Why Was Paper Important In Ancient China – Calligraphy established itself as the most important ancient Chinese art form along with painting, first appearing during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). All educated men and some women at court were expected to be proficient in it, an expectation that has persisted into modern times. Much more than writing, good calligraphy demonstrated excellent brush control and attention to composition, but the actual manner of writing was also important, as quick, spontaneous strokes were ideal. The brushwork of calligraphy, its philosophy, and its materials would influence Chinese painting styles, especially landscape painting, and many of the ancient scripts are still imitated today in modern Chinese writing.
The highly flexible brushes used in calligraphy were made of animal hair (or more rarely feathers) cut into a sharp end and tied to a bamboo or wooden handle. The ink used was made by the writer himself by rubbing a dry cake of animal or vegetable matter mixed with minerals and glue on a wet stone. Wood, bamboo, silk (from 300 BC) and then paper (from AD 100) were the most common writing surfaces, but calligraphy could also appear on everyday objects such as fans, screens and banners. The best material was paper, however, and the invention of finer quality paper—credited to Cai Lun in 105 AD—helped develop more artistic forms of calligraphy because its absorbency captured all the nuances of the stroke .
Why Was Paper Important In Ancient China
An expertise quickly developed and calligraphy became one of the six classical and ancient arts along with ritual, music, archery, chariot racing and numbers. Experienced Chinese calligraphers were expected to use varying stroke thicknesses, their delicate angles, and their fluid connection to each other, all precisely arranged in imaginary spaces on the page, to create an aesthetically pleasing whole.
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Historian R. Dawson gives the following description of the attraction of calligraphy created with a special brush compared to the printed version:
The printed characters are like figures in a Victorian photograph, holding their attention firmly. but the brushstrokes dance across the pages with the grace and vivacity of ballet. The beautiful forms of Chinese calligraphy were truly compared to natural beauties, and each stroke was considered to be inspired by a natural object and to have the energy of a living being. Accordingly, Chinese calligraphers sought inspiration by observing natural phenomena. The most famous of all, Wang Xizhi, liked to watch geese because the elegant and easy movement of his neck reminded him of holding a brush, and the monk Huai-su is said to have appreciated the infinite variety possible in his tedious style of calligraphy known as grass when observing the summer clouds that rise from the wind. (201-202) Calligraphic scripts
Seal script, as the name suggests, was a formal style used for seals and other official documents because it had strokes of uniform thickness and fewer changes of direction, making it easier for engravers to reproduce. The graphic script with its heavy finials was also official and was intended for record keeping by officials and officials. Later, it became the usual script for inscriptions. Both seal and clerical script were revived as artistic scripts in the 17th and 18th centuries AD. Plain script was the standard form for printing and remains the most widely used form today. The more extravagant cursive writing was the most popular choice for artistic expression and was also used in notes added to paintings. Finally, the Drafting script, sometimes called the Grass script, was so called because it was the fastest to produce and the “wildest”, as the artist stretched convention to its limits so that some characters they became difficult to recognize immediately.
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Despite these great types, each calligrapher’s writing style was, of course, his own. A calligrapher may aim for precision over spontaneity, prefer ostentation over grace, or focus on empty spaces within the composition. In addition to aesthetic effects, writing was judged for other purposes, as historian M. Dillon explains here:
Because a person’s handwriting was considered an indication of temperament, moral worth, and learning, emperors in the Tang and Song dynasties often chose their ministers based on the quality of their calligraphy… Life of the calligraphic tradition rested on the idea that calligraphy could convey the spontaneous feelings of the truly perceptive person through an outpouring of spirit at a given moment. (37) Famous calligraphers
As in any other art, the most talented calligraphers became famous for their work and their scripts were copied and used in innovations such as printed books. The most revered of all Chinese calligraphers, as already mentioned, was Wang Xizhi (c. 303 – c. 365 AD), although he was a student of Lady Wei (272-349 AD). There is no evidence of writing on the two figures, except possibly in surviving copies of the Xizhi. Wang Xizhi’s son Wang Xianzhi (344-388 CE) was another famous practitioner, the pair are often referred to as “the two Wangs”. Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322 CE) was another famous calligrapher who created such precise characters in square boxes on his paper that printers used his script for their own letter blocks.
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Examples of scripts and styles created by these masters were often copied on wood or stone for preservation.
Examples of scripts and styles created by these masters were often copied onto wood or stone for preservation and from which ink was rubbed (
) were done. Thus, paper copies could be distributed and scripts could be imitated by fewer calligraphers everywhere. These copies were also useful to emperors who wanted to promote one style over another during their reign, and have become an invaluable record of the development of Chinese calligraphy that continues to be consulted and imitated today.
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Examples of famous calligraphy survive in the form of letters, book presentations, prose, religious texts, notes on paintings and inscribed stelae, tombstones and tablets, where the stonemason faithfully copied the work of a distinguished calligrapher. Examples of good calligraphy by famous authors were collected even in ancient times, especially in the libraries of emperors or even buried with them in their tombs. These pieces were so valuable that fakes were made and sold as genuine to collectors. As another indicator of the value placed on examples of Old Master calligraphy, the actual meaning of the text is often irrelevant to prices and collectability. There are many clippings (
) that may be very old and highly valued, but are really just comments about the weather or a note about a gift of oranges.
The techniques and conventions of writing would influence painting where critics looked for the artist’s dynamic use of brushstrokes, their spontaneity and variation to create the illusion of depth. Another influence of calligraphy on painting was the importance given to composition and the use of empty space. Eventually, calligraphy remained so important that it even appeared in paintings to describe and explain what the viewer was seeing, to indicate the title (although by no means were all paintings titled by the original artist), or to record the site created and the person for whom it was intended. Eventually, these notes and even poems became an integral part of the overall composition and an integral part of the painting itself.
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There was also a fashion for later owners and collectors to add more inscriptions, even adding additional portions of silk or paper to the original garment to accommodate them. From the 7th century AD, owners often added their own stamp in red ink, for example, and if a piece changed hands, the new owner would add their own stamp, so the ownership history of the work can sometimes be traced back to hundreds. of years . It seems that Chinese paintings were meant to be constantly manipulated and decorated with good calligraphy.
Editorial review This article has been reviewed by our editorial team prior to publication to ensure accuracy, reliability and compliance with academic standards in accordance with our editorial policy.
Mark is a full-time writer, researcher, historian and editor. Special interests include art, architecture and discovering ideas shared by all cultures. He has a master’s degree in Political Philosophy and is director of WHE Publications.
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