The Word as Art: Chinese Calligraphy

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(Photo from the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Text can be used as an artistic element, but raw alphabetic text is rarely considered art. Perhaps a beautiful typeface—balanced and elegant—can approach artistic expression standing alone, but text usually becomes an artistic element when juxtaposed with other text, color and other elements in creative and novel ways.

In contrast, Chinese characters—formed through the discipline of calligraphy—are simultaneously text and art.  As Dawn Delbanco notes in her essay at the Metropolitan Museum of Art website, Chinese calligraphy was considered fine art centuries before painting. Interestingly, Chinese culture was dominated by the “power of the word,” and therefore, it comes as no surprise that characters representing the word were revered as art (Delbanco, Chinese Calligraphy). Delbanco provides this beautiful description of Chinese calligraphy:

And so, despite its abstract appearance, calligraphy is not an abstract form. Chinese characters are dynamic, closely bound to the forces of nature and the kinesthetic energies of the human body. But these energies are contained within a balanced framework—supported by a strong skeletal structure—whose equilibrium suggests moral rectitude, indeed, that of the writer himself.

(Delbanco). Unlike the western alphabet, Chinese characters derive from a more intimate connection between the writer, brush, ink, and paper. In Western culture, words can be used to create the most sublime literature, but words are rarely considered art standing alone. In Chinese calligraphy, a reversal occurs and the artistic function of Chinese characters is as important as the language function, and in any event, these functions are deeply connected and intertwined.

The relationship between writer, brush, ink and paper is demonstrated by Master Guoliang Huang in the following video, which is a type of performance art:

Master Xing-An-Ping provides an equally impressive, if not quite so dramatic, demonstration of the incredible skill and discipline required to practice Chinese calligraphy:

The skill demonstrated in both videos carries with it a sadness. Like the Western alphabet, Chinese characters have been digitized and can be banged out on a computer with little effort and thought. Although digitized Chinese characters still convey the same direct meaning, the technique and discipline of affixing the characters to paper is being lost. Digitization decouples the artistic nature of Chinese characters from the language function. One can imagine a beloved receiving a hand-written scroll filled with elaborate and beautiful Chinese characters. The reader not only experiences the message, but marvels at the artistry and skill of the writer. For a moment, the two are connected in the process of calligraphy. Imagine the wonder of every piece of written communication simultaneously being the experience of viewing great art.