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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.1

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 in it the perfect paradigm of Efficient Activity, a method for achieving the harmonious integration of mind and body, the key to supreme enlightenment.

The very centrality of the place which calligraphy occupies in Chinese life and culture paradoxically explains why the West took such a long time to appreciate it as an art. When two great civilizations, utterly foreign to each other, come into direct contact, it seems that, at first, they cannot exchange anything but blows and trinkets. Mutual access to the core of their respective cultures necessitates a lengthy and complex process. It demands patience and humility, for outsiders are normally not allowed beyond a certain point: they will not be admitted to the inner chambers of the spirit, unless they are willing to shed some of their original baggage. Cultural initiation entails metamorphosis, and we cannot learn any foreign values if we do not accept the risk of being transformed by what we learn.

In the case of Chinese calligraphy, the difficulty is further compounded by two more obstacles. First, by its very nature, calligraphy is intimately linked with Chinese language; its full appreciation may at times require a certain familiarity with a rich and intricate network of historical, philological, and cultural references. To what extent is it necessary to be able to read Chinese in order fully to enjoy Chinese calligraphy? A preliminary (and crude) answer may be provided in the form of another question: To what extent is it necessary to be able to read music in order to enjoy a musical performance? Such knowledge would naturally help, without being strictly indispensable—the degree of sensitivity of the spectator, or the listener, can, to some degree, make up for what he may be lacking in intellectual information.

In the appreciation of calligraphy, the main advantage that can be derived from the ability to read Chinese is not so much that the viewer has access to the content of the calligraphic inscription (this content can be quite indifferent, as we shall see immediately). It is rather that, knowing the rules and graphic mechanisms of the Chinese script (each character is made of a precise number of strokes, which must be traced in an invariable, predetermined sequence), he is able to follow and to reconstruct in his mind the successive movements of the calligrapher’s brush.

The relation between calligraphic form and literary content (i.e., between the calligraphy itself and the text it conveys) might in a way be compared to the relation between painters and their models in Western portrait painting: there are exceptional encounters where the genius of the sitter may add an extra sparkle to the genius of the painter—think, for instance, of the portrait of Thomas More by Holbein, or of Chopin by Delacroix. Most of the time, however, the very identity of the model is largely irrelevant. (Who was Mona Lisa? Who cares?) Similarly, there are some instances of great calligraphies inspired by admirable texts; usually, however, the nature of the text which provided a base—or a mere pretext—for the calligraphic performance has no significant bearing upon the artist’s achievement, and there are many examples of sublime calligraphies that took flight from dull and trite dissertations.

Furthermore, there is even a style of calligraphy—a particularly exciting and creative one—which renders the original text practically illegible for most viewers: the so-called “grass-script” (cao shu) in its “crazy” form (kuang) is a sort of frenzied stenography, dashed in a wild outburst of intoxicated inspiration.2 Only practitioners and specialists can decipher it—and yet, even for the common viewer, it is one of the most spectacular and appealing styles. Its illegibility puts no obstacle to the enjoyment of the ordinary public, since—as we have just said—this enjoyment does not reside in a literary appreciation of the contents, but in an imaginative communion with the dynamics of the brushwork; what the viewer needs is not to read a text, but to retrace in his mind the original dance of the brush and to relive its rhythmic progress.

A second, even more fundamental, obstacle to appreciating calligraphy is the one I have already mentioned: that because of it the Chinese actually possess one more art: calligraphy has no parallel in any other of the great literate civilizations. As a result, the very existence of this art could not immediately register in the consciousness of early Western travelers. The reason is that, usually, people do not see; they only recognize. And what they do not recognize remains invisible to them. For centuries, foreign visitors to China, even if they were highly educated, remained simply blind to the Chinese art of calligraphy—or when they took notice of it, they betrayed a staggering incomprehension. Thus, for instance, in the mid-nineteenth century, a French missionary who, otherwise, was a fluent linguist and an exceptionally perceptive observer, with a long and intimate experience of China, could still express this typical comment: “Chinese writing is displayed everywhere for decoration, but it is unpleasant at first sight and shocks by its oddity.” In the long run, however, he admitted that one could progressively “become used to” this weird sight.

To call it “calligraphy” was a way of conceding it some sort of artistic merit. Still, the choice of this name was unfortunate and generated a deeper sort of misunderstanding. By its very etymology, “calligraphy” means “beautiful writing,” i.e., writing that is made beautiful by the addition of various ornaments, or by application of a decorative treatment, a definition which suits diverse decorative crafts or minor arts that are more familiar to us, such as—let us say—Gothic calligraphy, or Arabic calligraphy. What the Chinese call shu, however, simply means “handwriting”; the word is often paired with hua, “painting”—and in this context, to speak of “beautiful writing” would be as preposterous as to speak of “beautiful painting”: for, as J.F. Billeter points out in The Chinese Art of Writing, it is the writing itself that is the art, and it needs no adventitious or optional “artistic” complements to reach that status.


Clichés can unwittingly reflect deeper truths. Many years ago, a facetious colleague sent me a copy of an old cartoon from Ripley’s famous series Believe It or Not! This particular item dealt with China and presented an assortment of fanciful or semi-factual distortions and common beliefs about Chinese language, culture, history, and customs. The interest of this cartoon was that it offered a fairly representative summing up of the popular perception of China in the Western consciousness. The gist of this perception was not so much that China was enigmatic, complicated, and bizarre, as more specifically that it was a topsyturvy world: the Chinese do everything exactly to the reverse of our “normal” usages and procedures. For instance, “When the Chinese build a house, they start from the roof”; “When in mourning, they wear white”; “They write upside down, and right to left”; “When greeting someone, they shake their own hand,” etc. None of these observations is actually wrong. And the general conclusion is basically valid. Here lies in fact the secret of the inexhaustible attraction which China and the West have always exerted upon each other: they stand at the antipodes of the human experiment. It might even be tempting to compare their mutual fascination to the magnetism that draws the two sexes together, but this erotic metaphor should probably be resisted here, since its inspiration is too narrowly Western.3

China poses a permanent challenge to various notions which we naively assume to have universal validity—but which prove in fact to find application only within the limits of our own cultural world. In linguistics, for instance, there is a basic axiom according to which writing is necessarily preceded by speech—and this principle actually seems to tally with common sense and common experience. If you go to China, however, your cozy certainty begins to evaporate: the primacy of speech, which has commanded all our culture since antiquity, may well have been a mere Indo-European idiosyncrasy.

  1. 1

    Visitors to the exhibition “Treasures from the National Palace Museum, Taipei” (now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) will know that this is no hyperbole. Together with a selection of masterpieces of Chinese painting, this exhibition presents a number of priceless Chinese calligraphies, some of them illustrated in the volume of essays accompanying the exhibition, Possessing the Past: Treasures from the National Palace Museum, Taipei, by Wen C. Fong, James C.Y. Watt, and others (Metropolitan Museum of Art/National Palace Museum, Taipei/Abrams, 1996).

  2. 2

    One of the most famous examples of this style can be seen in the exhibition “Treasures from the National Palace Museum”: Huai-su (eighth century), Autobiographical Essay (reproduced in Fong and Watt, Possessing the Past, plate 56). See page 31 of this issue.

  3. 3

    The view that human beings, as sexual creatures, are essentially incomplete belongs to Western culture; the Chinese view is that every individual contains in himself both yin and yang elements, and therefore should be able to achieve his own perfection in isolation. See Billeter’s discussion of this subject in footnote 23, chapter 7.

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