In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Calligraphy

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Origins of Writing
  • Applied Study of Calligraphy
  • Translations of Premodern Texts
  • Anthologies of Premodern Texts
  • Illustrated Surveys
  • Aesthetic and Critical Terminology
  • Material Culture
  • Religion
  • Book Fonts
  • Qin Dynasty, Han Dynasty, and Three Kingdoms Period, 221 bce–280 ce
  • Tang Dynasty, 618–907
  • Song Dynasty, 960–1279
  • Song-Dynasty Imperial Calligraphy
  • Yuan Dynasty, 1279–1368
  • Ming Dynasty, 1368–1644
  • Qing Dynasty, 1644–1911
  • 20th-Century and Modern Calligraphy

Chinese Studies Calligraphy
Amy McNair
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0026


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.

General Overviews

Each of these overviews has its own approach and strengths. Chiang 1973 lays out traditional Chinese beliefs about aesthetics and techniques. Fong 1999 narrates the history of early calligraphy as a series of great changes in the manner of European art history. Fu 1977 describes techniques of writing and copying, the qualities of each script type, and formats incorporating calligraphy and painting, from the perspective of a practicing calligrapher. Nakata 1983 is organized by type and format of calligraphic writing. Nakata 1970–1972 is devoted to monographic treatments of the most-famous calligraphers. Ouyang 2008 is a reliable college textbook. Tseng 1993 is interesting in that it presents the history of calligraphy from a traditional viewpoint, but it suffers from credulity in the many myths concerning calligraphers and their practices.

  • Chiang, Yee. Chinese Calligraphy: An Introduction to Its Aesthetic and Technique. 3d ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973.

    Originally published in 1938. Engaging explanation of aesthetics and techniques. Chapter on origin of Chinese characters is not scientific but is an accurate portrayal of traditional Chinese cultural beliefs about writing. Other chapters explain how to use the brush, names of and techniques for producing the individual strokes, principles of composition of characters, and aesthetic principles underlying creativity as seen from Eastern and Western perspectives.

  • Fong, Wen C. “Chinese Calligraphy: Theory and History.” In The Embodied Image: Chinese Calligraphy from the John B. Elliott Collection. Edited by Robert E. Harrist Jr. and Wen C. Fong, 29–84. Princeton, NJ: Art Museum, Princeton University, 1999.

    Survey of the 4th to 18th centuries by the foremost American scholar, employing traditional theoretical approaches of stylistic analysis, personal expression, and history of thought. Using early critical writings and close comparison of individual characters, the author lays out “four calligraphic revolutions”: invention of running script in the Jin dynasty, state-sponsored regular script in the Tang dynasty, individualist styles in the Song dynasty, and revival of regular script in the Yuan dynasty.

  • Fu, Shen C. Y. Traces of the Brush: Studies in Chinese Calligraphy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Art Gallery, 1977.

    Well-illustrated catalogue of an exhibition of calligraphy from two dozen institutions and collectors, mostly American. The author considers techniques and examples of reproduction and forgery; characteristics and famous masters of seal, clerical, cursive, running, and regular script; and formats that integrate calligraphy with painting: hand scroll, colophon, frontispiece, hanging scroll, and album leaf.

  • Nakata Yūjirō 中田勇次郎. Shodō geijutsu (書道藝術). 24 vols. Tokyo: Chūō kōronsha, 1970–1972.

    English translation: Calligraphic arts. Volumes 1 through 10 contain a chronological survey of two dozen canonical Chinese calligraphers, according to the Japanese perspective. For example, Zhang Jizhi is prominent because his connections to Zen in Japan make him of greater importance than in China. Good illustrations, some in color. Includes bibliographic references and an index.

  • Nakata, Yūjirō, ed. Chinese Calligraphy. Translated by Jeffrey Hunter. History of the Art of China. New York: Weatherhill, 1983.

    Brief essays by Nakata (b. 1905–d. 1998) and other important Japanese historians of Chinese calligraphy trace individual formats and types, such as wooden tablets and silk writings, stone inscriptions, Buddhist manuscripts, Chan calligraphy, and separate dynastic periods. Nearly one hundred works, held mainly in Japanese collections, are illustrated in color and explained in detail.

  • Ouyang Zhongshi. Chinese Calligraphy. Translated and edited by Wang Youfen. Culture and Civilization of China. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.

    A chronological survey of famous calligraphers and masterpieces, from the earliest writings through the 20th century, using mainly works in mainland Chinese collections. Authors are mostly renowned experts from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), so the text has a Marxist-Leninist emphasis on material qualities and social uses of calligraphy, combined with traditional prominence of artists’ biographies.

  • Tseng Yuho. A History of Chinese Calligraphy. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1993.

    On the basis of the knowledge of a practicing artist with a traditional education in the history of calligraphy rather than new research, this survey is organized around development of the various script types, including seal, clerical, regular, running, and cursive, as well as talismanic and magic writing.

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