The Beauty of East Asian Calligraphy (1/3)


Back in September I started a series of blog posts about East Asian calligraphy. Due to a number of mitigating circumstances I had to postpone the series for a few weeks, but I finally have time to come back to it now. Those who haven’t should read the previous entries in the series before this one:

1. About My East Asian Calligraphy Book
2. Thoughts about Lines
3. East vs. West


The subject of this entry and the next are my thoughts on what makes for “good” East Asian calligraphy.

I’ll start with an obvious disclaimer: this is all is completely subjective, and represents only my own personal opinions and tastes. It’s probably presumptuous of me to try to sum up the beauty of this 3000 year old art tradition in just a few paragraphs, especially since I’m relatively new to the field. But I figure since East Asian calligraphy doesn’t have a Western equivalent, maybe my thoughts on the subject might in some small way help the reader understand the art. In any event, take the following with a grain of salt.

So now that that’s out of the way, let’s get into the crackpot theories/sweeping generalizations:


Doing vs. Being
I tend to think of East Asian calligraphy in terms of a yin-yang-esque dichotomy, so I’ll start off by introducing that. This model is of my own design, but is heavily informed by similar theories I’ve been introduced to during the course of my studies.

For months I’ve been trying to think up clear, succinct terms for the two sides of my dichotomy, but so far haven’t been satisfied with anything I’ve come up with. So just to call them something, I’ve provisionally settled on Vitality and Stability. But these terms don’t really sum up what I’m trying to express, so let me describe each of them in turn.

By Vitality, I mean a quality encompassing these traits: energy, movement, spontaneity, messiness, creativity, liveliness, subjectivity, and intoxication. A visual equivalent of this quality might be a Jackson Pollock painting, with all its raw, visceral intensity.

On the other hand is Stability: form, order, balance, symmetry, consistency, predictability, sterility, objectivity, and sobriety. A visual equivalent of this quality might be Futura, the san-serif typestyle. Inspired by the German Bauhaus movement, Futura was painstakingly designed to remove any suggestion of flourish or human imperfection. The straight lines perfectly straight, all the curves are geometrically precise, and everything is uniform, even and symmetrical.

So to my mind, the beauty of East Asian calligraphy lies in how it strikes a balance between these two qualities; in the way it expresses both the uncontained excitement of a Jackson Pollock painting and the steady clinical clarity of a Bauhaus era typestyle.

When a calligrapher favors Vitality too heavily, they end up with something that, while incredibly energetic and vibrant, is in many ways was the equivalent of tv static, without any sort of clear representation or message. Go too far towards Stability, and you’ll end up with something very clear and readable, but that feels cold and clinical, with no sense of life to it.

Each of East Asian calligraphy’s five main scripts has its own answer as to where that balance should lie. Grass Script tends towards the Vitality side, Seal Script tends towards Stability, and the other three scripts, Running, Standard and Clerical, fall at various points in between.

What’s interesting is if you look at the order in which these scripts evolved. As new scripts emerged, they moved closer and closer towards a more perfect balance between Vitality and Stability.

Continued Next Week

Shodo Performance Rehearsal


I’m over the cold/flu/whatever that knocked me out last week, but this week I’ve been really busy with grant applications and rehearsals for a calligraphy performance I’m participating in. So I’m going to have to postpone the planned East Asian calligraphy entry for the forth time…

But since I just know readers are champing at the bit to read more East Asian calligraphy-related blog entries, I thought I’d use this entry to show a few photos of a rehearsal for the aforementioned performance: Continue reading Shodo Performance Rehearsal

East vs. West

Flower paintings by Jan Brueghel and Jakuchu, respectively

This entry picks up right where the last one left off, so you should read that first if you haven’t already.

Traditionally, Western painters have had little interest in preserving the energy record contained in lines; in fact, they often actively worked to obscure them. Brushstrokes weren’t seen as expressions of movement, but merely a means of applying color to the canvas. Painters sought to create a realistic facsimile of the world around them, and to the service of this goal they would apply layer upon layer of paint, smearing and dabbing away lines in the process. By the time the piece was finished, a sense of the energy might be conveyed through color or composition, but the energy record the actual brushstrokes was often completely diffused.

Not Pictured: Brushstrokes

In contrast, for millennia East Asian artists have taken great care to preserve the elegant energy records that well-rendered lines contain. They work in water-based ink, which is conducive to the creation of long flowing strokes that one could never achieve with the thick oil paints of the West. The cylindrical Chinese ink brush allows for nimble movement in every direction, as opposed the clunky square-tip brushes often favored in Western painting*.

Top: Chinese Ink Brush
Bottom: Oil Paint Brush

*(To be fair, oil painters do use pointy brushes too; but I would still hold that they are generally coarser than Chinese ink brushes)

East Asian art was/is typically rendered on paper, silk, or polished stone, which provided a much smoother surface for capturing subtle energy changes than the thick, course canvas traditionally used in the West.

The aesthetic ideals and techniques used in East Asian art are also geared towards the preservation of the energy records contained in lines. Compositions tend to be simple, with extraneous details left out. This allows the energy contained in the lines of the essential components can be more clearly understood.

Going back and “touching up” lines after they’ve been written is frowned upon, to the point where it’s practically taboo. The artist has one shot to lay down elegant, powerful lines, and if they fail, then oh well, maybe next time. Touching up lines after the fact would only weaken and diffuse their power, moving them closer to the static of a scribble.

To my mind, East Asian calligraphy is the purest expression of the tenets of East Asian art. The careful, deliberate preservation of lines/energy records is a big part of what makes it unique from much of Western art, but obviously there’s more to it than that. We’ll continue next week with my thoughts about what features that make for “good” calligraphy.

Thoughts about Lines

Pictured: Calligraphy by Wang Hsi-Chih (shown sideways)

Last week, I stated my belief that East Asian calligraphy is a form of artistic expression that doesn’t have a true Western equivalent. I’d like to elaborate on that a bit, but first I’d like to devote an entry to lines. My studies into East Asian calligraphy have afforded me an opportunity to consider them from a whole other perspective.

Any handwritten line could be thought of as a record of energy. You move your hand over a surface, and the writing implement you’re holding leaves a trail behind recording that movement.

A number of factors affect this “energy record”, including the surface you’re writing on, the writing implement you’re using, and how your hand moves. Lines are two-dimensional, but energy changes in the third dimension affect them as well. Press down hard and you get thick, dark lines, whereas a light touch results in lines that are thin and faint. Surprising variety and nuance can be achieved in the course of a single line.

It’s easy to follow the energy trail of a short line, even if it occasionally loops over on itself:

But when lines start looping over on themselves repeatedly, or if you layer more and more lines on top of each other, their energy records become less and less discernable:

If a multitude of lines follow along the same general path, as is often the case in sketches, they might cumulatively hint at flows of energy, but these flows will be fuzzy and poorly defined:

In more chaotic arrangements of lines, like in scribbles, the energy record becomes almost completely obscured, and amounts to little more than static:

I’ll get into what this has to do with East Asian calligraphy’s uniqueness in my next entry.

About My East Asian Calligraphy Book

About six months ago, I announced that I’m writing a book about East Asian calligraphy. I’ve continued to work on it since then, and thought I might devote a couple more blog entries to it. I’ll start off with an elaboration of why I’m writing the book in the first place.

There are already a number of informative English language books about East Asian calligraphy (such as Chinese Calligraphy [The Culture & Civilization of China] published by Yale University Press). But all of the books that I’ve come across have the same shortcoming: they read like they were written for people who already have a firm grasp of the subject.

East Asian calligraphy is a form of creative expression that doesn’t really have a Western equivalent. As such, its tenets must be explained from scratch if it is to be meaningfully understood. Most of the “introductory” books about East Asian calligraphy that I’ve read fail to provide this context. They launch straight into technical discussions about dynastic periods and picto-ideographs and script subcategories without adequately explaining the big picture. I often have a hard time making it through these books, and I’ve devoted the past eighteen months to studying the subject.

There is a real need for an English language book that introduces East Asian calligraphy in a way that is both entertaining and layperson-friendly, and it is my hope to create a book to fill this need.

Next week I’ll write a bit about what makes East Asian calligraphy unique from other art forms.

Book Announcement!

Pictured: Me, hard at work.

At the end of last week’s entry, I promised some big fancy announcement, so here it is: I’m writing a nonfiction prose book about my experiences studying calligraphy in Japan! The very tentative title is:

Blood, Sweat & Ink
An American Cartoonist’s Immersion into Japan’s Calligraphy Culture

When I first started thinking about it and planning it out a few months ago, I envisioned a graduation thesis of some kind. Just a short, straightforward account about how East Asian calligraphy is relevant to modern-day cartooning, to be presented to Shikoku University’s professors & students when I graduated.

But as I started getting into it and really reflecting on my experience, I saw many areas ripe for expansion. It occurred to me that if I wrote and organized it in the right way, that the subject could appeal to a general audience in the English speaking world. I’ve read several English language books about East Asian calligraphy, and have been struck by how academic and inaccesible they tend to be. It always seems to me like they’re preaching to the choir, that they’re for people who are already familiar with the subject. I’ve come to find East Asian calligraphy to be absolutely fascinating, and want to try to express that enthusiasm in a way that could be read for pleasure by laypeople. And so the idea for a book was born.

The project has become quite ambitious. It’s part autobiography, part journalism, part history, part art theory, part cultural studies…it’s quite a juggling act. Since it’s still in the early stages, I’m not sure exactly what form it will take, or how long it will be. But I’m firmly committed to it, and hope to have something done before I leave Japan in a year’s time. I’ve been pretty bad at meeting my self-imposed deadlines for comics, but maybe prose will be different, we’ll see. Right now I’m about halfway done with the rough draft.

Anyway, I’ll update and post excerpts from the book when I get a little further along, so check back, or subscribe to my RSS feed if you’re interested.

 Oh, and if there’s anyone out there that’s familiar with the subject who knows of books or websites they would recommend as I continue my research, please let me know. Thanks!