Learning Chinese Calligraphy in China

CATEGORIES: March 2015

by Dr. Tonglu Li


Based on the writing system of the Chinese language, Chinese calligraphy (Shufa) is an “abstract art” that expresses the calligrapher’s taste, personality and vision. A unique artform that has been regarded as “national essence”, calligraphy also plays an important role in China’s intellectual and social life. However, it takes years to become skillful in doing and appreciating calligraphy. It is especially difficult for non-Chinese learners due to the language barrier.


For American students, learning calligraphy is a feasible entry point for further exploring Chinese culture. As an indicator of cultivation and taste, good calligraphy skills also become their “name card” when they live and work abroad in East Asian countries. For this reason, many universities in the United States have been offering calligraphy courses and attracted a significant number of learners. I have been interested in this art and have been practicing calligraphy for a long time, and have also been thinking to offer a calligraphy course for Iowa State. However, before this can happen, I feel that I need to receive formal training in the techniques of doing calligraphy and learn the pedagogy on teaching both Chinese learners and non-Chinese learners make sense of calligraphy.

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I am very fortunate to be able to learn Chinese calligraphy systematically in Beijing on the McClain Faculty Fellowship in May 2014. I studied calligraphy for two weeks with Zhang Qifeng, a professional calligrapher who makes a living on calligraphy training with his own company. The training was very intensive. Every morning I took subway for one hour and half to travel across Beijing from north to south (a real scene of “People Mountain People Sea”) and studied three hours continuously. Although I have some previous experiences with calligraphy, to lay a solid foundation and learn it more systematically we agreed to start from scratch with his approach. Learning calligraphy begins with imitating the style of an ancient master. During the process of learning, a learner can study other artists’ works, but generally do not switch his or her leaning model once decided. This will help the leaner to learn a style thoroughly. Imitation is the foundation of learning, and one has to be extremely patient to avoid creating one’s own “style”. There is a long way to go from imitation to artistic creation.           The one my instructor chose for me is Mi Fu (Fig.1.), a Song Dynasty (960-1279) master who inherited the merits of the “saint” of calligraphy, Wang Xizhi (303-361) and who also had heavy influence on later generations.

Our class usually began with a brief lecture on one specific aspects of calligraphy, such as history, appreciation (telling good from bad styles), comparison between styles, instructions on writing techniques, and what components a finished work had to include (seal, date and signature. See Fig. 3). Then he would write a character or phrase (based on Master Mi Fu’s style, the original was too sophisticated for beginners) as my example to follow. He would leave me on my own and I repeated writing the same character/phrase for many times. This part always reminded me when I taught elementary language courses. He then commented on the problems of my work with phrases like “Hum…, this is Okay” or more often, “This is totally wrong!!!” The writing part was physically challenging for I had to stand for two and half hours (after standing on the subway for one and half hour). One can seat and do calligraphy, but he preferred to letting me stand to have better control and maneuver of the brush. The final part was similar to seminar discussion. He talked a lot about the efficient ways of teaching calligraphy, and I also raised numerous questions such as how to let American students without language background appreciate calligraphy. His suggestion was to associate calligraphy with music. While it was a great suggestion, but also give me something new to learn.

I also did research on teaching calligraphy on my own. One of my papers on calligraphy pedagogy was accepted to be presented at the 9th biennial International Conference on Calligraphy Education, a conference jointly sponsored by the American Society of Shufa Calligraphy Education and other art institutions, in Guangxi at the end of May. After the intensive training, I took a bullet train to Nanning, Guangxi to attend the conference. The main theme of the conference was cross-cultural communication and cooperation of calligraphy education. Besides, and interestingly enough, it also had discussions on calligraphy as a cultural industry. The presentation that impressed me the most was the one propagating the idea of “everyday writing,” which is meaningful when writing has been switched to electronic forms. The city is close to Vietnam and I saw many Vietnamese students at the calligraphy exhibit affiliated with the conference. This gave me the confidence that culture (including art) might be a good way to go beyond political antagonism among countries.


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My presentation was entitled “The Art of Calligraphy as the Symbol of Life: A Pedagogical Perspective.” I focused on the ways in which calligraphy as an art can be accessible to American students with zero or limited background of Chinese language and culture. The traditional theory and criticism of Chinese calligraphy often use metaphors to associate the characteristics of a calligraphy work with natural objects, mostly living things. However, it sometimes goes to a point of absurdity (e.g. when imagined animals such as dragon is involved). My proposal was to borrow Susanne Langer (1895-1985)’s ideas and view calligraphy as the symbol of life form. The proper arrangement of the energetic lines itself can provide an abstract life composed by ink without the need to use a metaphor. The paper has been published in March, 2015.

I really appreciate the support from the McClain Faculty Scholarship, and hope to offer a calligraphy course for ISU students in the near future.