Calligraphy: Exquisite Art of the Word

By Shaw-Eagle, Joanna | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 16, 2000 | Go to article overview

Calligraphy: Exquisite Art of the Word


Shaw-Eagle, Joanna, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God," St. John wrote in his gospel.

About 16 centuries later in China, Dao-Ji described the importance of the brush stroke for Chinese calligraphy and painting: "It is the origin of all existence, the root of the myriad phenomena."

James Cahill, in his book "Chinese Painting," commented, "In the beginning and also in the end, the line drawn by a brush remains the central fact of Chinese painting throughout its history."

The brush was crucial also to calligraphy, regarded by the Chinese as the art of "the word" and the highest of their arts.

A holiday visit to the "Embodied Image, Chinese Calligraphy From the John B. Elliott Collection" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York provides a rich journey through 1,000 years of this powerful art. The exhibit runs until Jan. 7.

Writing began in the mists of early myths and connected men with supernatural spirits. Archaeologists found early indications of writing in pictographic signs on pots dated to 5000 B.C. They also discovered pierced animal bones and shells from the 14th through 11th century B.C.

The Chinese used them to question the gods with the "oracle-bone" script. Incised with hard instruments into resistant bone, the characters were simple and linear.

"Oracle" is an appropriate name because the writings connected human rulers with the metaphysical. Early scribes cracked bones and shells, as with the exhibit's rare tortoise-shell "Oracle Bone." Scribes cracked it down the middle, fanned the cracks outward and wrote queries about sacrifices and the weather. They used an early form of "seal script."

The sacred would permeate writing from then on. Early kinds of seal writing grew from these writings. Shang and Chou dynasty religious ceremonies (circa 1600 to 256 B.C.) encouraged the growth of more regular, architectonic and abstractly linear forms.

The Chinese used "great-seal" for inscriptions on the bronze vessels that accompanied rulers to the afterworld. Efforts to standardize Chinese writing resulted in "small-seal" with thin wiry lines and regular spacing. It gradually evolved into the "standard script" used for official writings.

These earlier calligraphic styles are balanced and stylized, much like the movements in a minuet. The later "cursive" and "draft" writing simulate the swift leaps and flapping wings of the princess in "Swan Lake." Like the calligrapher who drags and pushes characters with lightning speed, the swan almost flies across the stage.

Zhu Yunming's impetuous, swift brush in the "wild-cursive" script went far beyond earlier models in its free and individualist interpretations. Working in the later Ming dynasty, he exploited this style of abbreviated and swiftly written continuous, linked strokes to the fullest.

In writing "The Arduous Road to Shu" and "Song of the Immortal" by the Tang poet Li Bo, he broke down the standard top-to-bottom and right-to-left unseen columns of traditional Chinese calligraphy. Instead, he created an abstract pattern of dots and lines that has been compared to the skeinlike drips of paintings by Jackson Pollock.

The calligrapher symbolizes the Chinese belief that writing reflects one's character and personality. The catalog quotes a friend's description of Zhu: "His nature and personality are bold and direct, and he has no patience for strictness and reserve."

Running and draft scripts grew from the cursive style of the legendary calligrapher Wang Xizhi (303-361).

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