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One More Art

When Saint Augustine first met Saint Ambrose, he was amazed by the exceptional ability which the latter had to read silently: when reading, his lips did not move and the written message would pass directly from the book to his mind, without the intermediary of sound. This talent was still so rare at the time that Augustine felt moved later on to make a special note of it, betraying his own puzzlement: 4 such was the empire of the spoken word in Western culture at the dawn of the Christian era. The first sentence of Saint John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word,” summed up the inheritance of antiquity, and defined a continuing reality at the heart of our cultural world. One could neatly propose a parallel definition for the civilization of China by formulating the reverse statement: In the beginning was the Script.

The earliest examples of the Chinese script—which mark the beginning of known historical records in China—date back to some 3,700 years ago. (As the graphic style of this writing appears already sophisticated and mature, one must assume that it already had a long history; in the future, archaeology might well unearth evidence of earlier writing.) Even though written characters evolved considerably through the ages, modern Chinese writing can still be traced back, without interruption, to these early models: there is a direct continuity. This archaic script (“oracle bones inscriptions,” found on tortoise shells and shoulder blades of oxen, where they had been carved for divination procedures) was used to forecast the outcome of all major decisions of the State: harvest and hunting, war and peace. Hence, from the very beginning, script was intimately associated with the Spirits and with political authority. These inscriptions did not record language, but meanings—directly, and speechlessly: they transcended language. One might compare them, in a way, to the symbolic or pictographic indications (increasingly complex and nuanced) that are now being used in international airports, where they provide directions without language, which every traveler understands at once, not within his own idiom, but beyond all idioms.

This Chinese emblematic meta-language developed independently from contemporary speech. For convenience, however, the written characters were progressively given conventional sounds; thus, eventually the inscriptions did not merely convey silent meanings, they could also be read aloud. In the end, they themselves generated a language—monosyllabic and non-inflected (features that remain as the special marks of its artificial origin)—and since this language carried all the prestige of magic and power, it gradually supplanted the vernacular originally spoken. Needless to say, this schematic description of the birth of the Chinese language as we know it today is simplistic and partly hypothetical; what seems certain, nevertheless—and of essential importance—is that, in Chinese, as Billeter argues in The Chinese Art of Writing, there was a unique anteriority of script over speech.

Boswell once suggested to Dr. Johnson that the Chinese were not barbarians and he invoked as evidence “the written characters of their language.” JOHNSON: “Sir, they have not an alphabet. They have not been able to form what all other nations have formed.” BOSWELL: “There is more learning in their language than in any other, from the immense number of their characters.” JOHNSON: “It is only more difficult from its rudeness; as there is more labour in hewing down a tree with a stone than with an axe.”5

It would be all too facile to dismiss Johnson’s observation on account of the prejudice it reflected. The unfortunate reality of the prejudice does not invalidate the accuracy of the observation, once we divest it from its unnecessary value judgment. Whereas Boswell was admiring the shimmering sophistication of the surface manifestations of Chinese culture, Johnson correctly perceived the essential primitiveness that lay at its core: this combination of a donné of elementary and primeval simplicity with stupendous complexity and refinement in the actual applications and modalities at the superstructure level is a constant character of the Chinese genius.

Western technology, with its high efficiency but narrow specialization and rigidity of function, is the product of a rupture: in order to conquer Nature, Western man chose to cut himself off from it. Chinese civilization, on the contrary, endeavored to maintain the primordial unity; but the price of its uninterrupted communion with the world was a reduced capacity to control it; this, in turn, was compensated for with increased ingenuity, subtlety, and elegance in the practical solutions devised to solve the various problems of human adaptation to material reality. In the Judeo-Christian culture, the original myth of conquest and disunion is Babel: the bold attempt at mastering the world ended in the accursed confusion of tongues—and from that point on, language was to separate people instead of bringing them together. China, on the contrary, continued to live in a pre-Babelian condition; as Billeter suggests, its script, which conveys meaning beyond language and transcends all differences of speech, links mankind to its earliest origins and proposes the very emblem of an essential unity.


In China, the original function of the written word—which possessed the demiurgic power of ordering the cosmos and of generating reality—never disappeared entirely, but it was progressively eclipsed by its aesthetic virtues. Calligraphy in the narrow sense of the word—i.e., writing considered as an artistic pursuit, as a means of self-expression, and an outlet for the calligrapher’s individual sensitivity—began to develop at the end of the Han period (third century AD): from that time on, it progressively turned into a specialized discipline, with its masters, theoreticians, critics, collectors, and connoisseurs, and came to occupy the leading position among all the visual arts (with painting as its close second).

Calligraphy is executed in ink, on silk or paper, with a brush. (Even when carved into stone or wood, the carving endeavors to convey an illusion of brushwork.) The calligraphic brush is a typical product of Chinese ingenuity: once again, it marries deceptive simplicity of a structural principle with utter subtlety and versatility of its actual applications. The extreme sensitivity of this instrument has, for a corollary, its diabolic difficulty of handling. In order to master the brush (and not be led by it!), the calligrapher has to achieve a high degree of mental concentration, physical balance, and muscular control; long years of intensive training are required to reach a minimum level of competence. (The famous painter Chang Ta-ch’ien once paid a visit to Picasso and presented him with a superb Chinese brush. Picasso toyed with his new tool for the next few days; the awkward graphic mess he made of it is quite instructive.6 ) The ink, far from being stable and monochrome, offers a wide range of nuances: its shine, its depth, its blackness, its pallor, its thickness, its fluidity, its dryness, its wetness echo every mood and inflection of the brush itself, the work of which can be slow or fast, rough or smooth, impetuous or subdued, naive or cultured, violent or delicate. As a result, the textural quality of a work of Chinese calligraphy, its “fleshiness” or its “boniness,” has a sensual dimension which no reproduction can adequately convey.

The silk or paper used for calligraphy has an absorbent quality: the lightest touch of the brush, the slightest drop of ink, registers at once—irretrievably and indelibly. This is a medium that tolerates no error, no correction, no hesitation. The brush acts like a seismograph of the mind, answering every pressure, every turn of the wrist: the record of its course on the blank page is instantaneous, complete, and final.

The written characters are the only materials at the disposal of the calligrapher. Not only is he not allowed to create new graphic structures, but this limited material is itself strictly predetermined: each character must be written with a specific number of brushstrokes that are arranged in a precise pattern, and follow each other in preordained sequence. (In Billeter’s felicitous phrase, “ultimately it is the fixed order of the strokes that makes calligraphy a visible music.”) There is therefore no latitude for initiative; or, rather, all the resources of invention and creation are exclusively channeled into expression.

Calligraphy is par excellence an art of interpretation. (To some extent the same could be said of the main artistic disciplines of China—poetry, painting, music: in each, expression matters more than invention, but it is in calligraphy that this particular aesthetic feature finds its most perfect illustration.) This does not lessen the creativity of the calligrapher, but intensifies it: his is a creation of the second degree. A musical comparison may be of some help here: Glenn Gould or Sviatoslav Richter are no less artists for not having themselves composed The Well-Tempered Clavier. Great interpreters efface themselves the better to serve their models; but the more successful they are at this task, the more deeply their individual temperaments and sensitivities are being revealed in their interpretations. Every touch from a great pianist, every stroke from a great calligrapher, becomes a mirror of the interpreter’s mind.

In calligraphy, the supreme aesthetic category is naturalness. Naturalness is reached when the calligrapher can forget all rules. But it is only after he has achieved full mastery of all rules that he becomes able to forget them. Calligraphy was a favorite exercise for monks and hermits, for its aesthetic paradox echoes the paradox of ascetic discipline. Through the ages, in the East as in the West, the great mystics who achieved complete obliteration of the self were also the most forceful and original personalities. In the art of calligraphy, as in spiritual life itself, when self-denial is complete, self-expression reaches its plenitude.


Jean François Billeter is a distinguished Swiss scholar who brings to Chinese studies a remarkably broad philosophical, literary, and artistic culture. Having read and admired a number of his shorter essays, as well as his doctoral thesis on a fascinating “heretic” thinker of the Ming period, Li Zhi, I had awaited his magnum opus on Chinese calligraphy with eager anticipation. The book, which is superbly produced—the illustrations are magnificent and, sometimes, also provocative and surprising—kept me enthralled in its first half and, as my earlier references to it may suggest, I have drawn abundant inspiration from it in writing this article. At a certain point, however, the book veered into what appeared to me as a rather idiosyncratic philosophy—and I must confess that I simply lost my footing (which certainly disqualifies me from writing a fair, comprehensive review). I wonder if Thoreau’s famous warning “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes” should not also be applied to discursive essays: Beware of all thoughts that require new concepts. Those which Billeter is using here baffle me all the more since, while they are probably not familiar to the Western reader, neither have they any equivalent in the rich theoretical and critical literature which the Chinese themselves have developed on the subject. In particular, his chapters on “Body Sense” and “The Active Body”—which, in the author’s perspective, are obviously of central importance—develop notions that remain opaque to me. For instance, he concludes:

Let me sum up the results of this inquiry [into the “Body Sense”], the better to apply them to the art of writing. Underlying all our relations to the visible and even to the real is projection, a complex and variable phenomenon emanating from the body proper, in other words, from our bodily subjectivity. It is by the body proper that inside and outside communicate, that our exchanges with the world take place. The body proper is the source of all spatiality, of all organization of space … and, on this background, of every image, whether perceived or produced. The process of projection … “merges with the very stuff of the visible.”

Having spent some time trying to understand these reflections, I wonder now if I did not waste my effort, for I see that in a more recent article Billeter writes: “I must point out that the notion of ‘projection’ which I previously used in my Chinese Art of Writing does not appear to me defensible any longer: it should be revised.” 7

As I was working my way with some perplexity through the central chapters of the book, I was frivolously reminded of an anecdote told by Elie Wiesel.8 A rabbi had to attend a ceremony in a nearby town. He hired a coachman to drive him there. But once on the road, at the first hill, the coachman asked him to come down and help push the coach, for the horse was old and weak. The rabbi had to push for most of the way. When they finally arrived at their destination, the rabbi said to the coachman: “I can understand why you came: you needed to ear your payment. I can understand why I came: I needed to attend a ceremony. But I cannot understand why we brought a horse along.” The question that nagged me through the exposé of Billeter’s philosophy was similar: What need was there to drag calligraphy into this?

I have little doubt that, with the passing of time, Billeter’s book will prove to be a work of major significance—but I must also admit that I am incapable of doing it justice. Before writing this article, I read it for the second time: I felt all my old bafflement and frustrations being revived, but simultaneously I was struck once again by the wealth of original and stimulating views it contains, as well as by the illuminating quotations it draws from a wide literary spectrum—Western and Chinese.

To take only one example, on a question which has particularly far-reaching implications: Billeter rightly observes that Chinese traditional aesthetics dispenses altogether with the concept of beauty. On this theme, he presents a mutually illuminating series of references to both Chinese and European writers. Fu Shan, a great calligrapher of the seventeenth century, declared: “Rather than clever, gracious, deft and proper, I prefer being awkward, unpleasing, disconnected but true to myself.” Such a view, Billeter suggests, would have met with the approval of Stendhal, who always put authenticity above all other values: “I think that to be great in anything at all, One has to be oneself.” For Billeter, a similar idea of true originality was evoked by Nietzsche: “Each of us carries within himself a productive originality which is the very core of his being; and if he becomes aware of this originality, a strange aura, the aura of the extraordinary, shapes itself around him.”

In the quest for originality, the first requirement is to eschew vulgarity. Billeter quotes the nineteenth-century calligrapher Liu Xizai, who said: “The difficult thing about calligraphy is not how to please, but how to avoid trying to please. The desire to please makes the writing trite, its absence makes it ingenuous and true.” At this point, I feel tempted to mention Braque’s remark to a visitor who was showing him a fake Braque and insisted that it looked genuine. The painter replied: “How could I possibly have ever painted a thing like this—it is the exact opposite of a Braque: it is beautiful!”

I also found much of interest in the abundant and remarkable footnotes of Billeter’s book. To the common reader, this may sound (I am afraid) like some sort of veiled irony, but no Sinologist will ever mistake the sincerity and weight of this particular praise. Which one of us would not dream that it might be said of his work of a lifetime: he wrote a few good footnotes?


The Calligraphic Spirit June 20, 1996

  1. 4

    Confessions, VI, 3: “When Ambrose was reading, his eyes ran over the page and his heart perceived the sense, but his voice and tongue were silent. He did not restrict access to anyone coming in, nor was it customary even for a visitor to be announced. Very often, when we were there, we saw him silently reading and never otherwise … We wondered if he read silently perhaps to protect himself in case he had a hearer interested and intent on the matter, to whom he might have to expound the text being read if it contained difficulties (…) If his time were used up in that way, he would get through fewer books than he wished. Besides, the need to preserve his voice, which used easily to become hoarse, could have been a very fair reason for silent reading. Whatever motive he had for his habit, this man had a good reason for what he did.” (I am quoting here the beautiful translation by Henry Chadwick, Oxford University Press, 1991.)

  2. 5

    Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson, entry of May 8, 1778.

  3. 6

    See the illustration on page 61 of The Chinese Art of Writing.

  4. 7

    See “Arrêt, vision et langage,” in Philosophies, No. 44 (December 1994).

  5. 8

    In a book recording a series of dialogues with François Mitterrand, Mémoire à deux voix (Paris: Odile Jacob, 1995), which, for the rest, is unfortunately without interest.

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