One More Art

The Chinese Art of Writing

by Jean François Billeter
Skira/Rizzoli, 319 pp.

The discovery of a new major art should have more momentous implications for mankind than the exploration of an unknown continent or the sighting of a new planet.

Since the dawn of its civilization, China has cultivated a particular branch of the visual arts that has no equivalent anywhere else in the world. On first encounter, Westerners misnamed it “calligraphy” by false analogy with a mere decorative craft that was more familiar to them. Although it was always one of the most sublime achievements of the Chinese genius, only today are art lovers outside China progressively beginning to prospect the riches of this artistic El Dorado that has finally opened up to them.

Like painting (which, being born of the same brush, is its younger brother rather than its twin), Chinese calligraphy addresses the eye and is an art of space; like music, it unfolds in time; like dance, it develops a dynamic sequence of movements, pulsating in rhythm. It is an art that radiates such physical presence and sensuous power that it virtually defies photographic reproduction—at times, even its execution can verge on an athletic performance; yet its abstract and erudite character also has special appeal for intellectuals and scholars who adopted it as their favorite pursuit. It is the most elitist of all arts—it was practiced by emperors, aesthetes, monks, and poets—but it is also one of the most popular. Its tools—brush, ink, and paper—can be simple and cheap and are within the reach of nearly anybody—school-children, women, modest townfolk, bohemian drunks, hermits. Its manifestations are ubiquitous and diverse—from the refined studio of the aristocratic connoisseur to the gaudy signs of the marketplace. In China, the written word lives and reigns everywhere—on the walls of palaces and temples, as well as on those of wine shops and teahouses, and at New Year time, its inspiring and sacred presence graces the doors of even the poorest farmhouses in the most remote hamlets.

The practice of the art of writing is not the exclusive preserve of specialists. The calligraphic brush can yield rewards that are as multiform as the human quest itself. To the unworldly, it affords a path of spiritual cultivation, and for the ambitious it is a prerequisite to climb the ladder of a political career. Until recently, no Chinese statesman could truly command respect without being also master of the brush; social prestige as well as intellectual and artistic reputations could not be secured without a skillful handwriting. Thus, for centuries, literally millions of Chinese have devoted themselves to the exercise of calligraphy; in the practice of this art, they have sought self-expression or social promotion, self-oblivion or inner concentration; they practiced calligraphy out of necessity or out of passion—as a solace, as a convention, as an escape, as an obsession, as a liberation; for many, it was a drug, an ascesis, a private madness, an austere discipline, a way of life; the best of them found …

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Letters

The Calligraphic Spirit June 20, 1996