Trip Review for China

Calligraphy and the Traditional Chinese Cultural Mindset

There exist connections between calligraphy and the traditional cultural mindset of the Chinese people.Calligraphy is an elegant art, with a history of several thousand years, and fully displays the cultural mindset of the Chinese people. Such a cultural mindset is rooted in classical philosophical thinking. It can be dated back to the pre-Qin period and also embraces Confucian and Taoist thought. Confucian thought and Taoist thought supplemented each other, and became important factors promoting and affecting the evolution and development of the aesthetics of calligraphy.

Image of Confucious

Confucius (551-479 B.C.) was the founder of the Confucian school of thought which was predominant in China for more than 2,000 years, and represented the main social and cultural trends of ancient China. The Confucian school advocated kindness, loyalty, forgiveness and the moderation. Concerning the ideal outlook on life, it advocates progress and optimism. In the field of art, it affirms natural beauty, and emphasizes the integration of beauty and kindness. It believes the art can mold a person’s temperament and educate a person in aesthetics, thus helping that person enter a lofty spiritual realm and promoting the harmonious development of society.

The founder of Taoism, Lao Zi, lived in the same historical period as Confucius, although slightly before him. The essence of the Taoist thought emphasizes that thinking and behavior should obey natural laws. In its outlook on life, Taoism focuses on retreat, avoidance and passivity. In the sphere of art, it emphasizes the ideal of going back to nature and looking for the quality of nature and human beings. Taoism yearns for artistic romanticism, and maintains that aesthetics should be separate from concrete practice, and that people should not seek after beauty which is combined with benefits and satisfies physiological needs. Real beauty should be natural, and exist in a spiritual realm free from outside shackles. Such artistic aesthetics are more profound than those of Confucianism, and exerted a significant influence on later generations.

In general, the common aesthetic outlook held by these two schools and displayed in calligraphy and other arts can be seen in the following three aspects: the beauty of simplicity, the beauty of momentum and rhythm and the beauty of moderation.

Traditional Chinese opera (such as Peking Opera) has a simple technique of expression. On the stage, there is no setting at all, and few props, except for a desk and a chair or two. There is no real door or carriage for an actor or actress to open and close or sit in. Three or four steps represent a long journey, and six or seven persons represent a large army. The actors and actresses stir the imagination of the viewers with their movements, leading them to imagine that the performers are rowing a boat, sitting in a sedan chair or shooting a wild goose.

Page from a running-script booklet written by Zhen Banqiao

To display the world in simple colors and lines is a principle of Chinese painting. Especially in freehand brushwork, the painter seeks after the spirit of the image, the things in his mind and the things he understands, instead of sophisticated images. With just a hint, he passes on the posture and image of the thing in his mind. What he wants to convey to the viewer is not his sharp and careful observation and mimicry, but his great imagination, creativity and rich feelings. Expressing things in a vague way usually has a stronger appeal.

The beauty of conciseness. This is clearly illustrated in classical Chinese poems. Chinese lyric poems are famous for their short and concise lines. Like the montage technique used in film shooting, these lines can link separate pictures to achieve a strong effect.

Calligraphy is the simplest artistic endeavor, being composed merely of black dots and strokes. The integration, distribution and change of lines create various kinds of charm in a simple, easy, implicit and symbolic artistic means of expression.

Ancient calligraphy critics spoke highly of the functions of expressing beauty and lyrics that simple and concise strokes had, and explained the reasons.

The simplicity and conciseness of calligraphy are its enchanting characteristics. No complicated tools are needed for calligraphy – just paper, brush, ink stick and 85 ink slab. Also, the characters are for the most part those still used today.

Calligraphy is simple, but it is not easy to master. It is difficult to have a good command of creating a whole calligraphic work which is composed of lines of individual characters. It is very difficult to handle well the relations between the individual characters and the whole work. Calligraphy is like an acrobat’s performance of balancing on a monocycle, and the acrobat has to keep his balance through a sixth sense. The handwriting technique is easy to learn, but difficult to master.

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