Chinese Brushwork in Calligraphy and Painting: Its History, Aesthetics, and Techniques

Chinese Brushwork in Calligraphy and Painting: Its History, Aesthetics, and Techniques

by Kwo Da-Wei, Da-Wei Kwo

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"A volume of great value to the admirer of Chinese art that also contains much practical advice for the student." ― Library Journal
When this book was first published, there were few if any important studies dealing with Chinese brushwork and its crucial role in Chinese art. The present volume, by a noted scholar, calligrapher, and artist, was the…  See more details below


"A volume of great value to the admirer of Chinese art that also contains much practical advice for the student." ― Library Journal
When this book was first published, there were few if any important studies dealing with Chinese brushwork and its crucial role in Chinese art. The present volume, by a noted scholar, calligrapher, and artist, was the first significant treatment of the topic and remains among the foremost works devoted to the history, aesthetics, and techniques of the brush ― the single most important tool in Chinese fine art.
The author begins by tracing the historical development of techniques and styles evolved by Chinese masters from the 14th century B.C. to the present. An in-depth explanation of Chinese aesthetic concepts and criteria follows, enhanced by the author's perceptive personal insights in such matters as line, form, space consciousness, and composition. A final section provides a valuable introduction to the materials, technical principles, and major brush strokes of Chinese painting and calligraphy. Techniques are demonstrated in numerous illustrations, including examples of the author's own highly respected work and painting and calligraphy from ancient and modern times.
Also included among more than 200 illustrations and photographs are a map of ancient China, chronological charts of calligraphic styles and dominant painting subjects, as well as a glossary of major terms in English and Chinese.
Dr. Kwo has exhibited his paintings at museums and art galleries throughout the world and has taught Chinese brushwork extensively in colleges and universities in both China and the United States. For students of art, for painters and calligraphers ― for anyone eager to approach Chinese art from a fresh and rewarding perspective ― his book is must reading.

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Dover Publications
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Dover Fine Art, History of Art Series
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8.40(w) x 11.17(h) x 0.52(d)

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Chinese Brushwork in Calligraphy and Painting

Its History, Aesthetics, and Techniques

By Kwo Da-Wei

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1981 David Kwo
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-13816-9


Archaic Period


There is reason to believe that the Chinese had been utilizing a brush for decorative painting and writing long before the dawn of recorded Chinese history. The designs painted on the red pottery of the Neolithic time (c. 3rd millennium B.C.) clearly reveal the fact that slips of red-earth color and dark dye were applied by brushes. It is obvious that these designs (Fig. 3) were not done by fingers or a wooden or bamboo stick but with a brush, otherwise the fine mesh textures and the curved lines could not have been achieved. Judging from the hard-edged quality of the lines, one can assume that the tool employed must have been made of some kind of hard fur, possibly deer or weasel. As to the dye, it could have been a by-product from the burning of some kind of wood, perhaps charcoal or soot. There is a segment of Shang (c. 13th cent. B.C.) pottery with the character Chi (year) written on it in black color; after a chemical test, it was proved to be a kind of carbon dye.

The Chinese brush is usually made of animal fur and its handle either of wood or bamboo—perishable materials—that can hardly be expected to last indefinitely. This presumably explains the lack of direct evidence for the use of the brush in Neolithic times. The oldest brush that has been found, unearthed from an ancient Chu* tomb near Ch'ang Sha in 1954, dates from the Warring States period (480–222 B.C.). (Fig. 4)

Scholars have been puzzled by the patterns on the pottery. Peter Swann in Art of China, Korea, and Japan writes, "Since buried with the dead, the designs painted on them, eminently suitable for pottery decoration, may also have had a symbolic content of which, alas, we know almost nothing." Despite the lack of evidence, however, there are ways of probing the problem. It has long been acknowledged that the primitive people in the remote Chinese past were fanatical believers in ghosts, as well as worshippers of ancestors. It was their custom that the deceased be provided with everything that he used during his earthly life—hence the burial objects found in these graves.

That the people of the Red Pottery culture had advanced to living in houses instead of caves, were tillers of the soil, fished, had domestic animals and long knew the benefits of fire, are established archaeological facts, which have buttressed Chinese legendary history concerning the Neolithic period.

Examination of the designs painted on this pottery reveals three common picture symbols (see Fig. 3): the crisscrossing lines undoubtedly suggest the weave of a fishing net or basket; the arch-forming curved lines may portray flames; and the undulant horizontal lines on the outside wall of the basin probably describe ripples or waves. These decorative picture symbols are, in my opinion, merely the result of the inspiration and observation gleaned from daily life; I doubt that there is any deeper symbolism involved.

In terms of Chinese brushwork, the work of this period is too simple and too primitive to be considered more than conceptual.


The next evidence of the brush appears in the ancient ideograms, roughly two millennia later, found inscribed on the unearthed bronze vessels and on shell and bones dating from the 16th–10th century B.C., the Shang and Chou periods. These ideograms had evolved and were in common use at a much earlier date, however. It was long accepted that Tsang Chieh, the official recorder of the court of Huang Ti (2367 B.C.?) was the inventor of Chinese picture writing, but modern scholars consider him a compiler of the ideograms which were in existence at that time.

Since so much has been written on the development of the Chinese language, it will suffice here merely to outline what we are seeing when we view a Chinese ancient character on a bronze or a piece of bone:

1. These Hsiang Hsing (hieroglyphic) characters were derived from primitive drawings. Only when primitive man gave his drawing, of an object or an idea, a definite, repeatable, consistent meaning did his painting become a word, a pictogram or an ideogram. (See Fig. 5)

2. Since the words were paintings, but the paintings were the script, one sees in these ancient ideograms the origin of the close association between Chinese painting and calligraphy, an association which has persisted throughout the ages.

3. These ancient characters indicate that the Chinese written language was the product of a slow development, always from the pictorial, gradually modified into abstract signs. The best illustration of this point is the word "to comprehend" as the etymologist Chiang Shan-Kuo traced its evolution. (See Fig. 6)


Germinant Period

Within the Germinant Period, we will examine the style of Shell and Bone as well as the styles classified as Greater Chuan. Chuan, meaning "incised," "engraved," but also "curved line," refers to characters comprised mostly of curvilinear lines. Greater Chuan is a general name for the calligraphic styles between Shell and Bone and Lesser Chuan. It encompasses the incised writings on the bells and pots of the Shang and Chou periods, as well as the script on the stone tablets, called Stone Drum, and the Bamboo writings known as Chu Chien. These styles appeared prior to 221 B.C.

The special feature of Greater Chuan is its fleshy, soft quality of line, whereas Lesser Chuan, a style of the Ch'in dynasty (221–206 B.C.) is marked by elongated and much thinner lines.


The discovery in the early 1900's of artifacts from the lost Shang culture which had lasted for almost three centuries (14th–11th cent. B.C.) was truly a significant event. Among the treasures brought to light at An Yang, especially valuable were some 100,000 pieces of shell and bones with writing inscribed on them (see Fig. 7), through which scholars have been able to trace the official history and also the daily life of the Shang people. This once-lost written language, since it flourished at a time much closer to the Ancient Ideogram period, sheds light on the ancient style of writing. It serves as a bridge between the early Chou (c. 1000 B.C.) and the late Neolithic era. However, of the several thousand ancient characters discovered, to date only about one-third have been translated into modern Chinese.

Most of the characters on the shells and bones were first written by brush and ink and then incised by knife. In most cases vermillion was used; it is a mineral substance the hue of which does not change with age—it remains fresh. The writing, however, was in the main a guide for the carving.

As one examines the structure of the characters of this period (see below), it is evident that the Shang characters were beginning to drift away from the ancient picture words, and had become more stylized and abstract, a natural tendency in the evolution of language. Moreover, in order to produce a large number of words, it was inevitable that the picture be torn apart and rearranged, not according to the representational image, but mainly according to the sound of the words and, above all, specific categories or classes. For example, there were many words utilizing the basic symbol for water —"to wash," "stream," "river," "sea" or "ocean," etc.

On the whole, the handwriting in the Shang period is identified as "documental style" or Hsiao Kai, which means "miniature character." It is similar in size to the writings on the oracle bones used by kings; as described by Tung Tsuo-Pin: "... [as] the aides recorded the inscriptions on the bones, they always wrote in smallish type, as small as a fly's head, so orderly that not a tiny line was sloppy."

As there is no evidence of the kind of brush they used, one is naturally quite curious. However, since the average size of each character was no bigger than a quarter of an inch, it may be assumed that the brush must have been quite small. How small? Probably half an inch long and no more than a quarter of an inch in diameter. Moreover, since each line was so rigid and stiff, before it was carved by knife, the conclusion can be drawn that the brush must have been made of some kind of hard fur, such as wolf, deer, or sable. The brush discovered in the Chu tomb in 1954 (see Fig. 4) looks exactly like the brush conjectured above.

The writing on shell and bone is in vertical columns, from right to left, and reading from top to bottom, as is done today. Since this pattern could not have developed overnight, it is apparent that even before the Shang, a viable script existed and that, undoubtedly, slats of wood and bamboo, materials easily available, were being utilized as writing surfaces. Why vertically? Nature emphasizes the vertical growth, but, more practically, my guess would be that once man tried to tie together the slats, so that his writing, too long to fit onto one slat, could be kept together and read consecutively, he found it more natural and less awkward if the slats were handled vertically. The earliest such book extant is from the Han period (93 A.D., see Fig. 28), although Chinese writings mention "lacings" of books as early as the 6th century B.C.

Since the script was in vertical columns, there was a natural tendency to emphasize the vertical, and thus, vertically structured characters are prevalent in Shell and Bone, and long remained the traditional structure of Chinese characters.

The Shell and Bone style is quite advanced. Here, there is a sense of design, not only in the structure of each character, but also in their group arrangement, that is, the total composition. The quality of the strokes is good; the lines are very sure and strong, and quite well controlled. Each word seems to be able to stand up by itself; the feeling of strength is obviously there. In composition, a vertical order was achieved by the parallel arrangement of the words. Besides the well balanced over-all harmony, there were enough contrasting elements to keep the whole composition interesting, i.e., square and rectangular shapes juxtaposed with triangular ones, mostly straight lines, strictly parallel or diagonal, mingled with curved ones. These geometric lines and shapes, together with its miniature size, are characteristic features of Shell and Bone.

Although Shell and Bone is no longer used as a medium of language, it is still being utilized in the art of calligraphy. In fact, many contemporary professional calligraphers, such as Yeh Yu-Sun, Tung Tsuo-Pin, and many others, are using it as a model for their creative work (see Fig. 9).

Since this style of writing was almost of miniature size, and the tool undoubtedly small, it is apparent, that calligraphers must have taken a sitting position at work; moreover, for better support they must have rested their wrists on the table as they wrote.

In so far as the brushwork is concerned, the evidence points to the use of "center brush" only. This is apparent from the predominantly vertical lines. Even though that appears to be about all they explored in technique, it is quite well executed. Although this style is far from mature, in Shell and Bone one is beginning to witness the emergence of brushwork as an art.


Bell and Pot Style

Bell and Pot (Chung Ding) is a designation for the characters cast on bronze vessels during the Shang and Chou periods, from the 14th to the 3rd century B.C. The characters were all incised in a V-groove shape. This style is also called Metal style or Chin Wen (chin is "metal"; wen is "character" or "word"). On the whole, this is a much more advanced form of writing than the previous Shell and Bone. (See Figs. 10–15) Unlike the simple linear shapes of the Shell and Bone style, the brushwork of Bell and Pot is much more varied both in the shape of the lines and the structure of the characters. Note the curves which were used in shaping the characters as well as the combination of dots and lines. Moreover, the composition of the calligraphy, usually an essay of 50 but at times some 400 words, shows a beautiful arrangement. The characters were first written or carved on a clay or wax model, and then the product was cast in bronze.

The Metal style co-existed with the Shell and Bone during the latter part of the Shang period, after the 20th generation ruler Pan Keng moved the government to An Yang in 1384 B.C. While the Shell and Bone civilization was concentrated around the capital area, An Yang in the modern Ho Nan province, the bronze vessels were found widely spread over both the Yellow River and Yang-Tze River areas.

In appearance, the Metal style is quite different from Shell and Bone. According to etymologist Tung Tsuo-Pin, the Shell and Bone style was used for daily correspondence and for such purposes as oracle recording, fortune-telling and communication with spirits. It was definitely an applied style. With the Metal style, however, the decorative element dominates since the bronzes were used mainly for religious ceremonies or ancestor worship. The calligraphic characters of Shell and Bone appear very formal, reflecting the solemnity attached to oracle recording, while those of the Metal style are freer in spirit and creative quality, and are very decorative.

This development of the Metal style as a decorative form was, indeed, significant, because, for the first time in the evolution of the Chinese written language, an artistic form emerged. Figure 10c, for example, illustrates the artistic elements which had been introduced into the composition of the ideogram "archery" or "to shoot," composed of an arrow and hand. These picture designs, as seen in Figure 10, reflecting people, animals, objects, and social life in the Shang period, were derived from ideograms which had existed two millennia earlier.

The pictorial symbols on these vessels in most cases were signs representing a tribe or a family; in fact, they served as logograms indicating the profession in which the family was engaged. A picture of a weapon would show that they belonged to the military service; a picture sign of a fishing net would show that fishing was their career. Under the astrologic faith of Shang society, the professions of the families were predestined. If one's ancestor was a fisherman, his descendants for generations likewise would be fishermen.

The Chin Wen writings of the Shang period (see Fig. 11a) were very carefully designed, each character a considered act. Pictorial designs were put side by side with the calligraphic symbols, as shown in Figure 10. As Figure 11a illustrates, the inscriptions show artistic freedom in their composition—that is, the characters are not uniform in size, nor is the framework of the characters stereotyped; instead, one can see projected triangular, rectangular, circular and oval forms. In addition, there is dramatic control in their use of positive and negative space, which makes the composition much more interesting than the Chou Chin Wen, which, as we shall see, with some notable exceptions, is marked by almost absolute regimentation. A Chou composition often results in a series of identical rectangular shapes within almost evenly allotted negative space. Figure 11b illustrates this vividly, I think. It is generally acknowledged that the writings on Shang bronzes reach a high peak in archaic simplicity, and have never been surpassed in their artistic expression.

The Chou people originated in Shan-si province, in western China. After suppressing the Shang dynasty early in the 12th century B.C., they established two capital cities, one in Hao Ching, their original base, and the second, located in Lo Yang in modern Ho Nan. The latter became the political center to which all the feudal lords came to pay tribute. This situation lasted for about three and one-half centuries (1112–700 B.C.), a period known as Western Chou. However, when the invading Jung and Ti from the west occupied Hao Ching, the Chou abandoned the city and moved to Lo Yang permanently, until the Ch'in state unified the whole of China in 221 B.C. This period is known as Eastern Chou (770–222 B.C.). Historians have divided the span into two major periods, Spring and Autumn (770–481 B.C.) and Warring States (480–222 B.C.).

The Chou had maintained a close relationship with the Shang for about three centuries, and in the process they absorbed Shang culture deeply. This was quite clearly reflected in their writing. As one examines Figure 11, one sees immediately the deep influence of the Shang on the Chou. Note the great similarity in the structure of the characters.


Excerpted from Chinese Brushwork in Calligraphy and Painting by Kwo Da-Wei. Copyright © 1981 David Kwo. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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