Principles of Chinese Calligraphy

P5: Center Tip Principle (Theory) - Round Stroke

§ 5.1 - Centralizing the Brush Tip “Zong Fong       Pinyin: Zhong Feng

Centralizing the brush tip refers to keeping the brush tip as closely as possible to the center of the brush hairs, thus forming a nearly round shape for the brush hairs. The common English translation for this technique is round strokes ( 中鋒 ). However, this translation may be confusing when we are talking about round (non-angular) strokes ( 圓筆 ) and angular strokes ( 方筆 ).  To avoid confusions, I will adopt round strokes ( 中鋒 ) or the Center Tip Principle to refer to the "center-tip strokes" as explained here.



Prof. Tian Explains Centered Tip Theory & Principle


Round strokes are mostly used in Chinese calligraphy while side strokes are mostly used in Chinese brush painting. The combination of round strokes and side strokes are often used in Chinese painting. In Chinese calligraphy we use side strokes very sparingly and focus on the round strokes with combinations of very little side strokes and different percentages of round (non-angular) strokes ( 圓筆 ) and angular strokes ( 方筆 ).  

With round strokes,  the strokes will be full of strength and vigor.  Ancient Chinese calligraphers tended to overstress round strokes (the Center Tip Principle) because it’s the core of all Chinese calligraphy theories as handed down from the Oracle Bone Inscriptions



Nowadays there are many Chinese calligraphers that publish essays about round strokes but some violate this Center Tip Principle due to lack of technical control or self-awareness. The technical deficiency arises from lack of knowledge or awareness that we should never bend the brush handle or bristles as much as used in painting or pen writing. If we ever need to bend a little bit, it should be less than five (or fifteen) degrees or minimized.  


Practicing Clerical Style with Round Strokes


In reality, not all Chinese calligraphers or calligraphy styles adopt "absolute" round strokes without combining little side strokes or other techniques. But only with mastering round strokes will a Chinese calligraphy practitioner achieve a higher level and gain insights. A balanced blend of round and side strokes and other techniques such as round (non-angular) strokes ( 圓筆 ) and angular strokes ( 方筆 ) will create beautiful and lively styles. A work consisting only round stroke techniques will look powerful, masculine, strong, stable, solemn and titanic with less elegance and gentle and mostly it’s still highly regarded. Yet a work without enough round stroke techniques will be flaccid, detachable, spineless, or even pathetic.


This is a video of incorrect operation of the brush. Notice that at the third horizontal stroke, the Goose Tail, the brush handle is tilted. This can be avoided by straightening the brush hair again on the inkstone before doing this stroke.


Yen Jen-Ching (  顏真卿  ) stated how his teacher Zhang Shui (    ) passed to him the secrets of using a brush. He pointed out that Chinese calligraphy should look like drawing on sand with awl “Zuei Hwa Sa. (        )” This is associated with the ideal achievement called “Gi & Se     )” and can only be achieved by utilizing the Center Tip Principle. There have been very few Chinese calligraphers who have reached Yen's or Zhang's levels throughout the entire Chinese history.


A highly regarded work of Yen Jen-Ching. The brush tip and the internal force were kept inside of the strokes all the time.


A scholar of the Sung Dynasty wrote that Hsu Shian (      ) was good at Zuan Style. When his work was taken under sunshine for a closer look, they found tiny but darker lines inside each stroke. The darker and smaller lines inside the strokes are the traces of the brush tip. It’s the highly condensed mind power and intention of the calligrapher. It’s also the artist’s soul exemplifying the beauty within. It’s very, very thin and usually not observable. What is observable is that each stroke and the whole work are full of life and energy. If the Center Tip (round stroke) techniques are done properly and deeply with the focused mind, the entire calligraphy work will look deep when looked nearby and will also look flowing out as a multi-dimensional exhibition when viewed far away.

The Center Tip Principle requires keeping the brush handle and brush hairs (including the tip) as straight and vertical as possible. It’s different from painting, Western calligraphy, and pen writing. According to this principle, we should never bend the brush and the bristles too much. When it's necessary to change directions and angles of the brush handle and tip, we may rotate the brush handle with fingertips. Bending a brush handle or bristles outward or toward oneself is a very common habbit unnoticed by the practioners who have not read or understood the Center Tip Principle. 

By strictly obeying the Center Tip Principle, the sharpness of the brush tip is hiding inside during brush operations rather than going scattered and collapsed. Hsu Shian’s method was also a supportive evidence that most Zuan Shu specialists were inheriting Lee Yang-Bing’s (  李      ) Center Tip approach.



Answers for Most Typical Questions That I Receive Regarding 

the Differences Between Chinese Calligraphy and Calligraphy in Other Cultures




Can you please explain the stylistic differences between Chinese and other Asian calligraphy? I see that certain Asian calligraphy is bolder while Chinese calligraphy has more of a sharp look to it. Is there a cultural explanation as to why? I also notice that some non-Chinese calligraphers sometimes hold the brush at a slight 45 degree angle while Chinese ones hold it straight, is this acceptable with Chinese teachers? Because usually, Chinese calligraphy teachers will tell me to hold the brush only straight but non-Chinese teachers are a bit liberal on how the brush is held. Why is this?


I have only studied calligraphy in Chinese language. It would not be objective for me to answer something I have not learned.


Chinese calligraphy in its original spirits is based on the Middle Way (later pointed out by Confucianism) and harmony. Even the most basic methods Centered Tip ( ) and Hidden Tip ( ) were observed in the earliest findings of Chinese writings.


Hidden Tip gives the viewers a sense of refinements and control and Centered Tip guides the calligraphers with controlled temperaments and makes strength stay within the strokes and not to be revealed to casual viewers.


People tend to associate boldness with think and angular strokes or large sizes, which is neither perfectly correct or wrong. When we look within appearances, we can also find delicacy, wisdom, craftsmanship, philosophy, mindset, intention and so on in the substances which usually give different viewers different feelings. Only when one has practiced calligraphy art for certain period can s/he figure out and decipher those characteristics.


As for aesthetics, rules, beliefs, styles, and methodologies are involved, one cannot say which one is absolutely better or which rule is absolute. But you can try with your brush and find out which one is more difficult – Hidden Tip or Exposed Tip, Centered Tip or Slanted Tip, Angular Strokes or Round Strokes. Or try copying or

to find out which one requires the calligraphers with more power and strength, or which one is more easy. Furthermore, you may try different styles or experiment which way of holding the brush is more difficult to achieve certain writing or painting: upright way or slanted way? My personal motto is: practice the hard way and we can do the easier ways with less efforts. (If you prefer to stay with the easier ways, your progress will be limited. But that is one’s free choice.)  


Also, as for Asian brush painting, if the painter does not realize the idea of Centered Tip then s/he will not realize Slanted Tip and will not possess Chinese or Asian flavors in the painting.


You can search the basic terms from (uploaded by Harvey)




§ 5.2 - All Hairs Coordinating For Strength & the Parable of "My Car Wheels"

After we have learned and mastered the above-mentioned operating principles of a brush, our goal is to make “all hairs coordinated to exhibit the strengths of strokes in the writing. " The Chinese phrase 萬毫齊力 literally means "the ten thousands hairs of a brush have coordinated (not equal) strengh." The goal requires that we utilize every individual hair of a brush to generate strength and power for each stroke. In reality, we cannot command every hair of a brush with our awareness or hand muscles. But we can command ALL hairs of a brush if we treat them as ONE. A brush may consist of hundreds or thousands of hairs of different lengths in each layer – the longest being the most inner or central part of the hairs which are considered to be the brush tip.

When I drive my car, I know the positions of the four wheels. Since I have been driving my own car for a long time, I probably know the distances between the wheels. When I make a turn I won’t hit the sidewalk because I already know the length of my car and the positions of wheels in my mind. When I see an obstacle, I circumvent and my wheels are not running over it. The wheels have become like my legs because when I walk I don’t step on something. So I know my leg and wheel positions pretty well.

Likewise, each hair of a brush is just like an extension of my fingers except I have five fingers on my right hand. Wait a minute! But there are hundreds or thousands of hairs in a brush. How can I know each hair’s position as well as I know the position of the wheels? If we truly understand and apply the Center Tip Principle, we can imagine that there are only a few hairs of a brush – the ones close to the center. If we never bent the brush and its hairs too much and we neatly groom them, we know where the approximate center is. There is no such existence of the “most central” hair of a brush. But there are a few hairs in the core of the bristles. So be aware of those clusters of hairs near the center and treat them like the wheels, legs, or fingers, and keep them straight, the other hairs surrounding them in outer layers will stick and follow. Once we control the central cluster of hairs, we know how to utilize every single hair of a brush to generate coordinated strength for each stroke.  

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Last modified: 03/20/2013