The brushstroke itself is a potent, reduced form. In The Path of Beauty, Li Zehou, a scholar of aesthetic philosophy, calls Chinese characters “significant forms.” A significant form “incorporates elements of both imagery (generalized simulation), and expressiveness (of emotions).” Li argues that the reader perceives phenomena in the written form. For Li, lines are like music notes and “what one perceives in the lines is not a series of objects in space but rather an epoch in time.” Line connects the motion of the hand, it is a visible record of time passing. A brushstroke channels the strength and fluidity of the writer’s hand and as Li suggests, makes his emotions visible. As a graphic, Chinese letter form simulate objects, actions and sounds, and the brush, injects the life in the form.
Motifs are literal representations: the viewer can easily anticipate cause and effect. When a person is near a bridge this naturally suggests that he will cross it. Landscape painting arranges motifs to create tension and induce the propensity for action. In calligraphy, brushstrokes are the motifs and each stroke carries within it a certain tension that is visible. There is a correlation between hand movement and the brush trace left on the page. As Francois Jullien writes:
The Chinese art of calligraphy can be considered a prime example of dynamism at work within a configuration because, in the case of each ideogram copied, a particular gesture is converted into a form, just as a particular form is equally converted into a gesture. In this schema the figure produced and the movements producing it are equivalent.
This schema, as Jullien suggests, embodies the tension inherent in the brushstrokes, for the very fact of their being. To create tension, the calligrapher must also disrupt repeated movements, but always with a strict adherence to the precise rules which exist in calligraphy. Each character is inscribed within and centred on an imaginary square. Unlike Western writing, where movement is unidirectional from left to right, the Chinese calligrapher goes on to build the character stroke by stroke within the imaginary square. The centre of the square marks the axis of reflection, rotation and union. The calligrapher first locates the centre, his initial strokes mark boundaries, followed by lines that are filled in to complete the character. One always begins from top to bottom and completes the left side before the right side. Not one move is repeated successively: a horizontal motion is followed by a vertical or diagonal motion. Every stroke begins and ends in the opposite way of its intended path. Tension is thus initiated by the constant alternation of brush movement. Calligraphy skillfully adjusts character composition, entry, follow-through and exiting of every stroke to appear poised for action. Not surprisingly, water never pools over calligraphy paper. The longer the brush remains still, the larger the ink blots. The faster the brush moves, the less the ink is absorbed by the paper. Since every type of brush movement follows some semblance of a “pause-pull-pause” pattern, ink opacity varies within a line. These variations describe the duration, speed and pressure of the brush in motion. If a line of uniform width is considered one visible unit of time completed at average speed, then important changes–difference in line thickness, ink opacity, and stroke spacing, in comparison–show rhythmic variation. Calligraphy skillfully modulates standard rhythms and speeds. Learning stroke order always precedes developing character recognition. Those versed in Chinese language can detect force, rhythm and speed in calligraphic writing. Those who practice calligraphy are training their sense of timing.
Although good calligraphy demands absolute mastery over motor skills, there are several limiting factors that make every work unique. The calligrapher is forbidden to go back and alter a completed stroke. The brush tip is soft, so that it is impossible to produce a uniform bead of ink across the paper. The paper is handmade, so that every sheet differs in thickness and absorbency. The calligrapher’s state of mind and the physical setting that surrounds him all affect the outcome of the finished work. Sun Qianli’s treatise on calligraphy states:
. . . Because one writes at a given time, circumstances will provide either discord or harmony. When there is harmony, the writing flows forth charmingly; when there is discord, it fades and scatters.
In this way, every line trace is specific to the immediate moment of its creation. With every stroke, the calligrapher imparts a mood or tone that reflects the physical and emotional circumstances surrounding the creation of the work. Chinese characters are significant forms and, as such, they are highly suggestive. Lines can reflect the author’s joys and sorrows. A handscroll titled “Calligraphy in Running and Cursive Script” written by Dong Qichang in the Ming dynasty translates as follows:
In the third month of the guimao year, I was in Suzhou at the Cloud Shadow Mountain Studio. Outside my window it was raining, and I had nothing to do. My friends Fan Erfu, Wang Boming, and Zhao Mansheng dropped by to visit. We sampled some Tiger Hill tea and ground [some fresh] Korean ink. Then I tried out a new brush, writing with abandon and all quite at random.
The first section, “In the third month of the guimao year. I was in Suzhou at the Cloud Shadow Mountain Studio. Outside my window it was raining, and I had nothing to do. My friends Fan Erfu, Wang Boming, and Zhao Mansheng” is written in Tsing Shu. Tsing Shu is characterized by simplified characters and occasional linkages between strokes. The words in the passage are generally uniform in size and spacing. The line work follows a consistent range of thicknesses. Horizontal strokes are parallel to each other, while vertical lines maintain a sense of uprightness. In the second section, “dropped by to visit. We sampled some Tiger Hill tea and ground [some fresh] Korean ink. Then I tried out a new brush, writing,” all the characters are larger, and a few columns were filled by only one word. The author no longer follows the rules of periodic uniform spacing and every character is composed of more loops and swirls. At times an entire column of characters is written with one continuous line. The third part reads: “with abandon and all quite at random.” All characters are reduced to gestures. The brush is dry, and each line is written with haste. Writing “with abandon” suggests the least restraint in brush work, the freest use of paper space, and the most reduced attention to character legibility. Most importantly, the transformations explained through the story complement the execution. While the handscroll is a record of an ordinary event, the gradual conversion of the lines imparts fresh imagery to the content.
Another example of this significance of forms is the story of Wang Xizhi’s masterpiece “Lan Ting Shu” or the “Orchid Pavilion Preface.” In the spring of 353 AD, Wang Xizhi, the sage of calligraphy, and forty of his friends gathered at Lan Ting, near Shaoxing.
According to Wang Hsi-chih [Xizhi], the place was surrounded by lofty mountains and steep slopes, lush forests and bamboo groves, with a clear brook gushing through, giving reflections to the left and the right. It was a fine day in early Spring. The air was clear and the breeze was soft. After a few rounds of drinks, Wang Hsi-chih [Xizhi] composed an essay commemorating the occasion which he wrote down ‘on paper made of the silk cocoon with a brush made of mouse-whiskers.
The piece is praised for Wang’s skilful combination of power and variation. “The character 之-zhi (a preposition, meaning ‘of’) appears twenty times but not two of them are identical.” “Lan Ting Shu” was subsequently copied by numerous accomplished calligraphers. Wang himself rewrote the piece several times. However, none could compare to the original. Beautiful scenery, great company, joyous spirit, an experienced hand–all of these elements culminated in an instant surge of inspiration that is evident in the form and arrangement of characters. Such conditions could not be recreated. That is why the original is valued above all other versions.
Calligraphy incorporates another dimension – time. Out of respect for historical significance, technique changes according to the chosen style. The essence of brilliant writing is the calligrapher’s control of timing. Rhythm is a measure of ruptures in a unit of time. Musical rhythms are written as beats within a section of time. Brush technique is rhythmic, the general pattern is pause, pull, pause and repeat. In calligraphy, the beats are rendered as dots on a line. Lines and dots are visual counters, combined they create graphic interest and show the passing of time at various speeds. Because calligraphy values honest reflection of good technique and no stroke is ever reworked; there is a transparency between the gesture and the resultant form. A moment of inspiration can elevate the significance of technique. Every piece is unique. Chinese calligraphy is not only a way of recording images, it is a way of telling time.