The model characters were written by Yan Ruimin, keen pedagogue andexpertonfountainpencalligraphy.Iamgratefulforallthelatenightsonwhichhe shared his expertise with this Swedish novice, as wel
l as for hispatiencewith my incessant changes in the manuscript and the resulting newcalligraphicwork.
Cecilia Lindqvist spotted uncountable errors in drafts of the manuscriptandcontributed many ideas on the teaching of characters. Without hergeneroushelp this book would not exist in its present form. IwouldalsoliketothankQingYangforprovidingthedrawingsforfigures18and19,JonasArnqvistforhisaidw iththewordprocessingandreviewofthe text, Jussi Karlgren for his usual enthusiasm and comments on style, andJohan “It-is-totally-unnecessary—to-practice-characters” Nilsson for innumerable opportunities to hone the pro-calligraphy arguments (and for his thorough language editing and help with the original layout), as well as Maartende Chateau, Magnus Fiskesjii, Kjell Fornander, Giiran Leijonhufvud, and LiCongjiaforreadingandcommentingonthematerial.DavidPankenierprovided many valuable suggestions, especially on the English technical terms. My warm thanks to Terry Wolkerstorfer for his thorough review of myEnglish. Finally, I would like to thank the professionals at Yale UniversityPress,especially my editor, Mary Pasti, whose painstaking and enthusiastic workhas made this wonderful English editionpossible.
Even though characters are one of the most fascinating aspects of theChineselanguage, most of us who study Chinese aren’t very good at writing them. Translators and scholars who know the language well sometimes have embarrassingly sloppy handwriting. It is a pity that the art of writing has been solittle stressed in the teaching of the language. Not only is writingbeautifulcharacters fun, but good handwriting is of much greater importance in learning Chinese than in learning a Western language. There are severalreasons
The characters may seem chaotic to the novice, but theirstructure is not at all haphazard. Over the millennia theyhavedeveloped from easily recognizable pictures of objects tohighlystylized symbols of script. In the course of this developmenttheyhave also been standardized to facilitate speed and comfortinwriting.Notonlymustthestrokesthatmakeupeachcharacter be written in a certain rigidly specified order; they must alsobewritten in a special way, which we will deal with in this book. The technique of writing is thus closely linked to the structureofthe characters. By focusing on good handwriting, learnersmorequickly acquire a feeling for the logic of the Chinesecharacters,making them easier to remember. Schoolteachers in Chinapaygreat attention to the subject of writing.
Most handwritten characters (in letters and on menus and shop
signs, for example) are written in cursive script, where thesepa —rate strokes are linked for quick writing. Such characters are much harder to read than the printed forms that beginners learn.Because they are shorthand versions derived from thesamerootsasthestandardforms,thewaytheyarewritteniscloselylinked to the way standard characters are written. In developingcorrecthandwriting,youwillgainanaturalfeelforthecharactersthatmakesthe measiertodecipher,evenwhentheyareinthecursivestyle.Actually,itisalmostimpossiblef orsomeonewholacksanadequatefoundationintheartofwritingtointerpret cursive characters. Foranyonewhowantstolearnhowtowritecursivescript,reasonable proficiency in standard characters is absolutely essential.
Calligraphy, the art of writing, is considered in China thenoblest of the fine arts. At a very early stage in history it becamean abstract and expressionist art form, where meaning is ofsecondary importance and aesthetic expression the primeconcern.Many Chinese hold that calligraphy prolongs the writers’lives,sharpens their senses, and enhances their general wellbeing.Bypracticing calligraphy you can achieve a glimpse intoChineseaesthetics and philosophy and learn to appreciate anabstract artform.
Therearetwoprincipalwaystolearncalligraphy.Youcanbegininthetraditional way, with a brush. This calls for long practice, infinite patience, and a good teacher. By practicing with a brush you emphasize the artisticratherthan the practical, for few modern Chinese use the brush in everydaylife.Good teachers of traditional calligraphy are a rare breed outsideChinesecommunities.
Your other option is to practice with a fountain pen. This has
manyadvantages.ThefountainpenisthewritingtoolusedinpresentdayChina,soyouhave a practical use for what you learn. The fountain pen is easier to usethanthe soft, pliable brush, so you can avoid spending time on technique andconcentrate on writing neat characters. The principles for writing with afountainpenholdequallywellforpencilandballpointpen,thoughitiseasiertoformpleas ing strokes with a fountain pen. Lastly, you can make do without ateacher. Fountain pens are readily available, and ordinary paper can beused.For brush calligraphy, special Chinese writing paper ispreferable. Many teachers of Chinese hold the misconception that in learning calligraphyit is necessary to start practicing with a brush. As a result, many schoolsgivemakeshift courses in brush calligraphy or, more commonly, offer hardly anyinstruction in the subject at all. In fact, fountain pen calligraphy isbecomingmore and more popular in the whole Chinese-speaking world; there aremanybooks offering model characters and aesthetic guidance, as well as regularexhibitions and competitions. Practicing with a pen is as good a way to learn the characters as practicing with a brush. What I address in this book, then, is fountain pen calligraphy, or“calligraphyof the hard pen.” To understand and appreciate characters requires somehistorical background and a simple analysis of the structure and aesthetics ofthescript. Much has been written on these subjects, and at the end of the book Ilistafewtitlesoffurtherinterest.Ontheotherhand,thereis,asfarasIknow, no introduction to writing characters with a pen that is designed foranon-Chinesespeaking audience. I hope this book will fill the gap. Themate-rial should be well suited for all learners of Chinese, from high school students and first-year undergraduates to old hands who would like toimprove their writing technique. Because the book presupposes nopreviousknowledgeofChinese,itshouldalsoattractanyonewithaninterestinthela nguage and culture ofChina. I hope that by following the suggestions made in this book you will be abletolearn Chinese characters more easily, deepen your appreciation of their beauty, and have as much fun practicing them as I have had.
Chinese characters constitute one of the oldest forms of writing in theworld.Archaeologists making excavations since the 1970s have discovered thatcharacters were already in use in the Stone Age, even though the symbolscanprobably not be considered script in the true sense of the word. When scholarsconsidertheearlyhistoryofthecharacters,theyoftenfocusontheShangdynasty (sixteenth—eleventh centuries B.C.) because of the rich historicalmaterial from theperiod.
Since the sixth century A.D., Old pieces of bone, called dragon bones,reputedly possessed of beneficial medical powers, have been sold inpharmaciesinnorthernChina.In1899aBeijingscientistnoticedthattheboneshadi nscriptions; and when the symbols were investigated, some could beinterpreted as ancient forms of modern Chinese characters. An example ofthewritingcanbeseeninfigure1.Theirplaceoforiginturnedouttobethere-mains of a Shang-dynasty capital, and its excavation some thirty yearsafterthe discovery yielded tens of thousands of the inscribed dragon bones. The bones are the remains of Shang soothsayers’ archives. The Shrugpeoplecollected turtle shells or shoulder blades from oxen, drilled shallow holesatcertainpoints,andstuckredhotbronzerodsintotheindentations.Theresulting cracks in the shells and bones were interpreted by the courtsooth-sayers. The prophecies were carved beside the cracks, and the boneswerefiledinvastarchivesinthecapital.Thecharactersonthebonesare calledoracle bone characters. Their uniformity and the wide vocabulary employed
suggest that even three thousand years ago they may already have had alonghistory. About one-third of the oracle bone characters in the archiveshavebeendeciphered. Thestructureoftheoraclebonecharactersshowsthattheyareforerunnersof modern Chinese script. The characters originated in a number of ways.
From the illustrations in figure 2, we see that somecharacters were originally pictures. On the left are the oraclebone characters and on the right their modern equivalents.The“primitive” characters on the left were one stage in a longprocessduring which the original pictographs became symbols of script. characters depicting abstract concepts. The interpretationofshang, xia, and bing in figure 3 is straightforward. Hao, good, isa picture of a woman holding a child. Characters.Whentheneed arose for a character whose meaning was difficult
toillustrate with simple pictures, the character was often created byborrowing an existing character with the same pronunciation. To this “pronunciation part” was added a“meaningmarker”inordertodistinguishthenewcharacter from the old one. Take, for example, the character cao,grazes. It consists of two parts: a phonetic, zao, whichmeans early but was merely borrowed to hint at the pronunciation ofthecharacter,andaradicalthatmeans plant.Thecharacterforrive r, he, is made from the water radical and a phoneticpronounced ké . If we used characters in English, we mightimaginethe character for “to read” being made up of a reed symbol and the
eye radical to indicate whichhomophone was intended. The borrowing took place long ago,andsometimes the phonetic is no longer pronounced in exactlythesame way as the character that it is part of. Here we have to acceptthatthepronunciationswereoncethesame.Over95per cent of all Chinese characters have been formed in thisfashion. Figure 4 illustrates two morecases.
Characters borrowed without adding a radical. When anewcharacter was needed, sometimes an old, even obsoletecharacterwas invested with the new meaning. The character l:ii, forexample,originallymeant?sbindo[wheatbutbecauseofits pronunciation it was borrowed as the character for the word tocome.Oracle bones are not our only clues to the origins of characters. Anothersource of knowledge is inscriptions on bronze vessels used for sacrifices andotherrituals.Despitetheabundantmaterial,however,theoriginsofmanychara ctersremainunclear.Onlyasmallnumberofcharactershavehadtheirheritage unequivocally elucidated.
In older times there was no standardized way of writing, and the samecharacter would appear in any number of variants. Later, charactersgraduallybecame more uniform. The changes were determined in part by newwritingmaterials and practical considerations (decreasingthenumber of strokes to make the characters easier to write), but also bydeter-mined efforts of the authorities.
WhentheemperorofQinunitedChinainthethirdcenturyB.c.,hestandardized the characters and created what is now called the see script.Anexample can be seen in figure 5. This script is a simplified form of the stylethat had been in common use earlier, which we call the great seal script.Thesmall seal script is still used in carving the stone seals with which the Chinese
The development of clerical script ran parallel with that of seal script.Clerical script was an even more simplified form of writing, employed at firstonlyfor unofficial business. Compare figures 5 and 6 to see the differencebetweenthe seal and clericalscripts.
Clerical script, too, has remained in use. Under the Ming and Qing dynastiesitwasoftenthevehicleoferoticliterature,andnowadaysitfunctionsasavaria tiononthestandardcharacters,muchaswemightuseGothictypeforthe Latin alphabet when we wish to be extra fancy. To write faster than is possible with clerical script, a highly simplifiedcursivescript was developed. In this style, which became known as caoshti, manyseparate strokes may be shortened into a single one, and whole parts of acharacter may be omitted. Strong personal variation makes it hard for the uninitiated to read, as is the case with English shorthand today. Caoshii is one ofthethreestylesusedbymodernChineseintheireverydaylife.Infigure7weseeaspecimen writtenbyWingXizhi, thegreatest Chinese calligrapher ofalltime. The two other styles commonly used in present-day China are kaishii andxingshii.Kaishfi,orstandardscript,showninfigure8,isthemostimportant.Itdevelope dinthesecondcenturyA.D.asamixtureofstandardizedcaoshii and clerical script. The major features of kaishfi are distinctness and legibility—every character has a definite form, and only minor variationsareallowed.Kaishuisthemodelfortheprinted charactersinbooks,magazines,and newspapers, and it is the style learned by Chinese schoolchildren. There-fore, it is the style that we will practice in thisbook. Xingshfi, like caoshii, is a sort of cursive script that is quicker to writethan kaishfi, but it is not as extremely personal as caoshii and is therefore easierto read. An example is given in figure 9. An adult Chinese usually writes inamixture of xingshii and caoshfi, much as those of us comfortable with aLatinalphabet usually write in cursive script rather than print capitals. Figure10compares a few characters written in kaishii , xingshii , and caoshii.
For nearly two thousand years kaishii has, without significantalterations,served as the standard Chinese script. To promote literacy and increase theefficiency of writing, the Chinese Communist regime undertook a script reformin 1956. A new set of simplified characters was set down as the standard forthe whole country. This reform was not acknowledged by the Nationalistre-gime on Taiwan, nor was it carried through in Hong Kong. At present twosetsofstandardcharactersareinuseworldwide.
Several principles were used in the simplification of the traditionalcharacters.These are illustrated in figure 11 in the righthand boxes. In certain cases, original antiquated forms were revived as the new standard . In othercasessimplifiedvariantsfromcaoshfiwereused,orseveralstrokesweremergedintoasingleone .Someti mes,simplesymbolsweresubstitutedfora complex part of a character of part of the character was simply deleted. Yet another method was to change the phonetic . The majority ofthe“new”charactersproducedbythereformhadalreadybeenunofficiallyused longbefore.
The simplified characters were much debated, and the controversiescontinueto this day. The simplified characters are quicker to write, but the simplificationshavemadecertaincharactershardtotellapart.Byredoingthecharacters,thereformer shavebrokendownpartofthelogicbehindtheirstructure.
In the People’s Republic of China shop and rest aurant signs andpublicationsaimed at overseas Chinese are often written in full characters, whereasalmostall books and newspapers are printed with simplified characters. OnTaiwanand especially in Hong Kong many of the simplified characters are usedininformal communications, but full characters are used in all printed matter. Singaporehastakenamiddleroadbyusingsimplifiedcharactersfornews—papers and certain books, but full characters still dominate the scene. Unfortunately,thismixedusemakesithardforpeoplewhoknowonlyonekindofcharactertogetby.Learningto writethefullcharacterstakestimeandapplication,butyoumustbeabletorecognizethem.Notallcharactershave beensimplified.Whentherearetwoformsofacharacter,Iuseboththefullandthe simplified forms for the examples and exercises in this book. Over the years many scholars and politicians have suggested that the Latinalphabet be substituted for the characters, but such a reform has never beentried. There are severalreasons. First of all, the characters are well suited to their purpose. The Chineselanguageispoorinsounds,andiftheLatinalphabetwereused,manywordswould be spelled the same way, making texts difficult to interpret. Second, the characters are an important unifying factor in a country withmany different and mutually incomprehensible spoken dialects. Peoplespeakdifferently but write thesame.
Third, Chinese characters are surprisingly practical to use in our modernworld.Theytakealotoftimetolearn,butoncemastered,theyhavemanyadvantages. The cursive script is a natural shorthand, which can be used totake notes at a baffling speed. The fax machine circumvents the earlierproblems with telexes and telegrams, and Chinese word-processing programsnowmake it possible to type Chinese more quickly than English. Some peoplebelieve that Chinese can be read faster than a language using phonetic script. Last but not least, the Chinese cherish characters as symbols of theircultureand would not willingly see them replaced by any other system of writing.As we have just seen, most characters are made up of a radical, which givesanapproximatemeaning,andaphonetic,whichindicatesthepronunciation.Whenworkingwit haChinesedictionary,weusetheradicaltolookupthecharacter. Even characters that were historically formed in other ways havebeen included in this system, making it possible to look them up as well.
We have to recognize the radicals to look up words. Some of the more common ones will be dealt with in a later chapter. Here is how you look up a character.
First you guess what part the radical is. This is usually easy. Then youcountthenumberofstrokesintheradicalandlookitupintheradicallistinthebeginning of the
dictionary. By the entry for the radical there is a reference towhere in the character list the characters with this particular radical canbefound. The characters in the character list are arranged according to radicalandnumberofstrokes.Countthenumberofstrokesintherestofthecharacter,notincludingtheradic al.Whenyouhavefoundthecharacterinthelist,anewreferencetellsyouonwhatpageinthedictionarythee ntryforthecharacter can befound.
Let us look at an example from a popular dictionary using simplifiedcharacters, A ChineseEnglish Dictionary . Wewillonceagaintakethecharactercaoasanexample.I
andweseethatthisradicalcontainsthreestrokes.Uponlookingintheradical list in the beginning of the dictionary for radicals written with threestrokes. We count the strokes in therestofthecharactercaoandlookundernumber50inthecharacterlist.Asex-pected, we find cao under “radical 50—six strokes.” By the entry we findareference to page 66, where we are informed that the character ispronouncedcao and can mean grass, careless, or ?s sort o[cursive Chinese scriptamongotherthings.Aftertheexplanationsofthecharacteritselfwefindcaocombinedwithotherchara cterstoformwords,suchascaomao,strawhat,andcaoshii, cursivewriting. What makes a Chinese character beautiful? Why do we say that onepersonwrites attractive characters and another ugly ones. Since early times,volumeafter volume has been written on the techniques and materials of writing,thehistorical development of characters, and, perhaps more than anythingelse,the aesthetics of calligraphy. I have divided this topic of aesthetics intotwoparts, for certain ideals can be appreciated only after learning the basicsofwriting.Butevenbeforeyoutakepeninhand,itisimportanttodiscusshowto approach the art of writing.
Let me once more point out, however, that the principal object of this bookisto teach you ordinary handwriting, rather than to turn you into an artist. Writing with speed and accuracy is more valuable a skill than makingprettycharacters. Fortunately, these two objectives tend to merge: the moreelegantly you form your characters, the faster you will eventually write.Whenyou have learned to appreciate the beauty of the characters, you will alsofindthem easier tomemorize.
Figures 12 to 16, along with some earlier examples, indicate the scopeandvariation of Chinese calligraphy. The elegant characters of EmperorHuiziingin figure 12 conjure up the image of reeds on the shoreline of a quietlake—the slender strokes bent by the night breeze rustle in the still twilight.Com-pare this refined atmosphere to the self-conscious, almost rebelliouscalligraphyinfigure13.Thecharactersintheupperrightarebouncingdownthepaper,possibl yontheirwaytothecocktailpartyatthebottomofthepage.
Despitesuperficialdifferencesinthecalligraphyofthetwoartists,theircharacters are alike in showing life and movement. The caoshfi of Wing Xizhi in figure 7 evokes the long sweeping sleeves of Chinese folk dancers,whereasOfiingXfinwritesamuchmoreserioushandinfigure8;hiskaishfichar
acters are as straight-backed and resolute as the guards at the emperor’spalace. The farmers outside, trudging down the street with their heavyburdens, can be found in figure 14. There is a firm, unyielding quality tothesecharacters, as if they were age-old trees, bowed and knotted but with theircorewoodasstrongandresilientasever.SirShi’scharactersinfigure15loom menacingly on the paper. They speak about the sudden coming of athunderstorm—he was clearly inspired by their meaning when he wrote
Thesedescriptionsmayseemoverpoetic,butChinesemastersthemselvesdescribe their calligraphy this way. The characters are compared to natural phe nomena—to
trees and cliffs, to waterfalls and storm clouds—to the traits
and emotions of human beings, to expressive images that elicit the interestof,andofferinspirationto,theviewer.Charactersaredescribedashavinganal mo
st musical rhythm, sometimes slow and gentle, sometimes swift and fullofenergy. As an abstract art form, calligraphy leaves plenty of room for theviewer’simagination. It is not the likeness to natural objects that matters but ratherthe feeling of life that permeates the characters. That the characters mustbealive is the key to the aesthetics of calligraphy. A Chinese author oncewrotethis about the spirit of calligraphy: “Every line must be animated; everycharacter must seek the movement of life.” Certainly, there is this movement inthe calligraphy illustrated here. Kaishii, standard characters, are oftencalledthe standing style, xingshii the wall ing style, and caoshu the runningstyle—again, movement isemphasized.
A character that has been well executed is in harmony, regardless of whetherit is standing still or seems to be going somewhere. It is not about to collapse,it is not stumbling or falling over, but lives its life in equilibrium on thepaper.The Chinese dislike rigid symmetry. Instead, the ideal is refined balance,givingtheimpressionthatthecharacterhasbeenmomentarilyfrozeninthem idst ofmovement. Not only have the calligraphers compared their works to nature or to otherart forms?they have also sought inspiration there. A famous poem tells how
Zhang Xfi, a master of calligraphy known for his calligraphy, saw thefamousdancer Gongsfin do the sword dance: Brilliant as Yi, the greatarcher,
Shooting the nine suns out of thesky,
Fierce as the onslaught of spirits and dragons
Wheeling through theheavens, She began like a thunderbolt, venting anger, Then ended with the glittering calm of rivers and seas.
According to the poet Dfi Fit, Zhang Xii consummated his caoshfi afterseeing this heavenly performance, being particularly inspired if he haddrunk“three glasses of wine”—as Dir Ffi reported—prior to picking up thebrush.A specimen of Zhang’s writing can be seen in figure 16. Havinglookedatthehistoryandaestheticsofcharacters,itishightimetostart writing. Let’s begin by discussing how to practice and then talkabouthow to form characters that are pleasing to the eye.
Useafountainpenwitharoundtip.Thespecialpensforcalligraphythatareavailable in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere usually have flat tipsand are therefore not suitable for writing Chinese characters. The best pensare the ones whose shaft covers nearly the entire tip, giving it firm support. This is the kind of fountain pen most common in China, and you should be able to find one in a good stationery store in your neighborhoodaswell.Chinesecarboninkistheidealchoiceifyoucanfindit.Shanghai brand is the best. The ink is a deeper black than most inks used outside China, in keeping with the Chinese calligraphic tradition of“blackcharacters on white paper.” The high contrast makes it easy to spoterrors.Also, it is almost waterproof after it dries. If you cannot find carbon ink,useany blackink. Thepapershouldbecrosshatchedormarkedoffinsquares,witheachsquarebig enough to contain a whole character. Squares makes it easier for thebeginner to produce characters of uniform size. The paper should be glossy enoughthattheinkdrieswithsharpedgesanddoesnotrun.Neverputthepaper directly on a hard table when writing —satisfactory strokes areextremelydifficulttoproduce.Instead,putfifteentotwentylayersofsoftpaper (ideally the tissuelike paper used for wiping camera lenses) under the sheetyou are writingon. The first thing to do with any new character is to carefully memorize thestroke order. Simple rules govern the order in which the strokes that make upa character must be written. We will wait a little before learning theserules,for they require that we know the basic strokes. Still, it is very importantto writewiththecorrectstrokeorder,sopaycarefulattentiontotheorderin whatfollows.
The tried and true method for practicing writing is to copy the charactersofan accomplished calligrapher. While you are unsure of your technique,youmay want to put a thin, transparent sheet of paper over the characters youare copying and trace them with your pen. Once you understand therudiments, you should copy by first examining the model and then writingyourcharacterinexactlythesameway.Youshouldnotlookatonestrokeatat ime, write it, consider the next stroke, write it, and so on. Instead, youshould look at the whole character, analyze its structure, turn your headaway, and not look at the model character again until you have written all the strokes. When you have completed your character, you should
compareitwiththemodel,findoutwhatmistakesyoumade,andtryagain.Thisistheo nlywaytofixthepictureofthecharacterfirmlyinyourmindandmakerapidprogress. The principle behind this method of practicing has its roots deep in theChinese aesthetic tradition. Chinese artists are expected to see the wholepaintingwith their inner eye before beginning to work; then they simply paint whatthey see. This approach is called having a bamboo completed in yourchest.Chinese watercolors and calligraphic works are often executed in a veryshorttime—the creative work is done before the artist touches the brush.
Itistabootogobackandalteracharacterwhilewriting.Ifastrokefails,be—gin the whole character overagain. Practice only three or four different characters a day, at least to beginwith. Otherwise,youdonothavetimetolearnthemthoroughlyenough,andyougrow too tired to analyze what you are doing right and what you aredoingwrong. You learn the characters in a sloppy way and do not reallyimproveyourwriting. Write each character at least a hundred times. Save everything you write and date the papers. Just as with all learning,therewill be times when you do not feel as though you are making any progress. Itcanbehearteningtolookatthecharactersthatyouwroteamonthortwoearlier. You will be surprised at the difference. Sitcorrectlyatadeskortablethatisnottoohigh.Youshouldbeabletorestyourarmscomfortab lyonthetabletop.Putthepaperstraightinfrontofyouanddonotslantittoomuch.Manylearner sslantthepaperandbendoverwhenwriting.Don’tdoeitherwhenyouwriteinChinese.Holdt hepenbe-tween thumb and forefinger, letting it rest gently on your curved middlefinger.Thetipofthepenshouldpointforwardonthepaperandshould form a fortyfive-degree angle with it. Sit back in the chair so thechairback supports your lower back as much as possible. Be as upright aspossible without tensing your back and shoulders. You should sit thisway when writing in English as well.
Trytopracticeonadailybasis.Itismuchbettertopracticeforfifteenminuteseverydaytha nnottopracticeforawhileandthensuddenlysitforhours on end at the writing table.Attheendofthisbooktherearemodelsforahundredorsoofthemostcommonch aracters.Lateryoumaychoosemodelsthatyouthinklookgood.Copyingcharacters writtenwithabrushisfine,butyoumustcatchthespiritof the characters rather than copying them directly, for a fountain pencannever reproduce the thick strokes of a writing brush.
Thestandardcharactersaremadeupofindividualstrokesarrangedinacertainway.The formofeachstrokeisveryimportantfortheformofthewholecharacter. It is therefore necessary to learn proper basic strokes to writeacceptable characters. Once you have spent some time practicing thebasicstrokes, you will have done half the job of acquiring a good Chinese hand. Those little twists and turns may seem insignificant, but they have not beenput there on a whim. Rest assured that over the past few millennia,Chinesecalligraphers have developed a method of writing that is practical, quick,andelegant. Traditionally, calligraphers have recognized eight basic strokes for thecharacters. These are the strokes appearing in the character .
Below I present the eight basic strokes and give examples of ways they canbeexecuted.Theorderinwhichtheyappearisnotthetraditionalone —Ihavechosen to present them in a way that I hope will make them easier for theforeigner to learn. In addition, there are practice characters illustratingeachstroke. I suggest that you practice one or two strokes at a time and write a few hundred a day. Do not start a new stroke until you feel comfortablewiththeoneyouareworkingon.Ifyoupracticehalfanhouraday,youshou ldfeel reasonably satisfied with your basic strokes in two to three weeks. The first stroke is called hé ng, or horizontal, and looks likethis. Ifyoulookatitcarefully,youwillnoticethatitisnotasimplestraightline.It is not quite horizontal but slants slightly upward, and it is bent withoutlooking crooked, like a flexible twig or a bone.
Towritethestroke,setyourpendownattheleftwithacertainforce.Thenmove it slightly downward and to the right. This gives you the little ingressatthe left—the welldefined start, separate from the rest of the stroke, likethetensing of muscles before a jump. Execute the stroke itself more quickly,andfinish by again pressing more firmly and moving the pen slightly down andtothe right. It will feel very awkward to write so carefully, but your speedwillsoon increase.
Hé ngisratherhardtowrite.Ifyoufeelfrustrated,trythenextstrokeforawhile and then return to hé ng.
The second stroke is called shu, meaning vertical, and comes in two variants, dropping dew and suspendedneedle. When writing, you begin these two variants in the same way. Put the pendown with a certain force, move it slightly downward and to the right, andthen write the stroke itself with a somewhat quicker movement, exertingonlymoderate pressure on the pen. Whereas the hé ng stroke slants gentlyupwardrather than being perfectly horizontal, shii should be absolutely vertical.Youfinishdroppingbymovingthepenwithaconstantpressuretotheendofthe stroke and calmly lifting it from the paper. At the very end, you mayevenmove the pen backward for half a millimeter or so. This gives the feelingthatthe stroke has been executed with careful control and not just tossed down.
To finish the suspended needle, start slowly decreasing the pressureabouttwo—thirds of the way down the stroke, and continue decreasing it untilthepen leaves thepaper.
Droppingdevisusedwhentheshitstrokemeetsanotherstrokeatthetoporbottom, and the suspended needle ’is used when shit passes through thewholecharacter like a skewer. This is evident in the followingexercises.
The third basic stroke is called pié and functions as a “left leg” in manycharacters. It should look like the tusk of an elephant. Piéis comparatively easy to write well. The ingress is about the same asfor shu, but you must avoid the mistake of curving the stroke too much. The fourth basic stroke is called na. It is rather hard to write. If pié is theleftleg, then na is the right leg:Notehownaconveystheimpressionofalegwithafootattheendandhowthis leg stabilizes thecharacter. To write na, you should feel in the beginning as if you are striving upwardandtotheright,eventhoughthestrokeslopesdownwardthewholetime.Atthe start of the “foot,” press a little harder with the pen and at the same timechange direction to achieve a clear but gentle “joint” in thestroke. Tiao must be carefully differentiated from pié , which has a similar shapebutis writtenintheoppositedirection.Tiaoisavariantofhé ng,soitiswritten from left toright.
The sixth basic stroke is dian, the dot. Although making a dot may soundeasy, this stroke is one of the hardest to master. It is crucial to the harmonyofthewholecharacter.Thedotcanbewritteninanumberofways,butthreebasic types can be distinguished. The first looks like a short tiao.
Dotsoftenoccuringroups,andeachdotinthegroupshouldbeunique,sothat the whole does not look dull and repetitive. A few exercises follow.
The seventh basic stroke is guru, the hook. Gtiu comes in four variants.Thefirst begins like a shit, but you finish it by moving the pen slightly downward
andtotheleft,afterwhichyouliftitfromthepaperwhilemovingitdiagonally upward to the left. The stroke thus acquires a little “heel” to stand on.
The second, called the reclining hook, should be softly and evenly bent.Youfinishitbymovingthepenbackward,towardthecenterofthecharacter. The third hook is a more upright form of the reclining hook.
Finally, there is a very common hook that begins as a hé ng and is endedbymoving the pen downward to the right and then backward and to the left:
Avoid the followingmistakes. Fish hooli.. The shh, or vertical, part is bent and has fusedwiththeheel.
Triangle.Theheelismissing.The tip slants outward; the character will lose its energy andcoherence.
This stroke is toocurved. The turn is too pronounced and looks as though it is composedofseveral short segments rather than a single stroke. The last stroke to learn is the bend, zhé . It occurs in two variants, bothofwhich are often used to frame characters:Note that each corner is made with a singlestroke.Avoid the followingmistakes.: The bend is too round andindistinct. The bend seems to have several distinct segments; it looksbrokenand lacks strength.
Youmayhavenoticedthatsomestrokesthatappeartohavetwoseparateparts count as a single stroke. These composite strokes can be seen ascombinationsoftheeightbasicstrokes,anditisnotreallynecessarytopracticethem separately. I include them here as an orientation.One of the most common composite strokes is the hé ngzhéwangfiu. Itiseasytoseewhythis strokeisalsocalledthegooseloom.Itisused, for example, in the character jiii,nine.
As the name indicates, this stroke comprises a shii and a tiao,
It appears, for example, in the character min, people.
Another very common composite stroke is pié zhé :It is the first stroke in the character nu , women. Thisstrokeis used, for example, in the character ji, to reach, to attain.
is the larger part of the simplified form of the very common radical meaning word, here in the character shun, tospeak. Thereisonlyonemorethingtoconsiderbeforewecanwritefreely:strokeorder.Samplecharact ersaregiventoillustratetheeightrulestofollow.Ifyoupracticethecharacters,youwillsoonlear ntherulesintuitivelyandnothavetothinkaboutthemasyouwrite.Below,onlysimplifiedchara ctersareusedas examples of therules. Hé ng comes before shit; that is, horizontal strokes come before verticalones.
When a hé ng forms the bottom of a character, it is written last.
Piécomes before na; that is, a left leg comes before a rightone. Characters are written from top tobottom. Characters are written from left to right. If the character is framed from above, the frame is written first. If the character is framed from below, the frame is written last. In symmetrical characters the middle is written first, then the sides.
These rules do not unequivocally cover all situations. When no rule seemsapplicable,youmustsimplylearnthestrokeorderbyheart.Ifyouareconscientious
about this from the start, you will quickly develop a feelingforwhatiscorrect.Sometimestheofficialstrokeorderischangedbycalligra pher s to make the character easier to write. Such changes in stroke orderarenot made lightly. They are indeed very rare and are most often based onstrokeordersfromotherstylesthankaishfi.
This is the official stroke order, but if you write it this way, the componentsareveryhardtobalancewell.Ifyouwriteitwiththecaoshustrokeorder,h
owever, the composition becomes mqu h moreharmonious:Another example is fang, place, location, which can be written in t.hefollowing two ways. The first way is the official way, but the second way makesiteasier to produce a well-balancedcharacter.
In the first chapter on aesthetics we discussed the characters from ageneralartistic perspective and learned to see them in the “right” way. Here wewillconcentrate on how to write good-lookingcharacters.There are a number of handy guidelines to arranging the parts of a characterinthemostappealingway.Byandlarge,theyhavebeenvalidfortwothousandyears,buttheywereformulatedmostclearlybythefifteenth-centurycalligrapher Li Chfin. We will look at a modern analysis of some of hisbasicprinciples ofcomposition. In many characters there is a key stroke on which the whole structuredepends.Thisstrokemustbeexecutedtogiveavigorousandharmoniousimpres sion. In zhi, to arrive, to attain, the bottom hé ng stroke carries theweight of the whole character and must therefore be firm andstable: The long hook in the middle of xin, heart, sweeps out to make thecharactercohere. If the hook is badly written, the other strokes look like lost cottonwads tossed by thewind.
This is also true in shé ng, flowering flourishing, where the otherstrokesseem to lean on the long eleganthook.
The upper right part of dao, path; way, rests on the long na stroke at the bottom.In qing, clear, the three dots —depicting water droplets —tie the charactertogether. Note how the uppermost dot strives inward and down while the bottom one strivesupwards.When the key stroke forms the center of the character, as the shit stroke
does in zhting, middle; China it becomes especially clear. The strokemuststand absolutely straight to give the character balance.
Chinese characters are basically square. The sample characters in theearlierpartsofthebookhaveallbeenwritteninredsquares,andthisishowtheyare traditionally presented in order to make them easy to analyze andcopy.Some characters are tall and skinny, others are broad and squashed, but asfar as possible characters are made to conform to a square pattern. Toachieve this, the various parts of the character are written in differentways,depending on where they appear in the whole.
Look, for example, at the character ché , wagon, cart. When chéstands on its own as a character, it is given ample spacehorizontallytofillitssquare,butwhenitplaystheroleoftheradicalinthecharacterl iang,vehicle,itiselongatedtomakeroomfortherighthandpartofthecharacter.
Thebottomhé ngstrokehasbeenshortenedandiswrittenasatiaostroketo avoid poking the right part in the ribs. Another example of how the parts adapt to fit the whole is the character lin, forest.Lin is composed of two trees in’u .
If both trees were written in the same way, the strokes would cross inthemiddle.
This looks messy and would make the character harder to read.Therefore, the na stroke forming the right leg of the first tree has been changedintodian,adot,tomakeroomforthesecondtree.Forsimilarreasons,pié and na are written as dots in many other characters, too.
When you write, the imagined squares around the characters shouldalwaysbe the same size, regardless of how many strokes the character contains. Complex characters must be written with small, light strokes in order notto become swollen andclumsy.Characters that have a frame often create a massive impression and mustbewritten smaller than others in order not to seem too large.
The character lin, forestalso illustrates another important principle: avoidstiff symmetry and lifeless repetition. If the same element occurs several timesinonecharacter,youshouldtrytomakeeachoccurrencedifferentfromtheothers. Other clear examples are characters in which several hé ng strokesare stacked.
Note how the horizontal strokes are written with different lengths, so thatthe whole is harmonious without being rigid and boring. The topmosthé ngseems to strive upward, the bottommost downward.
Manycharacterscanbeseenashavingaleft-rightstructure,aleft—middlerightstructure,atop-bottomstructure,oratop—middle-bottomstructure,depending on the elements of which they are composed. By dividing charactersinto these groups, we can find some general rules that will help us distributethe parts of each character harmoniously within the square in which it iswritten. We have already seen how the two trees in lin have to accommodate each other to produce a forest. The world of the characters is, however, notequal.Certain elements that appear in characters always yield to others. We
mightsaythattheyareintrinsicallysmall.Thefollowingareallexamplesofsuchelement sMostofthemareradicals,andtheirmeaningsaredealtwithinthechapteraboutradic als. Howtotreatthesesmallpiecesinthecompositionofacharactercanbesummarizedthus:Ift hesmallpartisontheleft,itshouldstriveupward? ifitisonthe right, it should strive downward. The following characters illustrate the first part of thisrule. If the small elements on the lefthand side were placed farther down inthecharacter, the result would be clumsy. Thesecondpartoftherulecanbeillustratedwiththecharacterszhiandhong.The counterexamples show what happens when the small parts on theright-hand side are placed too high up in the character.Just as there are intrinsically small elements, there are intrinsically longones.These include thefollowing:Whentheseappearincharacterswithaleftrightstructure,theymustalwaysbe given ample room to stretchout. To fit into the square pattern, the elements of broad, three-part charactersmust be as elongated as possible. Intrinsically long elements are easy toplace,and if they appear in the middle they are usually made to be the longest partofthecharacter.Smallpartscanbehardertofitin.Whenthesmallpartisonone side of the character, the general rule still applies —small parts on theleftstrive upward; small parts on the right strive downward. When a small part isin the middle, it usually strives upward aswell. In characters that contain top and bottom parts, and especially in thosethatcontain three parts —top, middle, and bottom —the parts must be flattenedto give the character as compact a look as possible. A good example is thecharacterxi. If the individual parts are too elongated, the character becomesridiculously
tall. We have dealt with characters that are written with a frame around them.Many characters are only partially framed, however, and they can bedividedinto four subgroups: those framed from the left, those framed from theright,those framed from above, and those framed from below. The mostusefulgeneralrulesareforcharactersframedfromtherightorfromabove.Incharact ersframedfromtheright,thecontentsshouldsnuggleuptotheupperrighthand corner of the frame.
In characters framed from above, the contents should strive upward,leavingan empty space in the lower part of the frame. Let us finish by looking at some particularly interesting characters in detail.Afew are hard to master, so we will pay special attention to them. As we have seen, sometimes the strokes keep a character together and focus its energy inward. Consider the grammatical particle é r. You can see howtheshh stroke on the left and the hook on the right strive toward the center. If this feeling is lost, the results arecatastrophic. The character yé , loo, is very hard to write well. Because yéis very common, you should invest some time in mastering it.First,notehowslantedthelonghé ngpartoftheupperhookis;thetypesetcharacterhasahorizon
talhé ng,butifitishandwrittenthatway,thecharacter looks awkward. Second,thethreeshustrokesshouldbeevenlyspacedtoavoidthefollowinguglyresult. The characters bfi, no, and wfi, prohibited, don’t, teeter on a thin, pointedbaseandthereforeneedtohaveapoisedandelegantupperparttohelpthemretai n theirbalance.Thefewerstrokesacharactercontains,theharderitistowrite.Thisgeneralob servation applies to rii, to enter, to go in, and rén, can, fium?zn, bothofwhich depend on the fresh vigor of the na, the right leg:The character mfi, mother, is written with a somewhat unusual strokeorder.Note how the framework slants. If the character is written with straightangles,itloseslife.Finally, let us look at the
character nu , woman. The long hé ng strokemustrestfirmlyonthetwocrossedlegs,andthesh6,orvertical,partofthefirststro ke should determine the central axis of the character.Well executed, this is an
elegant character, but it needs to be only slightlyoffbalancetoloseitsbeauty.Itillustrateshowdependentcharactersareonthein terplay and fine-tuned equilibrium of the various strokes andthereforemakes a good ending to our discussion of the aesthetics of the characters.
Inthehistorychapterwesawthatcharactersarecomposedofaradicalandaphonetic and that this is the basis for how they are classified indictionaries.Some radicals occur very frequently and are well worth a more carefullook.Dictionaries use over two hundred different radicals. Below I willpresentthirty-odd of the most common ones and give examples of characters inwhich they appear. You should practice the characters until you mastertheradicals.Forcertainradicalsthattendtobehardtowrite,Ihaveaddeddetailed instructions on how to overcome the problems.
The name of each radical is given in English and Chinese. You need not learntheChinesenamesimmediately,butthelistwillbehandytorefertowhenyou do want to memorize them. Whereas the Chinese names usually havelittle or nothing to do with the history and development of the characters, theEnglish names are moreinformative. For radicals that can be used independently as characters, I have includedthepronunciation and meaning of the independent form. Sometimes the usage is a result of the simplification reform and is unrelated to the history ofthecharacter. Where the history of the radical is well known and can serve asamnemonic aid to learning the characters, I touch on itbriefly.This radical originally depicted a cliff where people could live, a referenceto the cavelike dwellings made in cliffs in some areas of China. The radical isoften used in characters for rooms or buildings.
When the whole character contains many strokes, especially when thesearepié andnastrokes,theroofradicalmustbemaderathersmall.Thisis, forexample, the key to writing the characters jia and an in an aesthetic way. Compare the examples below to zi and w:in above.
This radical originally depicted a side view of a house with no frontwall.
Thisradicalhastwoentriesindictionaries,oneforwhenitappearsontheleftofthechar acterandoneforwhenitappearsontheright.Thetwocases have different historical origins. The left ear radical was originally thecharacter fii. Thischaracterisstillinuseandmeanshighplace,mound.Therightearradical is a simplified form of the character yr, meaning place wherepeople gather,city. Thetwofollowingcharactersillustratetheuseofbothleftandrightearradicals.Not ethattheshitstrokeofthelefteariswrittenasadroppingdewstroke, whereas in the right ear a long suspended needle stroke is used initsplace. The character xin, heart, depends on the long hook to hold it together.Thethree dots, in contrast, should strive outward, lifting the character and lending it volume, to give the impression of a sail filled by the wind. Whentheheartappearsasaradical,itmustbeflattenedtomakeroomfortheelementsabo veit,butthedotsshouldnotbesqueezedin.Iftheydonotstriveoutwardand upward, the whole character will have a deflated appearance. This radical is very difficult to execute correctly. It contains three strokes.You should begin by writing the di3n, or dot. The short hé ng should
beconnectedtoazhé endinginasoftlycurveddownwardstroke.Thefinalnastroke should give the impression of a soft hill on which the rest of thecharacter canlean. By all means avoid the common error of breaking the curveddownwardstroke of thezhé .
The zigzag pattern makes the character ugly and lowers your writing speed.
dao, path;way.This element is called the king radical in Chinese, and it looks like thecharacter for King when it appears as a radical: The character for Jade is written by adding a dot—a jade ornament—totheking, likethis:When Jade appears as a radical, the dot is eliminated, but the radicalappears inmanycharactersthatdenotevaluableorbeautifulthings,revealingitstrue heritage.
Like the jade radical above, the meat radical looks like something other thanitis—inthiscase,yué .moon. It is therefore called the moon radical in Chinese. Actually, it is usuallyashortened form of rou,meat: It appears in many characters that have to do with the body.
Cowrie shells were used as money in ancient China, so this radical appearsin many characters that denote valuable things or that have to do withtradeandbusiness. Itiseasytomixthisradicalupwiththenextradical,theclothingradical,fortheydifferb yonlyonedot.Butifyoucomparethecharactersfromwhichthey are derived, shi, to show, and yi, clothing, any confusion will vanish.
The nonnative student of Chinese needs to master the most commoncharacters first. Below I list a hundred or so common Chinese characters thathavenot been mentioned earlier. They were chosen mainly for their frequencyofoccurrence in everyday language; the most frequent are listed first. Bothfulland simplified variants have been included. Those common charactersthat have appeared as examples in the text are not repeated here.
The traditional way of practicing calligraphy has always been to copyclassical poems. It is important to sometimes write whole texts, for charactersarenot only entities in themselves but parts of a whole; each must harmonizewith the rest on a page of text. When you write kaishii, all characters shouldbe uniform in size, and the hé ng strokes of different characters should haveasimilar slant and curvature. Before moving on to the exercises, let uspracticecharacters in context. Later you will undoubtedly want to copy poemsandscrolls on your own to perfect your handwriting in Chinese. The T:ing-dynasty poem presented here is meant as a traditional exercise.Bywriting it, you can practice calligraphy and, as a bonus, glimpse the poetry of this golden age. The poem was composed by Li Bai, perhaps the mostfamouspoetofthetime.Liwasbornin699anddiedin762.Itissaidthathewas very lazy as a child. One day, however, while out walking he met anoldwomansittingbytheroad.Shewasholdingathickironrodonwhichsheworke d with a file. When young Li asked what she was doing, sheanswered,“I am making a sewing needle.” After that day Li B:ii became moreindustrious in hisschoolwork.
I have chosen his poem Jing yé si because it contains only rathercommoncharacters.Itappearswithsimplified charactersinfigure18andwithfullcharacters in figure 19. The place, date, and signature of the calligrapher are usually written to theleft of the poem. The signature is followed by the character shfi, which in classical Chinese means to write, and by the seal of the calligrapher. Sometimes the title or original author of the poem are also added here. Making attractiveframesliketheones in the figures, writing the characters, and signingyourworksinthetraditionalwaycanbefunandrewarding;itisnot hard to make frames if you have a ruler and a pen that draws lines of even
Herearethestrokesforthosecharactersinthepoemthathavenotappearedearlier in thebook.
Remember that, in a Chinese sentence, place words like on and in come after that which they locate; thus, for example, “ground uponfrost”. The poem then becomes easy to understand. Still nightthought bed front bright moon light [one might] think is ground uponfrostraise head regard bright moon lower head think old home A smoother translation might go like this: A Thought on a StillNight Before my bed the brightmoonlightLooks like frost upon the ground. I raise my head to watch the moon,Then lower my head and think of home.
Shouldyouwanttodelvefurtherintothesubjectsdiscussedinthisbook,youwill find food for thought in the books listedhere.
Amodernclassic on the historical development of the characters,translated from the Swedish original, which was published in 1989. Athorough discussion of the history of calligraphy
within-depth portraits of some of the great masters. The author also dealswith aesthetics and appreciation of calligraphy, but gives littlepractical guidance on writing and does not analyzeindividual characters.
Chinese Calligraphy by Lucy Driscoll and Kenji Toda. Abrilliantexposition of calligraphy as an art form. Chinese Calligraphy: An Introduction to Its AestheticandTechnique by Chiang Yee. A comprehensive andfrequentlyamusing introduction to the history, aesthetics, and practice ofcalligraphy, written by an old-fashioned Chinese scholar. Theexamples tend to include very obscure characters.
A multitude of books and character patterns are available in largerChinesebookshops. The editions are quickly sold out, making it pointless to giveanyparticular titles. Have a look at what is currently on the shelves.
The consonants f, h, m, n, rig, r, s, and sh are pronounced as in English. Thech in the English word cheeli. sounds like a t followed by a soft s6-likesound;the Chinese x is pronounced like this soft sh. The consonant I is similar to an upper-class British one— “Anabsolutelysplendid party, my dear chap!”—as opposed to a cockney / or a thickAmerican Midwesternone. A number of Chinese sounds form unaspirated-aspirated pairs. We sayasound is aspirated when it is accompanied by a puff of air, like the English Iin town. Say the word holding the palm of your hand close to yourmouth—you should feel the i coming out. The unaspirated form of I is d —’if yousaydown you can’t feel the d against your palm. In English d is voiced— thevocalcordsvibratewhenyousayit— sodandtdifferbybothvoicingandaspiration. In Chinese d is unvoiced, just like the t, so the only differencebe-tween d and t is the aspiration.
The letter a is usually pronounced like the u in Jan; ian, however, ispronounced likeyen.The letter e is usually pronounced like the ea in learn; however, in thecombinations ei and ie it is pronounced like the English a in hey. Theletteriispronouncedinthreedifferentways:afterr,sh,zh,andchitsounds like an r, so shi is pronounced like sir, ri like rr, and so on. After s,z,and c it is pronounced like the z sound in buzz; si sounds like szz, zi like dzz,andcilikefzz.Inallothercasesiispronouncedliketheeins6e. The letter o is usually pronounced like aw in saw; ’in ong, however, it ispronounced like oo in soon. TheletteriiispronouncedliketheyatthebeginningofEnglishwords.Thewordyou,forexam ple,ismadeupofashort,softysoundfollowedbyanoo: yoo. The Chinese ii sounds like thisy.
The letter u is usually pronounced like oo in soon; after j, q, x, and y,however, it is pronounced likeii. The diphthong ou is pronounced like o ingo.
The Chinese y is silent and is used in pinyin for historical reasons. Thus,forexample,yiispronouncedlikealonei,oree,andyuispronouncedlikeii.Simil arly,theu—soundisspelledwwhenitoccursinaninitialposition? forexample, wu is pronouncedoo.
The first tone is level, like the tone of the second syllableoftadaa! Someone whisking the drape off a new paintingor announcing, with a flourish, the opening of a schoolplaymight saytadaa!
The second tone is rising, like the tone of a surprised question: What?
The third tone goes down and then up, just like the irritatedand somewhat exaggerated tone used on so in thefollowingcontext:“Youhaven’tgivenmeanyreasontodo it.”“So?Doitanyway.”
The fourth tone is a falling tone that sounds like the toneon Rev in
All characters used as examples and exercises in the text and for whichastroke order has been included are listedbelow.