Amy McNair

in Chinese Studies

Published online April 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780199920082 | DOI:

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Calligraphy is the art of writing characters with a brush and ink. Yet, the word “calligraphy,” from the Greek kalligraphía (beautiful writing), is something of a mistranslation of the Chinese term shufa (書法), which means “model writing,” or writing that is good enough to serve as a model. Calligraphy has no referent in nature, so all writing is modeled on that of another. Traditional calligraphers were less interested in mere beauty than in the ability of the gesture and the line to create images of aesthetic power and movement and in the paramount issue of upon whose writing they were modeling theirs. The precise moment Chinese characters were born is unknown, but a fully developed system was in use by c. 1200 bce, as seen on scripts on the incised oracle bones (jiaguwen甲骨文) and inscriptions cast into ritual bronze vessels (guwen古文) of the Shang dynasty. Over the next millennium, five major script types evolved. The archaic scripts gave way to the “large” seal script (zhuan篆) of the Zhou dynasty and the “small” seal script of the Qin. In Qin the clerical script (li隸) came into being and flourished during the succeeding Han, whereas by the end of the 2nd century the modern script types of regular (kai楷 or zhen真), running (xing行), and cursive (cao草) all had developed. Seal and clerical were relegated to decorative and monumental functions until they were revived as antiquarian modes in later times. Although mythic names are associated with the creation of each script type, there were no signed works of calligraphy until the Han dynasty. Since that time, when it began to be seen as expressive of its writer’s personality and character, calligraphy has been accorded the supreme position among the arts. Calligraphers could practice their art purely for their own pleasure or self-expression, or their work could be done for payment or in exchange for goods and services. Calligraphy had a rich tradition until the 20th century, and after China’s turmoil ended in the late 1970s, the amateur scene burgeoned again. In the late 20th century, Chinese calligraphy made a place for itself in the international art world, particularly through the incorporation of nonsense characters in multimedia installations. Critical texts that assessed famous calligraphers appeared in the 4th century, and histories of calligraphy have been written continually from the 5th century to the early 21st century. Japanese scholars have produced excellent research in the 20th and early 21st centuries, and researchers in the West have been writing on calligraphy history since the 1970s.

Article.  17805 words. 

Subjects: East Asian Studies ; Asian History ; East Asian Philosophy ; East Asian Religions

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