)
Calligraphy Is More than Beautiful Writing
At its most basic, calligraphy is the art of creating beauty through handwritten texts. While Western calligraphy also treats letters as aesthetic objects, it focuses more on the formation of letters in an orderly, beautiful manner. The calligraphy of various East Asian cultures is a significant, refined art form which uses character shapes and meanings to express a calligrapher's thoughts and feelings. Calligraphy is appreciated as an art form by many different cultures around the world, but calligraphy's status within East Asian culture is unparalleled.
Many people think of calligraphy as simply the art of writing beautiful characters. In Asia, calligraphy is far more than that. It is the art and practice of composing characters and expressing a wide range of sentiments. Asian calligraphy is often viewed as a way to pass on a document's nuances through the very careful and deliberate strokes, as well as an art form in itself with an elegant and impressive aesthetic appeal. It has also been used as an art form to convey the aesthetics of a particular era. The characters reveal the link to the past and keep a sense of cultural continuity.
While it is necessary to know the Asian characters to practice Asian calligraphy, this is definitely not true when it comes to appreciating or collecting it. The more one looks at a piece of calligraphy, the more one will appreciate its dynamics and structure, regardless of your knowledge of the written word. Some of the most famous works of calligraphy are about mundane things in life, not all highly literary. The rhythm, motion, and flow of calligraphy is available to everyone looking at it, not just to those who can read Asian languages. Of course, knowing the characters will enhance the overall message.
Writing is about what a writer writes; calligraphy is about how the writer or calligrapher writes and expresses a character. While ancient writing in China, for example was used to convey information like official state laws, answers questions in exams, or lists vegetables produced in the province, calligraphy eventually evolved into as an art form that was practised by writers for long periods of time in order to attain a particular style with their characters of choice.
Like chopsticks, calligraphy was once completely Chinese, but when Chinese culture spread to Korea, Japan, among other places, calligraphy became a signature element of local art. In the twentieth century, calligraphy remains at the heart of East Asian art, conveying a lasting relationship to history.
Calligraphers use brushes, pens, and other tools to form letters, words, and sentences, using different strokes and styles to create art with a purpose, whether that is to commemorate a significant event, preserve ancient knowledge, or simply because they are artistic. Calligraphy on clay, inkstones, or stones, some ancient, some modern, and today some created entirely out of laser-cut wood. The most prominent Asian calligraphy are in Chinese calligraphic script styles.
From its early periods, Chinese calligraphy was regarded as more than a decorative art form in China, instead it was seen as a superior form of visual art, more valuable than paintings and sculptures. Because calligraphy was considered the supreme of the visual arts in Chinese, it established a standard against which Chinese paintings were evaluated. Calligraphy is a particular category within China's own fine arts world, and it is also one of the hardest art forms for an outsider to appreciate or master in China.
The aesthetics of calligraphy are significant in the history of East Asian art, in which during most of its pre-modern period, Classical Chinese was lingua franca (or universal language). Calligraphy has influenced ink wash painting, a type of painting that is highly calligraphic and relies on the subtle play of ink tones. For many centuries, Chinese consider painting and calligraphy to be related arts, with the boundaries between them being fluid. In fact, at one point painting was been considered essentially second-rate in China as a fine art, second only to calligraphy.
Different Traditions: China, Japan, and Korea
To do the art of calligraphy property, a writer must have the ability to quickly come up with characters, to have the strength to keep the writing hand and arm in certain positions, and to be able to create various styles of characters using a variety of brushes.
Most commonly the text is written in black ink on white paper, but some texts are written in colored inks in a variety of media including silk, wood, bronze, and porcelain. The Chinese writing system dates back to oracle bones found over 4000 years ago, among the ruins of Chinas Shang Dynasty, the first written Chinese dynasty. Artful calligraphy was already quite sophisticated during the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE), and reached distinct heights during the Eastern Jin (317-420 CE), Tang (618-907 CE), Song (960-1279 CE), and subsequent dynasties.
Like so many of the other forms of art in Japan, Japanese calligraphy has Chinese roots. Written Chinese characters in Japan or kanji were introduced from either Korea or China around the 5th century CE, some 1500 years ago. For much of its history Japanese kanji calligraphy has been heavily influenced by Chinese styles of writing in the Jin and Tang Dynasties, collectively called Karayō (Chinese Style). With the development of native kana syllabary in the 9th century, styles that were developed to render it were generally slenderer and more fluid compared to Chinese scripts.
Japan adopted Chinese Calligraphy more enthusiastically following Buddhism's arrival there in the middle 6th century, but calligraphic arts did not mature there until the early years of the Heian Era (794-1185), when Japan's so-called "Three Great Brushes" (Sanpitsu) began practicing calligraphy as a fine art. As in China, students of this art in Japan spent many hours studying writing styles of the previous masters of Chinese calligraphy. The flourishing of Zen Buddhism in Japan during the Muromachi Period (1336-1573) contributed greatly to calligraphy's wider audience.
Korean calligraphy is an old, refined writing style that originated in Chinese calligraphy, which has over time developed into a treasured Korean art form. Chinese calligraphy began to be used in Korean society in the time of the Three Kingdoms (57BCE-668 CE). Early Korean calligraphy was solely in Hanja, or the Chinese-based script that was used to first write Korean. In contrast to Chinese characters calligraphy, which has an array of characters developed over the course of multiple millennia, hangul (Korean alphabets) calligraphy is only around 500 years old, ever since its birth in 1443.
Because Korean alphabet hangul was considered feminine writing, unlike Chinese characters used by educated men, court ladies in the Joseon Dynasty (1392-110) developed their own distinctive style of calligraphy, mostly based on Korean letters, known as gongche (gungce). Honseoche (honseoche) is a style of calligraphy which mixes Chinese and Korean characters, used in many Korean classics. Governmental instructions to replace all written words and Chinese characters with a native alphabet, that is, Korean alphabet (hangul), greatly affected Korean calligraphy after the Second World War. Today, many calligraphers in South Korea, are experimenting with new styles of Hangul, and it has become a major component in a wider Korean calligraphy practice.
While many mediums have been used, Asian calligraphers are best known for using ink to compose their works. The ink is usually made from soot and glue, and diluted with water. The artist must be extremely agile and attentive, often using the same brush to create a fluid, sharp, blunt letter in various sizes. After the work is created, the resulting piece of art is a valuable addition to any home or office. Very often the best calligraphy is done on traditional, high-quality Asian paper.
As Asian calligraphy is a highly traditional practice, it usually requires many years of learning prototypes and following canonical models. Depending on where calligraphy is practiced, it can be defined by its rhythmic structure and continuous detail or by its aesthetic style and artistry. Whether practiced for religious reasons, for appreciation, for aesthetic purposes, or for artistic purposes, this art is revered as a form of marvelous creativity. If you love Asian calligraphy as much as I do, you may want to find out how exactly how it is done, and there are many excellent references and guidebooks available today. Although calligraphy ranges in expression and application, it remains a highly desirable practice for both professionals and amateurs.
Modern-Contemporary Calligraphic Practice
In the past calligraphy was often part of a daily practice with a brush and ink, and continued to be practiced in the 20th century, but has since tapered off. The invention of woodblock printing and movable type printing, which go back many centuries as well, have helped to make Asian calligraphy more available to the public. With the rise of art education programs in the early twentieth century, people across the world began to become enamored of Asian calligraphy, and demand have increased for it for exhibits and for public decorative purposes. The line between calligraphy and abstract art, conceptual, or performance art is also becoming blurred.
With the advent of computers and digital devices that can create art or generate text, computer-based calligraphy has occurred as well. Modern calligraphy combines calligraphy with art, mixed media, and digital media, and often includes the use of color. In the 21st century, calligraphy has given Asian artists a distinct voice in a global artistic community.
Today, not many people study calligraphy or decorate their homes with calligraphic scrolls or framed calligraphy. However, calligraphy continues to live on in everyday life, such as in the form of calligraphy jewelry. The aesthetics of ancient calligraphers can be imitated using contemporary technology and a variety of materials to create the beautiful lines and flourishes that are emblematic of artistry and elegance. Jewelry designs can incorporate ancient calligraphic scripts or styles as means to achieve elegance and add an extra layer of contemporary meaning and beauty to the pieces. Today, you’ll find almost limitless options to express the beauty of calligraphy, whether for yourself or for a loved one in a piece of jewelry.
What about you? Do you enjoy calligraphy? How about carrying a little piece of calligraphy with you on your body or wearing it on your ears? If you're looking for a distinctive yet sophisticated way to express yourself, Callimode offers finely crafted designs inspired by the ancient art of Asian calligraphy. Visit our store today to browse our collection.