What is Chinese calligraphy?

Calligraphy, literally “beautiful writing,” has been appreciated as an art form in many different cultures throughout the world, but the stature of calligraphy in Chinese culture is unmatched. From very early on, Chinese calligraphy has always been considered not just a form of decorative art but as a supreme visual art form. It is more valued than paintings and sculptures. Chinese calligraphy is ranked alongside poetry as a means of self-expression and cultivation. How one wrote, in fact, was as important as what one wrote.

Why is calligraphy important in China?

To understand how calligraphy came to occupy such a prominent position, it is necessary to consider a variety of factors, such as the materials used in calligraphy and the nature of the Chinese written script as well as the esteem in which writing and literacy are held in traditional China.

What is Chinese calligraphy ink made of?

The ink employed in calligraphy is usually made from lampblack, a sooty residue created by burning pine resin or oil underneath a hood. After being collected, the lampblack is mixed with glue and then pressed into molds. The resulting hardened cakes or sticks can then be ground against a stone and mixed with water, a process that allows the calligrapher to control the thickness of the ink and density of the pigment. Eventually, ink cakes and ink sticks themselves became a decorative art form, and many well-known artists created designs and patterns for their molds.Though there is no denying that content is important, Chinese calligraphy can be enjoyed for its visual artistry. A full appreciation requires an understanding of the various styles and their traditions, the basic principles of stroke order and placement, and the philosophy that makes this the most respected of the fine arts in China. In fact, calligraphy is a dance in which the artist has three partners: the brush, the paper (or silk), and the ink. The rhythm and flow for the dance are controlled through character size, the contrast between light and dark, and speed of application of the line. In the more formal scripts, the brush is filled often, placed with care, and moved with deliberation, resulting in uniform brush strokes. In the more spontaneous forms, the brush is filled less often and moved with speed and spontaneity.A series of characters in these styles can go from dark and wet ink when the brush is freshly filled, to light and dry when the brush is nearly empty. These characters can also vary greatly in size. Even in the most cursive scripts, the accomplished calligrapher establishes rhythm, flow, and balance in what appears to be a completely spontaneous work.

Chinese Calligraphy Tools


The ink brush is the main writing instrument traditionally used for Chinese calligraphy. The body of the brush is commonly made from bamboo or other materials such as wood, porcelain, or horn. The head of the brush is typically made from animal hair, such as weasel, rabbit, deer, goat, pig, tiger, wolf, etc. There is also a tradition in both China and Japan of making a brush using the hair of a newborn child, as a once-in-a-lifetime souvenir. This practice is associated with the legend of an ancient Chinese scholar who scored first in the imperial examinations by using such a personalized brush.[citation needed] Calligraphy brushes are widely considered an extension of the calligrapher’s arm.

Today, calligraphy may also be done using a pen.


Paper is frequently sold together with a paperweight and desk pad. Some people insist that Chinese calligraphy should use special papers, such as Xuan paper, Maobian paper, Lianshi paper etc. Any modern papers can be used for brush writing. Because of the long-term uses, Xuan paper became well known by most of the Chinese calligraphers.

In China, Xuanzhi (宣紙), traditionally made in Anhui province, is the preferred type of paper. It is made from the Tatar wingceltis (Pteroceltis tatarianovii), as well as other materials including rice, the paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera), bamboo, hemp, etc. In Japan, washi is made from the kozo (paper mulberry), ganpi (Wikstroemia sikokiana), and mitsumata (Edgeworthia papyrifera), as well as other materials such as bamboo, rice, and wheat.


Paperweights are used to hold down the paper. A paperweight is often placed at the top of all but the largest pages to prevent slipping. For smaller pieces, the left hand is also placed at the bottom of the page for support. Paperweights come in several types: some are oblong wooden blocks carved with calligraphic or pictorial designs; others are essentially small sculptures of people or animals. Like ink stones, paperweights are collectible works of art on their own right.

Desk pads

The desk pad (Chinese T: 畫氈, S: 画毡, Pinyin: huàzhān; Japanese: 下敷 shitajiki) is a pad made of felt. Some are printed with grids on both sides so that when it is placed under the translucent paper, it can be used as a guide to ensure correct placement and size of characters. However, these printed pads are used only by students. Both desk pads and the printed grids come in a variety of sizes.


Ink and inkstick

Ink is made from lampblack (soot) and binders and comes in inksticks which must be rubbed with water on an inkstone until the right consistency is achieved. Much cheaper, pre-mixed bottled inks are now available, but these are used primarily for practice as stick inks are considered higher quality and chemical inks are more prone to bleeding over time, making them less suitable for use in hanging scrolls. Learning to rub the ink is an essential part of calligraphy study. Traditionally, Chinese calligraphy is written only in black ink, but modern calligraphers sometimes use other colors. Calligraphy teachers use bright orange or red ink with which they write practice characters on which students trace, or to correct students’ work.


Commonly made from stone, ceramic, or clay, an inkstone is used to grind the solid ink stick into liquid ink and to contain the ink once it is liquid. Chinese inkstones are highly prized as art objects and an extensive bibliography is dedicated to their history and appreciation, especially in China.