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Chinese Calligraphy, Painting and History

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Chinese calligraphy (Brush calligraphy) is an art unique to Asian cultures. Shu (calligraphy), Hua (painting), Qin (a string musical instrument), and Qi (a strategic boardgame) are the four basic skills and disciplines of the Chinese literati.

Regarded as the most abstract and sublime form of art in Chinese culture, “Shu Fa” (calligraphy) is often thought to be most revealing of one’s personality. During the imperial era, calligraphy was used as an important criterion for selection of executives to the Imperial court. Unlike other visual art techniques, all calligraphy strokes are permanent and incorrigible, demanding careful planning and confident execution. Such are the skills required for an administrator / executive. While one has to conform to the defined structure of words, the expression can be extremely creative. To exercise humanistic imagination and touch under the faceless laws and regulations is also a virtue well appreciated.

By controlling the concentration of ink, the thickness and absorptive of the paper, and the flexibility of the brush, the artist is free to produce an infinite variety of styles and forms. In contrast to western calligraphy, diffusing ink blots and dry brush strokes are viewed as a natural impromptu expression rather than a fault. While western calligraphy often pursue font-like uniformity, homogeneity of characters in one size is only a craft. To the artist, calligraphy is a mental exercise that coordinates the mind and the body to choose the best styling in expressing the content of the passage. It is a most relaxing yet highly disciplined exercise indeed for one’s physical and spiritual well being. Historically, many calligraphy artists were well-known for their longevity.

Brush calligraphy is not only loved and practiced by Chinese. Koreans and Japanese equally adore calligraphy as an important treasure of their heritage. Many Japanese schools still have the tradition of having a student contest of writing big characters during beginning of a new school year. A biannual gathering commemorating the Lanting Xu by Wang Xi Zhi (The most famous Chinese calligrapher in Jin dynasty, ) is said to be held ceremonially in Japan. There is a national award of Wang Xi Zhi prize for the best calligraphy artist. Not too long ago, Korean government officials were required to excel in calligraphy. The office of Okinawa governor still displays a large screen of Chinese calligraphy as a dominating decor.

In the West, Picasso and Matisse are two artists who openly declared the influence by Chinese calligraphy on their works.

Easier – Calligraphy is the art of making beautiful or elegant handwriting. It is a fine art of skilled penmanship.

Harder – The word calligraphy literally means beautiful writing. Before the invention of the printing press some 500 years ago, it was the way books were made. Each copy was handwritten out by a scribe working in a scriptorium. The hand writing was done with quill and ink onto materials like vellum or parchment. The lettering style applied was one of the period bookhands like rustic, carolingian, blackletter, etc.

Today, there are three main types or styles of calligraphy: (1) Western or Roman, (2) Arabic, and Chinese or Oriental. This project focuses mainly on Western calligraphy with a glimpse at the other two styles.

Wang Xizhi 王羲之

Wang Xizhi is a Chinese calligrapher. He is considered by some as the first “artist” in the Western sense, insofar as it has moved away from the official canon in force, the cursive handwriting, practicing a form of free personal and pictorial practice.
永和九年,岁在癸丑,暮春之初,会于会稽山阴之兰亭,修禊事也。群贤毕至,少长咸集。此地有崇山峻岭,茂林修竹;又有清流激湍,映带左右,引以为流觞曲水,列坐其次。虽无丝竹管弦之盛,一觞一咏,亦足以畅叙幽情。 是日也,天朗气清,惠风和畅,仰观宇宙之大,俯察品类之盛,所以游目骋怀,足以极视听之娱,信可乐也。 夫人之相与,俯仰一世,或取诸怀抱,晤言一室之内;或因寄所托,放浪形骸之外。虽取舍万殊,静躁不同,当其欣于所遇,暂得于己,快然自足,不知老之将至。及其所之既倦,情随事迁,感慨系之矣。向之所欣,俯仰之间,已为陈迹,犹不能不以之兴怀。况修短随化,终期于尽。古人云:“死生亦大矣。”岂不痛哉! 每览昔人兴感之由,若合一契,未尝不临文嗟悼,不能喻之于怀。固知一死生为虚诞,齐彭殇为妄作。后之视今,亦犹今之视昔。悲夫!故列叙时人,录其所述,虽世殊事异,所以兴怀,其致一也。后之览者,亦将有感于斯文。

The Orchid Pavilion
In the ninth year of the reign Yungho[A.D. 353] in the beginning of late spring we met at the Orchid Pavilion in Shanyin of Kweich’i for the Water Festival, to wash away the evil spirits. Here are gathered all the illustrious persons and assembled both the old and the young. Here are tall mountains and majestic peaks, trees with thick foliage and tall bamboos. Here are also clear streams and gurgling rapids, catching one’s eye from the right and left. We group ourselves in order, sitting by the waterside, and drinking in succession from a cup floating down the curving stream; and although there is no music from string and wood-wind instruments, yet with alternate singing and drinking, we are well disposed to thoroughly enjoy a quiet intimate conversation. Today the sky is clear, the air is fresh and the kind breeze is mild. Truly enjoyable it is sit to watch the immense universe above and the myriad things below, traveling over the entire landscape with our eyes and allowing our sentiments to roam about at will, thus exhausting the pleasures of the eye and the ear.

Now when people gather together to surmise life itself, some sit and talk and unburden their thoughts in the intimacy of a room, and some, overcome by a sentiment, soar forth into a world beyond bodily realities. Although we select our pleasures according to our inclinations—some noisy and rowdy, and others quiet and sedate—yet when we have found that which pleases us, we are all happy and contented, to the extent of forgetting that we are growing old. And then, when satiety follows satisfaction, and with the change of circumstances, change also our whims and desires, there then arises a feeling of poignant regret. In the twinkling of an eye, the objects of our former pleasures have become things of the past, still compelling in us moods of regretful memory. Furthermore, although our lives may be long or short, eventually we all end in nothingness. “Great indeed are life and death”, said the ancients. Ah! What sadness!

Chinese Painting

In imperial times, painting and calligraphy were the most highly appreciated arts in court circles and were produced almost exclusively by amateurs–aristocrats and scholar-officials–who alone had the leisure to perfect the technique and sensibility necessary for great brushwork. Calligraphy was thought to be the highest and purest form of painting. The implements were the brush pen, made of animal hair, and black inks made from pine soot and animal glue. In ancient times, writing, as well as painting, was done on silk. But after the invention of paper in the 1st century C.E., silk was gradually replaced by the new and cheaper material. Original writings by famous calligraphers have been greatly valued throughout China’s history and are mounted on scrolls and hung on walls in the same way that paintings are.

Painting in the traditional style involves essentially the same techniques as calligraphy and is done with a brush dipped in black or colored ink; oils are not used. As with calligraphy, the most popular materials on which paintings are made are paper and silk. The finished work is then mounted on scrolls, which can be hung or rolled up. Traditional painting also is done in albums and on walls, lacquerwork, and other media.

The earliest examples of Chinese painting that we have come from the second century B.C.E. Common Western histories of Chinese painting hold that before this time period, there was no Chinese painting. But it is more likely that there are simply no surviving pieces from before this time period. Artistic mediums such as painting, sculpture, pottery, etc. tend to show similar trends in certain time periods. This means that by looking at archaeological finds from before the 2nd century B.C.E. (eg. observing the development of lacquer design on pottery), we can infer that Chinese paintings followed the same trends as the examples we do have from other mediums.

Beginning in the Tang dynasty (618-907 C.E.), the primary subject matter of painting was the landscape, known as shanshui (mountain-water) painting. In these landscapes, usually monochromatic and sparse, the purpose was not to reproduce exactly the appearance of nature but rather to grasp an emotion or atmosphere so as to catch the “rhythm” of nature. In Song dynasty (960-1279) times, landscapes of more subtle expression appeared; immeasurable distances were conveyed through the use of blurred outlines, mountain contours disappearing into the mist, and impressionistic treatment of natural phenomena. Emphasis was placed on the spiritual qualities of the painting and on the ability of the artist to reveal the inner harmony of man and nature, as perceived according to Taoist and Buddhist concepts.

Beginning in the 13th century, there developed a tradition of painting simple subjects–a branch with fruit, a few flowers, or one or two horses. Narrative painting, with a wider color range and a much busier composition than the Song painting, was immensely popular at the time of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).

During the Ming period, the first books illustrated with colored woodcuts appeared. As the techniques of color printing were perfected, illustrated manuals on the art of painting began to be published. Jieziyuan Huazhuan (Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden), a five-volume work first published in 1679, has been in use as a technical textbook for artists and students ever since.

Beginning with the New Culture Movement, Chinese artists started to adopt Western techniques. It also was during this time that oil painting was introduced to China.

In the early years of the People’s Republic of China, artists were encouraged to employ socialist realism. Some Soviet Union socialist realism was imported without modification, and painters were assigned subjects and expected to mass-produce paintings. This regimen was considerably relaxed in 1953, and after the Hundred Flowers Campaign of 1956-57, traditional Chinese painting experienced a significant revival. Along with these developments in professional art circles, there was a proliferation of peasant art depicting everyday life in the rural areas on wall murals and in open-air painting exhibitions.

During the Cultural Revolution, art schools were closed, and publication of art journals and major art exhibitions ceased. Nevertheless, amateur art continued to flourish throughout this period.

Following the Cultural Revolution, art schools and professional organizations were reinstated. Exchanges were set up with groups of foreign artists, and Chinese artists began to experiment with new subjects and techniques.

Qi Baishi 齐白石

Qi Baishi (1863-1957) was born in a small village named “Stars Pond”, from Xingtan County in Hunan Province. He studied very little at school where he learnt some poetry. His family was poor and he was therefore forced to abandon his studies at an early age. At fifteen years old, he began his apprenticeship in a carpenter’s shop. When he was twenty, he became famous for his fine techniques on decorative wood carving and religious portrait paintings. At twenty-seven, he learnt classical literature and traditional Grass and Insects paintings from Hu Qinyuan e Chen Shaofan. At thirty-two, he organized jointly with seven friends a poets society called “Longshan” and was in turn elected the director.

Since 1902, he traveled frequently and became acquainted with a lot of people. Since then, his love and vision for literature and art became blossomed. In order to escape from the social chaos, he chose to live in Beijing in 1917 and became acquainted with Chen Siceng. Two years later, Qi changed his painting style from a realistic to a more spiritual expression. In 1922, Chen Siceng took some of his works to participate in an exhibition in Japan. His paintings were greatly appreciated and were sold at a good price. In 1927 and 1928, he was invited by Lin Fengmian and Xu Beihong to teach in the Baijing Art School and the Faculty of Art, University of Beijing. In 1946, when the Chinese Artist Association was founded, he was elected honorary Director. In 1950, he was invited to be the Honorary Professor of the Central Academy of Arts and in 1955, he was awarded the International Peace Prize.

Qi baishi’s shrimp are lifelike and abundant. Qi baishi not only known the pen and ink, but also was good at manipulating pen and ink. he could use the ink and the trace of write to express shrimps’ structure and feel of quality, he also described the shrimp’s beard and nip with inscriptive writing brush. the pure black structure was fulfilled in abundant meaning and masterly technique.

A blending of components
A Chinese painting is a marriage of poetry, calligraphy, seal and image. National artists often indicate the theme of the painting, the artist’s name and the date of the painting. Sometimes, a poem or a prose extract is written next to the painting. These verses and lines complement and enrich the meaning behind the painting. Seals are also affixed to embellish or balance the painting.

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