Chinese Calligraphy


This is an article taken from our China Eye magazine (2008) written by Brian Morgan.

I have travelled widely in China over many years, and there is one place, in particular, I return to whenever I can, - the Confucian temple in Beijing. It is situated in a side street, inside the North Wall. This place was the true centre of power in China for centuries, because it was a centre for administrative calligraphy. It adjoined the Imperial College, the centre for the National Imperial Examinations, and the highest official institute of learning in Imperial China.

It is no coincidence that these were placed in line with the nearby Ditan Park, formerly the place where the Emperor would make sacrifices at the Earth temple. Its' counterpart, the Heavenly Temple, Tian Tan in the centre of Beijing, is far more widely known, though of equal significance.

Although the process really started in the Han Dynasty, continuously for at least 1,400 years, the selection process for administrators was by the Imperial examinations, which were at District, Provincial and National level. These were series of examinations in knowledge of the Confucian Classics, and in the ability to solve practical political and administrative issues. The candidates were locked away for three days, with a series of examination papers, most of which involved writing long passages of the Classics from memory, in faultless and individual calligraphy.

The rewards for success were very high, with the highest achievers attaining the rank of Jinshi, which guaranteed high office, and a gift of a large courtyard complex, with servants. Also, a monument was erected later, carved in their own calligraphy, and placed in the Forest of Steles. The best calligrapher was usually made teacher to the young Emperor.

The Imperial authorities wanted to establish China as a meritocracy, where advancement was open to all, regardless of status or age. The exams could be taken any number of times. A low grade in the examinations took with it a degree of shame, but also granted permission to teach. With such high stakes, cheating did occur, where some candidates even wore undershirts, painted with the Classics; but if caught cheating, the penalty for the family was imprisonment or immediate exile for life.

But why was such a high emphasis placed on calligraphy? Put simply, it was a refined tool of discrimination. The subject was very broad and demanding, it required a deep knowledge of the Classics, and took many years of practice. An experienced calligrapher already had this knowledge, and was able to look at an unknown work, and tell the master, the length of study and the scope of the study and the diligence of the practice. He was able to tell the physical form of the writer, as the movements of a tall, thin person are quite different from those of a shorter, plumper person. He was even said to be able to tell the state of health of the writer on the day, or the degree of practice leading up to the day, similar to Western musicians listening to their peers. There was a prominent musician who said the if he did not practice for one day, he heard the difference, if he did not practice for two days, his friends knew it, and if he did not practice for three days, the public knew it. In a similar way, it is said that an experienced calligrapher could diagnose the presence of long-term illness, and even determine the character and the disposition of the writer.

So basically, it was used as a test of character, of the ability to study and practice diligently, a test of memory, of acquired skill and of individuality. It was also a test of finesse, of determination, of intelligence, and of suitability as an administrator. It was a fingerprint of that person. It was impossible, even for an experienced calligrapher, to exactly copy the work of other calligraphers, with the same fluidity of strokes.

Tang Confucius Analects
Tang dynasty hand-written copy of the Analects of Confucius with Glossary by Zheng Xuan. The earliest copy known dating from 710AD.

The Confucian Temple did not really have much religious significance, although Confucius was deified to a degree. If at all it would have been Daoist with Confucian overtones. It is a quiet complex, with aged gingko, cypress and pine, full of history, and with many monuments to the Jinshi and to several Emperors. The Emperors' monuments are massive, about 20 feet tall, each standing on a carved tortoise, on a platform, and enclosed in a separate building. Each stone was carved with the Emperor's own calligraphy.

At the back of the complex is a side room, containing all the Confucian Classics carved in stone, under the orders of the Emperor Qianlong, in the middle of the 18th century. Central to the complex is the Biyong Hall, where the Emperor and other noted scholars gave lectures on the Classics and on Moral Ethics. To the rear of the complex stands the Hall of Great Achievements, where administrators could assemble and perform calligraphy, poetry, painting and music, often in front of the Emperor. This still now contains statues of many notable Jinshi.

Calligraphers today are able to have paper rubbings of many of these monuments, so they can study the techniques of the great masters first-hand. It is also quite common for characters to be disguised in a picture, usually of bamboo. The Chinese government is restricting some of the rubbing, for fear of damage to the more important monuments.

Near the front of the Confucian Temple complex is a small building, glazed in dark green tiles,- in fact it is a small furnace. Whenever decrees of state were written, two copies were made. One was for administration, the other to be burnt in this furnace, so that the thoughts, ideas and skills of the compilers could be offered to the Daoist gods. This is called the Pagoda for Compassionating Characters, and it is still used today. There are others in old administrative centres throughout China. Many times I have seen elderly men going around the streets of Beijing, and a few other cities, collecting discarded items with hand-written calligraphy on them, and burning them here. This was to prevent the skill and thought put into them being debased in the normal rubbish collections.

I have often seen other men, walking the streets, and admiring the calligraphy above shops. A shop keeper will spare no expense to employ the best calligrapher, as the sign reflects the quality of the shop and its goods.

Respected calligraphy teacher
90 year-old teacher of calligraphy Lu Fu at a school for the aged in Shanghai in 1986.

If you travel almost anywhere in China, you will see ancient displays of calligraphy, perhaps engraved in the mountain side in enormous characters, perhaps on a stone put there for the purpose. In the parks in the early mornings, you will see calligraphers practising on the paving slabs, with a large water brush. They usually hold a book of the Classics in one hand, and discuss the contents and their brushwork, with a crowd of watching enthusiasts. Often groups of men are at a table beside a road, just discussing and practising their calligraphy.

So calligraphy has long been deep inside the character of the Chinese people, and it has a long and complicated history. The first writing was in the form of simple pictures of objects, and their form changed over the centuries with the different materials used. Scratched in bone, impressed in clay, cast in bronze, carved in stone, and finally with brush and paper. It was the use of paper that finally opened up the field of calligraphy proper, with few restrictions of space, freedom of movement, and a new-found artistry.

The history of the earlier scripts is not clear, and scholars will disagree, but the Greater Seal Script probably started about 800BC, and the Lesser Seal Script about 600BC. About 200BC great changes occurred throughout China. The first Emperor, Qin Shihuang wanted to unify the country, but it was made up of many warring factions, with mutually incomprehensible speech. He was also obsessed with magic and immortality. So he ordered all of the books in the land to be burnt, except those on these two subjects. Then he wanted a single script, countrywide, but for administrative purposes only.

At the time he was also having the first continuous Great Wall built, to protect from constant incursions from the North. He sent so-called disgraced officials to the wall, to keep tallies on materials. He also sent out tax gatherers. For convenience these people used strips of bamboo, strung and rolled together for their writing, as in the Warring States period. They also devised a new and simple script, the Servitude Script.

One administrator, who had displeased the Emperor was imprisoned, and he managed to get a supply of writing materials while in there. While in prison, he assembled an artistic script of 3,000 characters, and this later developed into the Classical script, with its long flowing strokes. Over the centuries, the Running Script and the Grass Script developed from this Classical Script. The earlier burning of the books created a violent uprising among calligraphers, and the Emperor immediately stopped all protest by having them publicly burnt alive. But some remnants of the earlier books had been hidden in the walls of buildings, and from these remnants later developed the Regular script. This soon superseded the Classical Script for Administrative purposes.

During these troubled times, and anarchy that flowed the short reign of the First Emperor, the Chinese written language came very close to being lost altogether.

In the hands of a calligrapher elite, the Regular Script was split up into four different schools, or masters. Over the centuries, with calligraphers competing against each other, the characters became more and more complicated. Towards the middle of the Qing Dynasty, the average number of strokes per character in administrative writing grew to 70. Each of these strokes had to be precisely placed, and carefully executed, in a pre-determined order. This kept most of the population illiterate.

Since that day there has been a progressive move towards simplification, which became countrywide within the last 100 years. Mao aimed at an average of 11 strokes per character. In fact 17 is a closer present day average, but for characters in practical use, then 11 is probably a closer figure.

But even now, calligraphy is not static. If you look at the scripts on modern paintings, or on magazines, you will see how the artists are experimenting, and creating new styles, and these changes need to be documented. But it is also succumbing to the keyboard age, which is sounding the first warnings of a death knell. But Chinese Calligraphy still, at the moment, retains a unique role in Chinese life, though diminishing fast, in the face of global changes.

Brian Morgan teaches traditional Chinese arts such as brush painting, lantern making and calligraphy and has also arranged successful exhibitions of Chinese arts in the Midlands and North of England. He is a regular contributor to China Eye.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2008, China Eye magazine Spring 2008

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
If you have any comments, updates or corrections please let us know via our Contact page.