Full access for
US$ 3.99/year



Calligraphy - a Chinese art

The art of writing Chinese characters is called “calligraphy” (shūfǎ 书法). It is usually done with ink brushes.

In ancient China, calligraphy belonged to the “Four Arts of the Chinese Scholars” (sìyì (四艺). To be a scholar in China meant consequently to be an artist. The most important implements of a calligraphist were the so called “Four Treasures of the Study”(wénfángsìbǎo 文房四宝): the brush, the ink, the ink stone and good paper. (ill. 10)


I. Brush (máobǐ 毛 笔)

Brushes are widely considered an extension of the calligrapher's arm. It is the traditional writing tool in East Asian calligraphy. The body of the brush is generally made from bamboo (more expensive materials can be red sandalwood, glass, ivory, silver, and even gold).

The head of the brush is made from the hair or feathers of a wide range of animals (rabbits, weasels, goats, tigers, chicken, ducks etc.) There is a tradition in both China and Japan of making a brush using the hair of a newborn as a once-in-a-lifetime souvenir for the child. This practice is associated with the legend of an ancient Chinese scholar who scored first in the Imperial examinations by using his own personalized brush.

Modern calligraphy may also be done using a pen, but this kind of calligraphy does not enjoy the same reputation as traditional brush calligraphy.

(ill. 11/312)


The hold of the brush

A frequently discussed topic is how to hold the brush: Usually, the brush is held vertically, straight gripped between the thumb and middle finger. The index finger touches the upper part of the brush to stabilize it while the ring and little fingers hold the bottom of the shaft apart to create a space inside the palm. Depending on the style, a calligrapher may change the grip. In general, a calligrapher grips the shaft higher for cursive and lower for regular script.

(ill. 13-15)


II. Ink (mòshuǐ 墨水, “black water”) and Ink stick (mò 墨, “black soil”)

Chinese ink is traditionally made from lampblack pine soot, lacquer, and oil (sometimes incense or medicinal scents are added). It comes in the form of ink sticks which must be rubbed in a little pool of water on an ink stone until the right consistency is achieved. Much cheaper, pre-mixed bottled inks are also available, but these are in general only used for practice because stick inks are considered higher quality. Chemical inks in general bleed more easily over time. Traditionally, Chinese calligraphy is written only in black ink, but in modern calligraphies other colors can be seen as well.


III. Ink stone (yàntái 砚台)

A stone or ceramic ink stone is used to rub the solid ink stick with a little water until it becomes liquid ink. Elaborate ancient stones had water-holding cavities or water reservoirs which became ink reservoirs later. Chinese ink stones can be highly prized possessions; the most renowned ones come from Duanxi, Guangdong (a volcanic stone), She County (Anhui) or Luoyang (Henan).

(ill. 16/17)


IV. Paper (xuānzhǐ 宣纸)

In China, the best calligraphy paper, the so called xuānzhǐ (宣纸), is produced traditionally in Anhui province. It is made from the Tartar wingceltis tree (Pteroceltis tartarianovii), as well as other materials including rice straw, the bark of the paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera), bamboo, hemp, etc.

To fix the paper on the table a paperweight (zhènzhǐ 镇纸) is needed. Paperweights come in several types: some are long wooden blocks carved with calligraphic or pictorial designs, others are small sculptures of people or animals. Like ink stones, paperweights are works of art on their own.

To keep the orientation of the characters, students often put a desk-pad (huàzhān 画毡) with the typical square grid pattern underneath the translucent paper. The desk-pad is usually made of felt.

(ill. 18/19)

V. Seal (yìn zhāng印章) and Seal paste (zhūshā 朱砂)


Calligraphic works are usually completed by the calligrapher’s signature. For the signature he or she traditionally doesn’t use their own handwriting, but a personal seal with red ink. These signatures could be very elaborate. The famous “nine fold script” (九叠文jiǔdiéwén) is so vividly ornamented, that only experts can read it nowadays.




ill. 20: Seal of Ilkhan Ghazan of his letter to Pope Boniface VIII (1302): Seal certifying the authority of his Royal Highness to establish a country and govern its people"("王府定國理民之寶")

In general, stamps don’t exceed the size of 2-5 cm. Special seals like the government seal of the People’s Republic of China can reach a size of 9 cm side length though.

Chinese seals are typically made of semi-precious stone with a square shape (high quality stamps are carved in jade, touristic name seals generally only in soapstone)5. The square shape was changed only during the Song Dynasty to a rectangle, but the Qing Dynasty court returned to the traditional square.

Today more shape variety can be found. Stamps as a substitute for signatures are still in use for many different purposes: as government seals, company seals, individual name seals, to express a personal motto or philosophy, etc.

They are typically used with red ink or cinnabar paste, the so called “zhūshā” (朱砂). Mainly two kinds of seal paste are in use:

a silk-based kind: a rather sticky paste with a bright red colour (pulverized cinnabar, mixed with castor oil and silk strands)

a plant-based kind: a looser, less binding paste, that gives a darker red color (pulverized cinnabar, mixed with castor oil and moxa (mugwort) punk)

(ill. 21/23)


5 Besides wood, metal (especially bronze), ivory, plastic and other materials are in use.