Thursday, 25 July 2013

Aesthetics in Chinese Calligraphy

"In good calligraphy, each character is full of strength and vitality and accommodates changes within a limited space. Each section of the character is completed stroke by stroke to form a larger design. The brush, the instrument of the calligrapher, is also used by the painter, and the results produced by the use of dots and strokes are similar." - Words and Images: Chinese Poetry, Calligraphy, and Painting (1991), p12-13.
"The Mi-Family and the Chiang-nan [Painting] Traditions
The merging of these two southern traditions into a coherent aesthetic philosophy incorporating the significant concepts of “ the natural” and of “ the plain and spontaneous” is surely one of the outstanding cultural phenomena of the Sung period." - Words and Images: Chinese Poetry, Calligraphy, and Painting (1991), p151.
The ancient Chinese 'Sage of Calligraphy', Wang Xizhi (303-361 AD), apparently found aesthetic and technical inspiration for his famous writing style in some geese he raised; in the graceful movements of their necks, and in how they swam on the water. This is referred to in A Chinese Garden Court (1980), with reference to the following painting, p42:

"This detail of a handscroll by Qian Xuan (about 1235-1300) shows Wang Xizhi gaining inspiration for his calligraphy by studying the graceful movements of geese.."
The graceful movements of the wrist are transferred into the calligraphy work, with the flow and energy of the character resembling patterns on the surface of water. Due to the speed with which the watery ink is absorbed into the paper, such aesthetics can only be rendered with consistency if the mind and body themselves are relaxed and fluid. Since clinging on to an intention can freeze the body, and forceful efforts to control the ink will become easily apparent within a character, spontaneous and natural movements need to be allowed to manifest if one is going to create something which resembles some the most developed and artistic calligraphic forms, as is stated in Words and Images: Chinese Poetry, Calligraphy, and Painting (1991), p147:
"...naturalness and spontaneity can be identified as key elements in both poetry and calligraphy during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries."
The calligraphy of Wang XiZhi (303-361 AD)
Each character can be viewed according to deeply philosophical aesthetics, as is explained in Beyond Representation: Chinese Painting and Calligraphy 8th-14th Century (1992), p122:
"Calligraphy for the scholar-artist was an art of paradigm, perceived as a means of partaking of the ever-dynamic field of nature’s creativity. The physical act of applying brush to paper led the Chinese artist to characterize calligraphy’s function in cosmogonic terms. The blank paper surface represents the universe, which in the beginning existed in undifferentiated oneness; the first stroke, born of the union of brush and ink, establishes on paper the primary relationship between yin and yang; and each new stroke, combining with the old, creates new yin-yang relationships, until the whole is reconciled and again united into the harmonious oneness that is the Tao of the universe."
In this way calligraphy practice took on a deeper meaning and utility in ancient Chinese society. Beyond Representation relates how this lead to calligraphy writers seeking various methods of achieving self-realization, p123:
"Since to emulate is to perform a physical act generated from within, the wise student learns not to be a slavish imitator but to seek self-realization. Learning calligraphy thus has less to do with what one studies than with the development of one’s inner resources."
The ancient Chinese Zen traditions used the writing of poems and various sutras as a method of honing skill - repeating the characters until familiarity and spontaneity were good enough to allow something deeper to pour out.

At present I am continuing to learn how to write the Heart Sutra with my Insight Calligraphy teacher Paul Wang in Beijing. Here is a recent rendering I made of the characters which translate as 'Form is just Emptiness, Emptiness is just Form', written in the old cursive style:

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