From my first experience with the written Chinese language, I knew the language was complicated and its written expression was quite different from my own. I knew individuals who spent long years in school learning how to write it and felt that because of this, the written form both held no possible meaning for me and it must always look the same to those who know how to recognize the forms. In looking through the Masters of Calligraphy page, I learned that I was wrong on both counts.
Rather than all being the same shape, as I expected and one style, as I thought would be necessary for this form of written language, I discovered that Chinese characters can be written in a number of styles and be tremendously expressive in the movement of their line. While those of us using the American alphabet generally have two forms of writing – script and printing – the Chinese actually have five. These are seal script, clerical script, standard script, semi-cursive script and cursive script. The way in which the various masters have used these different styles creates words that are expressive even to someone who cannot read the language.
Within the lines of the characters, even someone who can’t read the text can see many different human qualities. They dance, dream, float, become grounded, get weighed down and distance themselves from formality. Much of this can be discerned by simply looking at the characters as if they are abstract art. In the following character executed by Wang Xizhi meaning ‘to follow’, the shape seems to float on the page. In its graceful opening arch, it conveys a sense of beauty and fluidity while the subsequent short lines, some jagged and some curved, give a sense of energy and quick movement. The eye can easily trace the movement of the pen except for an unexplained circle element in the center of this activity, which suggests that there is something more happening than meets the eye, but the movement is too quick to catch. An abrupt stop at the end, signified by a seeming checkpoint, leaves the viewer breathless and somewhat unsatisfied as if the exuberant motion should have been permitted to continue further.
Although I had thought that the Chinese language was too complicated to communicate to a non-speaker but relatively static in its expression, I have discovered that I was wrong. Chinese calligraphy is highly expressive whether you understand the language or not. The emotional lines of the above characteristics are conveyed with a quick and graceful tone that nevertheless leaves the viewer feeling as if they aren’t in control of the final outcome and give a sense of the literal meaning of the character. At the same time, there are numerous examples of other ways in which this character might be written that convey entirely different emotional impressions.