Chinese Calligraphy, between aesthetics and spirituality

Whether you are a tourist or an expatriate in Asia, there is no need to be an artist or to understand Chinese to feel challenged by Chinese calligraphy. Is it the mystery of the characters themselves, the energy that emanates from the roundness of the features, or even the harmony of the whole…?

Attracted above all by the fluidity of the characters and their aesthetics, I signed up for 30 hours of calligraphy lessons, without knowing Chinese.Karine Salomon Chinese Calligraphy Under the intrigued eye of the calligraphy teachers, I patiently repeated the gestures to achieve each type of line, before building my first characters, then writing my first poems made up of four characters. After twenty hours of lessons, I must have seemed enthusiastic enough for the “master” of this small school of calligraphy (which unfortunately has since closed) to invite me to take part in his project: with a thousand students (in Singapore and especially in China), he aimed to write a million characters in six to seven months… That’s how I found myself spending more than a hundred hours, bent over my wooden table, to calligraph , on a roll of paper of one hundred meters, a Chinese tale composed of a thousand words. This experience made me realize the power of this art, which is sometimes considered superior to painting.

Technically speaking, Chinese writing evolved a lot through the different dynasties. Standardized during the Qin dynasty to better control the population of a large empire, calligraphy became much more than a means of communication during the Han dynasty. Both an art form and a means of perpetuating traditions, its rules were imposed by the imperial court. For some artists, calligraphy has also become a way to revolt by standing out through style (cursive writing). There are thus 5 styles still used today and which can coexist:

– the “signature” style, close to the drawing, which was engraved on the scales of turtles and the bones of buffaloes,

– the “scrib” or “chancellor” style which made it possible to simplify the brushstrokes,

– the “regular” style (Kai shu) easy to learn and read

– the “current” style, faster and less strict

– the “cursive” style, more difficult to decipher because the characters can be connected and are simplified

5 Chinese calligraphy styles and different strokes
The Five Styles of Chinese Calligraphy

Along the lines of calligraphy, I spotted the keys of Chinese characters, and discovered their poetry. As frustration grew over my inability to read Chinese, my daughter brought me “The Great Chinese Picture Book” by Catherine Louis. You learn there for example that “to rest” is written “man + tree” (man leaning against a tree) and that to spy is written “tree + eye” (the tree with an eye). Chinese writing thus captures the secret relationship between things and establishes a relationship between the universe and man with its signs. Despite my slowness, I always came back with pleasure to bend over my roller.

Calligraphy which literally means “pretty writing” has long held more value than painting and sculpture in the eyes of the Chinese. The materials specific to calligraphy partly explain this special status: the soft, fine-tipped brush makes the expressive character of calligraphy possible, the inkstone made of burnt pine resin allows the thickness of the ink to be controlled and the density of the pigment, and finally the paper – invented by the Chinese from bamboo fiber, hemp or mulberry – drinks the ink or resists the brush to let it slide.

chinese calligraphy

Calligraphy can be seen as a beautiful page of writing or become a way of life. For Chinese calligraphers, paper is like a vital space, where man gives free rein to his sensitivity. By the variations of thickness of the line, its curves and its movements, the brush testifies to the personality and lets express the impulses and the aspirations of the artist… The Chinese indeed believe in an organic vision of the world by opposition to our mechanical conception: between Yin and Yang is the median vacuum which allows the circulation of the vital breath. To calligraph is to give life to this vital breath to establish a link between man and the universe. As Francois Cheng puts it so well in his book And the breath becomes a sign : “calligraphy is a seismograph of our inner truth […]when the true and the beautiful have consented to leave their fleeting and indelible imprints”. The order of the lines being imposed and the retouching impossible, the spectator can trace the artist’s progress step by step, decipher the pressures of the brush, guess the additions of ink and thus enter into communion with the calligrapher.We thus find the two currents of Chinese philosophical thought, Confucianism for the social dimension and Taoism for the natural approach.

My style has remained very academic! Learning Chinese seems essential to me to gain speed and fluidity, and to give a little personality to the characters. I finished my thousand words despite everything, proudly, and I continue to practice by integrating calligraphy into my paintings and by painting characters on fabric.

Editor’s take:
Calligraphy is now at the heart of sports news in France: the poster for Roland-Garros 2018 was created by the Frenchwoman Fabienne Verdier! (See the official site of Roland Garros)

Roland Garros 2018 (c) Fabienne VERDIER
Poster Roland Garros 2018 (c) Fabienne VERDIER

Chinese Calligraphy, between aesthetics and spirituality