24 October 2020 ((Wall Street International)* —  Chinese calligraphy, (Chin. 書法 shū faˇ), contains the essence of Chinese culture. Calligraphy is one of four noble arts in China. It is a connective dimension where the Chinese language, history, philosophy, and aesthetics merge.

Shufa’s literal translation “the way of writing” expresses the very root of the art; close bonds with Chinese written signs, on the one hand, and painting, on the other. It is a known art for the cultivation of the mind, which is one of the most distinctive features of Chinese culture.

Ink

At the present most calligraphy beginners use liquid ink as it’s cheap and convenient. Experienced calligraphers, in the contrary, grind their own ink from ink sticks in order to control ink solution’s consistency. The ink used in traditional Chinese calligraphy is always black. It is made basically from two ingredients: lampblack and glue made from animal hides or horns.

After they are mixed to form a paste, they are stored in wooden molds to be formed into small pieces of various shapes. When the mold is removed and the pieces are dry, the ink sticks are then decorated with painted designs and characters.

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Ink becomes waterproof when applied to the paper | Image from Wall Street International

To make ink for writing, it is poured a small amount of water onto an inkstone, and then rub the ink stick in a smooth circular motion. As ink paste rubs off the stick, it mixes with the water to form liquid ink. If the ink is very thick, it will not run freely on paper, or when very thin, it will blot and expand into thick lines.

Ink becomes waterproof when applied to the paper. A lot of ink makes for fatter, bolder characters. In a solid stroke, the ink sinks into the paper to produce a sturdy line, while a swift brush stroke produces lines with white streaks.

Through the centuries, ink stick making has evolved into an art. Black ink appears in the Neolithic Age and later in the Shang dynasty. Since the Tang dynasty, Huizhou in Anhui Province has produced the best ink, called Huīmò 徽墨 – Hui ink.

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Chinese calligraphy tools | Image from Wall Street International

Paper

Chinese calligraphy value coarse-textured and absorbent paper. It is considered the best calligraphy paper to be Xuan paper 宣紙 xuānzhıˇ (“rice paper” in English) produced in Anhui Province. It is made of plant fiber. Xuan paper is white and delicate, doesn’t tear easily, and can be preserved for a long time. The invention of paper was credited to Cai Lun in about 105 CE.

After the paper was invented, it was favored by artists and calligraphers because of its absorbent nature and the variety of textures. Techniques and processes of papermaking were brought by Buddhist monks from China to Korea and Japan, and later to the West.

Traditionally, Chinese calligraphy is always done on white paper, although other types of paper are also used for special occasions, such as red for festivals. It is recommended that beginners apply the brush to the coarse side of the paper, to develop hand and wrist strength.

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Ink stones are typically made of a fine, dark, solid natural stone that is flat and smooth, with portion to hold ink | Image from Wall Street International

Ink stones

The Chinese ink stone has multiple purposes. Ink stones are typically made of a fine, dark, solid natural stone that is flat and smooth, with a portion to hold ink. An ink stone should be heavy enough. Experienced calligraphers often choose to grind their own ink, especially when they intend to produce unusual tonalities or consistencies of ink for special purposes.

The best stones, called Duānyàn 端硯, come from Duanzhou in Guangdong Province. Calligraphy art comes from the ink stone, but the ink stone is a precious object in itself.

The four treasures of Chinese calligraphy—brush, paper, ink, and ink stone—have played a crucial role in Chinese culture. The true beauty of calligraphy lies in the fact that they work together to express artistic intentions.

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After paper was invented, it was favored by artists and calligraphers because of its absorbent nature and the variety of textures | Image from Wall Street International

Learning calligraphy

Learning Chinese calligraphy is more than learning how to write with a Chinese brush. It is a complex form of visual, tactile, and mental training that requires patience, concentration, a calm and relaxed mind, correct posture, and coordination of mind and body.

At the beginning stage, learners embark upon the task of acquiring a number of new skills: how to handle the brush, the pressure to apply and the proper amount of ink to keep in the brush. Tracing and copying from models are always the first steps.

Traditional Chinese training methods have always put a strong emphasis on imitation and copying. In Chinese art in general, imitation and copying are considered virtues. Good copies and imitations are appreciated as well as the originals.

This is why, over the course of the long history of Chinese calligraphy and painting, old masters’ works have constantly been copied. It is believed that a beginner must first learn the essentials from masters of the past before trying to develop an individual style.

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Ink stones are typically made of a fine, dark, solid natural stone that is flat and smooth, with portion to hold ink | Image from Wall Street International

In calligraphy, learning imitation is also a process leading to the discovery of the good qualities in the model and the techniques used to produce them. Calligraphy training process Tracing means writing over the characters in the student’s copybook. In outline tracing the outline of a character is printed on paper, and the student fills the outline with black ink.

The other form of tracing, red tracing, is writing over characters already printed in red with black ink. The focus of tracing is mainly on the shape of strokes. When copying, the model is placed on one side and then imitated.

Firstly, after model observations, all details have to be kept in mind. The focus in copying in learning should be mainly on the structure of characters. Characters only take up about 80 percent of the square space. Mainly are used two grid patterns.

First is the eight-cell pattern that divides a character space like a pie. Because this grid resembles the Chinese character 米 mĭ, it is called the mĭ-grid in Chinese (米字格 mıˇzìgé). The second, the square-grid pattern (方格 fānggé), defines the space for a character without further dividing it.

The eight-cell grid pattern is for beginners, and the square grid is for calligraphy students with experience. There are other commonly used grid patterns, for example, the nine-cell grid (九宮格 jiuˇgōnggé), which divides the space for a character horizontally and vertically.

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Inks are mixed to form a paste, and then they are stored in wooden molds to be formed into small pieces of various shapes | Image from Wall Street International

Traditionally, characters in the regular script are divided into three different sizes for practice. An experienced writer, having learned the basics by tracing and copying, develops a signature style that is personal but, still, is usually based on or influenced by a calligraphy master of the past. One has to be calm and able to focus and concentrate. There is no point in writing in a hurry or when someone’s mind is not ready.

Chinese calligraphy is mostly done on a horizontal, flat surface. Beginners should write at a table, although experienced writers may also write on the floor. The weight of the writer’s body should be kept forward, and center of gravity should be the lower abdomen, which is also the core torso. When both feet are placed solidly on the floor, the calligraphy writer will be sitting in the position known as the “horse stand.” This posture helps to bring the center of gravity forward.