A Reservoir of Knowledge

The overall appearance of Chinese words has transformed significantly and visibly throughout history. Every change reflects a change in the state of Chinese society. Perhaps, for this reason, calligraphy remains an important cultural treasure. Calligraphy and Power in Contemporary Chinese Society is a study that unearths the influence of calligraphy on the average person who lives in contemporary China. Through a series of interviews with calligraphers, scholars and average citizens, the author Yuehping Yen discovered that many people still believe that words embody ancient knowledge. She writes:

With each change of written form, the characters are conceived to be endowed with new meanings that reflect changes in the socio-cultural environment. As a result, written characters as a whole constitute a fecund reservoir of ancient ideas and a record of social history.

The process that Yen describes is evident when considering the official script of the Qin Dynasty, Hsiao Chuan. For example, the script’s archaic appearance simultaneously alludes to the ancient cultures that invented language, and symbolizes the unification of the Chinese empire. Chinese characters also incorporate information of past calligraphic techniques. As Yen states:
Knowledge of calligraphic techniques helps unravel the hidden messages carried within characters, such as the interplay of structural balance and imbalance, and the meaning of the natural rhythm of things.

To write Hsiao Chuan, the calligrapher buries the brush tip and applies firm but even pressure to the page. As such, the brush movement mimics the slow motion of chiseling into a hard surface—the brush literally carves into the paper with this motion. Each calligraphic style possesses a unique combination of stroke arrangement, rhythm, pressure and speed, but at no point are the techniques mutually exclusive. In fact, new forms reinvent old techniques. For example, Hsiao Chuan requires a large amount of restraint to hide the flexible nature of the brush, whereas Tsao Shu liberates the brush across the surface of the page. In this way, Hsiao Chuan respects an orderly structure and Tsao Shu is preoccupied with spontaneity. In both cases, however, brush control is paramount. In the former case, control is visible through the uniform line spacing and thickness and in the latter case, control is visible at the pivot point between strokes. Rigid ends are necessary counterpoints to fluid lines in between. The technique that stops the momentum of a moving brush is constant; the differences are in stroke lengths, speed and pressure.

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