Chinese Calligraphy: An Introduction to Its Aesthetic and Technique

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When the first edition of Chinese Calligraphy appeared in 1938, I was immediately struck by its significance for the general philosophy of art, and more particularly by its bearing on certain aspects of modern art. Ever since we Westerners became familiar with Chinese civilization, we have known that the Chinese attached what seemed to be an inordinate importance to their handwriting. Most people probably interpreted this peculiarity in terms of scholastic discipline, for that is the way we have treated handwriting. To write what was called "a good hand’ meant to conform to a universal pattern, to suppress eccentricities, to approach as closely as possible to "copperplate’, the standard lettering of the engraver. It is only comparatively recently that a certain "freedom’ has been allowed, and even encouraged, in schools. Another and very recent development is the popularization of Italic or Humanist "script’ writing. This is sometimes conceived as another formal discipline, in this respect not different from copperplate; but more generally it expresses a feeling for the beauty of handwriting, and in this respect is nearer to the Chinese conception of calligraphy.

Mr. Chiang, in his chapter on "The Abstract Beauty of Chinese Calligraphy’, describes with great clarity the aesthetic principles underlying this art. They turn out to be the aesthetic principles of all genuine art, and what is really distinctive about Chinese calligraphy is the fact that it is not a separate and inferior craft, but an essential element in the artistic life of the Chinese people. "The aesthetic of Chinese calligraphy is simply this: that a beautiful form should be beautifully executed.’ But the aesthetic of Chinese painting is simply that too; and so is the aesthetic of Chinese sculpture or Chinese pottery. I would say that this is a universal principle of all art, and it implies, not merely that the work of art should be formally perfect, but that it should also be organically vital. In Chinese calligraphy, says Mr. Chiang, the main principle of composition is in every case a balance and poise similar to that of a figure standing, walking, dancing, or executing some other lively movement. "The beauty of Chinese calligraphy is essentially the beauty of plastic movement, not of designed and motionless shape.’

How such "lively movement’ is conveyed by a written character, or by a painting or a piece of sculpture or pottery, is a mystery that we cannot completely analyse—it is an instinctive coordination of the artist’s mental image and the muscular stroke with which he "expresses’ or "projects’ that image. It is, at any rate, a very personal faculty, achieved by continuous practice and meditation, by a discipline that is spiritual rather than physical. Only a few great masters attain perfection. What specially interested me when I first read Mr. Chiang’s book was the analogy between this aesthetic and the aesthetic of modern "abstract’ art. I use the word "analogy’ because modern artists in general have not made their principles sufficiently clear (by the perfection of their works), and as a result the public is still confused and even antagonized by such art. I believe that the best of the Western abstract artists are groping in the right direction, and a great painter like Paul Klee had certainly found the illumination that comes from a perfect understanding of abstract beauty. But so many abstract paintings are"designed and motionless shapes’; of how few could one say, as Mr. Chiang says of a Chinese character, that if any part had been wrongly placed the whole would appear to totter?

In the last few years a new movement of painting has grown up which is at least in part directly inspired by Chinese calligraphy—it is sometimes called "organic abstraction’, even sometimes "calligraphic painting’. Soulages, Mathieu, Hartung, Michaux—these artists are certainly not unaware of the principles of Chinese calligraphy, and they try to achieve "the first two essentials of good calligraphy’ which are also the first two essentials of good Chinese painting—"a simulation of life in the strokes and a dynamic equilibrium in the design’. Sometimes they succeed, but more often they seem to me to be hampered by the relatively coarse and heavy materials of Western painting. Nor, perhaps, have they that intimate relationship to nature which, however hidden, lies behind every Chinese character.

Chiang Yee writes simply and clearly about matters which are subtle and difficult to understand. Not the least valuable aspect of his book is the charm of its style. Mr. Chiang has written many books since this one was first published, and has greatly extended our knowledge, not only of Chinese art and civilization, but also of art and civilization in general. He is one of those rare foreigners who help us to understand ourselves.

Herbert Read

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Chinese Calligraphy: An Introduction to Its Aesthetic and Technique