Art of Chinese Calligraphy


Basic Introduction

General Introduction

Chinese Languages & Characters

Traditional vs. Simplified Characters

Longevity Benefits

Four Treasures of Studio

Comparison with Calligraphy in Other Cultures

Value & Application

About This Website

 Updated: 2014-05-07

Common "Triple" Misnomers About Chinese Calligraphy:

"Can you draw my name in Chinese symbols on the rice paper?"

1. The Chinese written language is called "characters (or scripts)." Chinese characters are made up of strokes, section headers, and radicals. The current Kai Shu (Standard Style) or the typed characters are not called symbols by Chinese. 

Some of the ancient Chinese scripts were hieroglyph or pictograph. Hieroglyphics is a system of writing where each character (called hieroglyph or pictograph) corresponds to a word or a part of a complex word. Most oldest writing systems were hieroglyphic. Alphabets were invented later. Textbooks in China and Taiwan never call the Chinese written language "symbols." The misnomer of "Chinese symbols" are widely spread on most commercial websites and many Chinese calligraphy websites in English (except Chinese language websites) and in the West. Since Chinese characters and calligraphic art have existed for at least 4,500 years, Chinese people do not draw symbols to communicate.

A hieroglyph is a character of a logographic or partly logographic writing system. The term originally referred to the Egyptian hieroglyphs, but is also applied to the ancient Cretan Luwian, Mayan and Mi'kmaq scripts, and also to some of ancient Chinese characters. Each hieroglyphic character represents a common object from their day.

A math formula is composed of mathematical symbols and Arabic numbers. When we refer to this meaningful composition, we call it a formula rather than symbols. Likewise, we do not say looking up an English "symbol" in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. (Individually, each stroke in alphabets, Chinese characters, hieroglyph, and math signs are all basically symbols. However, we don't say English symbols or Chinese symbols.)

2. Chinese will probably associate "rice paper" with paper used to wrap candies or food instead of paper for calligraphy and brush painting. In the 19th century when the Europeans tried to get the trade secrets of Chinese writing and painting paper made in Shuan (Xuan) City, they were misinformed it was made of rice! Shuan Paper is made of many different plant fibers and may contain ingredients from rice straws. But it is not made of rice.



Rice paper for food


While some countries learned calligraphy and paper making from China, their paper is somewhat similar to Shuan Paper. There are indeed many masters in those countries who deeply resent their paper to be called "rice paper" whereas if a Westerner goes to China and asks for "米紙" the Chinese will most likely have no idea.

If a Westerner prefers to call Shuan Paper "rice paper" for convenience's sake, s/he may eventually form a habit in learning the profound Chinese brush arts without distinguishing the original and true techniques, methodologies, and  philosophy from many prevalent misconceptions already widespread - just for the sake of "convenience." (The so-called "rice paper" in sheets or especially rolls sold in many non-Chinese art stores outside Asia is usually not the "rice paper" or Shuan Paper that Chinese use to practice calligraphy and painting with brush and ink. They are the so-called "cotton paper" which is not made of cotton. "Cotton paper" is mostly used in mounting Chinese arts and crafts and it's usually not suitable for practicing certain Chinese calligraphy and painting styles.)

3. As for Chinese calligraphy, Chinese don't say to "draw" or to "paint" a Chinese character in our daily conversations, though in English to draw may also mean to write. 

In Chinese, we say "we are writing Chinese" rather than "we are painting or drawing Chinese." For Chinese calligraphers, literally, we are "writing" the characters. Technically, we are "carving" the characters with the soft brush to some extent. Mentally, we are "projecting" the images of characters beautifully from our mind. Many Chinese brush painting masters often proclaim they are "writing objects" or "writing" bamboos with brushes since most of the Chinese brush painting techniques were derived from the methodologies of Chinese calligraphy brushstrokes. As a matter of fact, many Chinese teachers and parents strongly forbid children to "draw" or "paint" a Chinese calligraphy character instead of "writing" it. The mentalities and techniques in writing and painting are different. It is also inappropriate to say Chinese "lettering" or "printing or hand painting Chinese words" while we are using brushes and ink for calligraphy.

Comments such as "someone did Chinese calligraphy as if it was painted" usually have a negative connotation in Chinese culture. It's one of indirect ways to criticize or demean one's Chinese calligraphy work while the Chinese calligrapher being criticized or demeaned does not know the artistic and philosophical meanings and differences. If one keeps "painting" or "drawing" Chinese characters, the progress will surely be limited unbeknowst to that practitioner of Chinese brush calligraphy. The reasoning may include that "upright strokes" are mostly used in Chinese brush calligraphy while "side strokes" combined with "upright strokes" are more often used in Chinese brush painting. 'Side strokes" are used in painting, drawing, Western handwriting, and Chinese handwriting with pens.

To say one's Chinese calligraphy contains both calligraphic and painting effects may be a real compliment on that calligrapher's work. The idea is similar to "painting in poetry and poetry in painting" and/or "the artistic concept of one's calligraphy also reminds viewers of beautiful painting." So please do not get confused since Chinese ways of polite (indirect) criticisms and compliments are very subtle in their differences. In summary, Chinese calligraphy is written, not painted. You may verify these statements with authentic and experienced Chinese calligraphers.


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