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The Art of Beautiful Writting - May 2002 Newsletter


Calligraphy, the art of fine writing, comes from the Greek term, kalligraphia, meaning "beautiful writing." It's hard to pinpoint exactly when it originated, although many believe it evolved from early cave paintings. Over the centuries, other cultures established their own forms of calligraphy. The Egyptians created hieroglyphs, a form of writing using pictures. The people of Sumer, an ancient country of Western Asia, and the world's first civilization, produced a writing system similar to those of Egypt's. A few thousand years later, the Phoenicians took writing a step further by creating what many believe is one of the first alphabet system. It consisted of 24 letters that were written from right to left.

For years, China was isolated from other civilizations, and therefore, Chinese calligraphy developed separately. By 1275 AD, the Chinese had devised a complex writing technique consisting of more than 1500 characters, each representing an entire word. These characters were first etched onto readily available materials, such as bone, tortoise shell and copper. As time went on, the writing technique of using brush and ink was developed, as did the Chinese style of writing in vertical columns from left to right. For them, writing involved brush strokes, the same way an artist puts brush to canvas and creates his painting with strokes. This technique elevated calligraphy from practicality to one of the finest and most respected forms of Chinese art.

The Chinese believed calligraphy had its social merits. A man's character was determined by his handwriting, and if it was polished and sophisticated, it meant he was refined. The Chinese Imperial court chose its executives based on the quality of their calligraphy skills, since being an executive and writing calligraphy required similar skills. These skills included careful planning and confident application. However, while there were certain rules to follow, a touch of individual creativity was allowed, and expected from both an executive and a calligrapher.

There are thousands of styles of Chinese calligraphy that can be grouped into these scripts: Zhuan-Shu, Li-Shu, Kai-Shu, Xing-Shu, and Cao-Shu. Zhuan-Shu (seal script) is fine, uniformed and its written characters have pointed ends. Li-Shu (official or clerical script) began as a way to deal with the growing number of official written documents. More practical and convenient to use than the seal style, its characters are smooth and straight. Kai-Shu (standard or regular script) is more convenient to use than the clerical script, and therefore, its broad, bold strokes made it ideal for everyday purposes. Xing-Shu (running or semi-cursive script) falls somewhere between regular and cursive scripts. Cao-Shu (grass or cursive script) has flowing lines and is almost illegible. It most closely resembles abstract act. All five styles of writings have endured thousands of years, and are still in use today.

The quality of a calligrapher's work depends not only on his skill, but on his writing tools as well. The Chinese use what they commonly refer to as the "four treasures of the scholar's study," the brush, ink, ink-stone, and paper. Since there are so many options available, it helps to be fairly knowledgeable about the materials needed.

Brushes are classified as soft, medium or stiff, and are made from blends of many different types of animal hair. Goat and sheep hair are the most common, often used alone or blended with other hairs. Smaller brushes are made mostly of racoon hair, which is known for its resiliency and point retention. Other animal hairs used include pig, tiger, cat and beaver. To make a brush, the hair must be separated, combed, and bundled. The bundle is then boiled in water to remove oils and kinks in the hair. Outer hairs are wrapped around the core hair, and the base is tied with thread. It is then inserted into the opening of a handle, and affixed with a setting compound. Starch is used to protect the hairs, and later removed with water, although some brushes, particularly those made of horse hair, are left partially starched to achieve a certain amount of stiffness. Although handles can be made from materials such as wood, lacquer or porcelain, most are crafted from hollow bamboo.

Unlike Western ink, Chinese ink has more durability. It does not fade from prolonged exposure to light or sun, a point proven by the discovery of a Chinese manuscript that survived over 4,000 years. Coincidentally, the manuscript described and illustrated ink-making. Ancient inks were probably made from lampblack (produced by burning vegetable oils), combined with a glutinous substance and baked into cakes. To prepare the ink, the cake is mixed with water, and the amount of water used determines the consistency of the ink. Thick, dark ink requires less water, while more water will give the ink a lighter color and thinner texture. Some calligraphers, however, prefer to use the Chinese inkstick with an inkstone. The ink is made by adding a few drops of water on the stone, and working the inkstick into the water to create a smooth mixture in which the writing brush is dipped. One drawback is that the ink dries quickly and cannot be stored.

Traditional writing materials included bone, copper, and the more practical bamboo slips strung together with pieces of leather. Silk was also in use, but only by the royal class. The invention of paper occurred in the year 105 AD, and was credited to an individual of the Imperial Guard of the Chinese Emperor. Then, as is still the case now, most paper is made from bamboo, flax, or mulberry bark. Some of it is still handmade, but most are produced by machine. When used for calligraphy, different types of paper will yield different results. On coarse or absorbent paper, ink permeates with each brush stroke. Papers with a smooth surface are less absorbent. Rice paper is a good choice for calligraphy, because of its versatility. It comes in a variety of weights and textures and is actually made from bamboo pulp.

Calligraphy eventually made its way into Japan in the 7th Century AD. Buddhism had traveled from China to Japan, and its scriptures were written by priests in Chinese. The Japanese called these written Chinese characters kanji. Over time, the Japanese created their own styles of writing, called hiragana and katakana. Hiragana used round strokes, while katakana used straight lines, and like their Chinese counterparts, most Japanese students learn calligraphy in school. Japanese calligraphy combines the skill and imagination of the writer, in an attempt to breath life and character into words. Each calligrapher is an individual, which lends individuality to styles, as well as creative rhythm and flow. Japanese characters have to be drawn in correct order, with strong straight lines, gentle curved lines and the amount of ink used for each character must remain consistent. Characters must also be written only once, and no alterations are allowed once they are written, i.e., no touch ups or adding strokes.

A basic calligraphy set in Japan is not unlike a Chinese calligraphy set. It includes a shitajiki (a soft black mat that provides a comfortable writing surface), hanshi (a special thin type of writing paper), fude (a brush), and suzuri (ink container).

In many Asian cultures, calligraphy remains an important link to their heritage, adorning temples, walls of existing caves, monuments, scrolls, signs, and even sides of mountains. It continues to be widely practiced, and some artists have also taken a different approach to Chinese calligraphy: Chinese brush painting. Its similarities lie in the rule that each brush stroke is neither corrected nor improved upon. Unlike Western art, there is no altering or painting over, and there are no sketches to follow. Artists must retain the image in their minds and paint according to that.

The influence of calligraphy has also reached other parts of the world. Many Western painters have admitted to being influenced by Chinese calligraphy, and it shows in their works of art. Artists like Picasso and Matisse demonstrate traces of Chinese calligraphy strokes in some of their paintings. Even the modern world has not escaped its appeal. Formal invitations are often addressed in calligraphy, as are important certificates that laud achievements and accomplishments. Almost all word processing and print programs carry calligraphy fonts, and most arts and crafts stores carry calligraphy items.

It has been said that practicing calligraphy helps a person develop patience, diligence, and tenacity. There are rules to follow, but there is also room for expression and individuality. Whether calligraphy remains a hobby, or moves onto a more professional level, there are health benefits to reap. It is a wonderful way to promote the coordination of mind (mental) and body (physical), and make spiritual well-being a reality.

The contemporary calligrapher is fortunate enough to have a wide variety of fountain pens, inks, and paper to choose from, but for those who want to experience the true meaning of an art thousands of years old, only the original tools will do. If you're not sure how to get started, Mrs. Lin's Kitchen can help. Each of our Chinese Stationery sets contain writing instruments, ink and other essentials you'll need to help you on your way. Before long, handwriting will become more than just a means of communicating and recording. It will become an art.


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Rectangular Calligraphy Set w/ Imprint Note Book (5300)

Gold Dragon Chinese Ink Stick (7466)

Set of Four Blessings Chinese Calligraphy Brushes (5340)

Small Calligraphy Ink Stone (5833)

Set of Three Fine Chinese Calligraphy Brushes (5328)

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