Calligraphy: Eastern and Western

Calligraphy: from Greek κάλλος kallos “Beauty” + γραφή graphẽ “Writing”

Caligrafia: Spanish (similar meaning to English version)

Shodo: Japanese しょ、書 sho-Writing, どう,道 do(pronounced doe)-“Way”

Shufu: Chinese 書 “Writing”、法 “Law”・”Rules”

Seoye: Korean 서 「書」Seo “Writing”, 예 「藝」 Ye “Craft/Skill/Technique”

Think of the most beautiful thing you have ever seen. Got it? Good. Now think of one of the most ordinary things on the planet earth: handwriting. Don’t just think about any handwriting though, think of your own. Now superimpose the beauty of the first thing onto your handwriting and what do you end up with? A sunrise. A quiet morning. A rainbow. A smile. What I mean is that you get a writing system that impresses the masses regardless of the content. You don’t need to know who is smiling or over what country the sun is rising to feel joyous. We experience joy simply in knowing that someone is smiling or that the sun is rising. Similarly calligraphy, if it can be separated from its inseparable relationship with the host language, is a language on its own. A universal language that resonates most strongly with art and speaks to the masses much more than the words it makes up.

What is most interesting is the universality of calligraphy. No mater where in the world and no matter what period, there is a system of writing that is considered more beautiful or more correct. For thousands of years the Chinese have developed these rules of correctness into laws governing the writing system. Elsewhere the literate scribes were the sole keepers of language and each had to adhere to strict rules regarding copying. Notably of these are the many glorious and awe-inspiring illuminated texts of the Middle Ages, the work of skilled and dedicated hands. In India too there exist beautiful styles of calligraphic text. Muslim nations will often use calligraphic text for decoration on mosques or tapestries. Around the world and over time beautiful, albeit difficult and painstaking, styles of writing sprang up alongside the development of the society to which they were (and still are) tied.

It is a common denominator, to put it in mathematical terms, that connects all languages. This blog aims to explore ways in which the languages of English, Spanish, Japanese, and Korean are tied together (or split apart) and writing style is one of those ways. On a basic level, these languages have a written form. Check. Within each language though, is there a specific style which is considered most proper or most beautiful? (I realize that the latter term is subjective) To answer this question let’s look very briefly at some possible candidates:

  1. ENGLISH

An important consideration to make right away is that there are dozens of countries that use English as the official language so there are sure to be dozens of styles of writing styles, each specific to that country, which are most proper of beautiful. For today let us only consider English in America. American calligraphy is said to have reached its heyday in the mid 1800s and lasted until the early 1900s. This period, also known to many as the “Golden Age” of American penmanship saw the birth of several schools of thought concerning the most beautiful, correct, or applicable style of penmanship. (the difference between penmanship and calligraphy is one that is still a little vague to me) Notable are the names Daniel T. Ames, Mary L. Champion, Louis Madarasz, A.N. Palmer, and–perhaps most notably–the Spencer brothers. Of all the forms that were developed during that period, it is widely agreed that the Spencerian script is to American penmanship as waves are to the ocean: they are one and the same. In fact, “the Coca-Cola logo was first published in the late 19th century and contains only characters from the Spencerian scrip, therefore it is not under copyright”. ~And what could be more American than Coca-Cola?~ For information on the pens used for English calligraphy, click here.

  1. SPANISH
    Letra Española

    Letra Española

    My first intuition was to assume that there would be no difference between what is considered proper and beautiful writing style in English and proper and beautiful writing style in Spanish. After all, both languages use Roman characters. My findings are that there don’t seem to be many specifically Spanish writing styles (at least none to the degree that the Spencerian is to American English) but there are many examples of notable Spanish–and Hispanic–penmen throughout the ages.  Some more notable names are Pedro Diaz Morante, Juan de Icíar, Iturzaeta, and Alverá. If one was to consider a style strictly of Spain then perhaps consider giving this blog a more in depth look (note that it is in Español)  or for the really avid reader, this website (Arte de la Escritura) is fantastically detailed in its account of Spanish calligraphy with several comparisons to English, French, and Italian calligraphy.  Finally, if time permitted then I would like to get my hand on this book.

  2. CHINESE

The interesting thing about the Chinese calligraphy is that it was not considered so much an art as it was an adherence to a very strict set of rules. Rules or the order that governed the way a Chinese character was to be written were regarded as highly as the beauty and elegance of American English script was regarded in the mid-to-late 1800s.  People interested a bit more in the history of Chinese writing and some of the notable calligraphers of China then allow me to suggest these websites: Asia Art (for history and notable persons), Chinavoc (for history), or Rice Paper (overview of several writing techniques).

  1. JAPANESE

Being a derivative of the Chinese language and culture, Japanese adopted many of the same rules regarding the written form of its language.  Of course with the introduction of Hiragana (considered the cursive of Japanese) and Katakana (used by the Japanese today to denote loan words) some of the rules have changed. Practitioners of calligraphy in Japan will see the activity as one of meditation first and as a way to connect with the past.  Such ways of viewing calligraphy are common in almost any arena of beautiful writing but it has, I feel, been taken to a new level in Japan with expositions to foreigners and classes offered in colleges around the world. Interestingly, the Buddhist monk Kudai is one of the more famous artists that has come out of Japan which brings into play the influence of Buddhism on the art form.  It seems apparent that this would be the most obvious reason why Shodo is considered by many to not only be aesthetically pleasing to the eye but also a refreshing and relaxing form of meditation for the body. But what is considered beautiful or the perfect way?  Consider the work of this devoted student who has studied the art for over 30 years: Atelier Sho-Raku-An.  Now consider the work by a different practitioner who goes by the name of Nao: Japanese Words in Japanese Calligraphy.  Which do you consider to be more beautiful?

  1. KOREAN
    Lost Korean Writing: Hangul and Hanja

    Lost Korean Writing: Hangul and Hanja

    Now here is something interesting: Up until just a few decades ago Chinese characters were as abundant in Korea as they are in Japan today.  Today however, one is hard-pressed to find Chinese characters anywhere!  They have all but disappeared from every aspect of the Korean landscape save for the classroom (Hanja is still a required course for Korean students at least until middle school).  So what do Koreans use today and is there a most proper or beautiful way of writing it?  To start, the Korean system of speaking is Korean but it’s writing system is called Hangeul.  Hangeul is basically brand new as far as written languages go. It literally just popped out of nowhere!  Ok, not nowhere…but from one single person: King Sejong.  That’s correct, King Sejong in the 15th century basically decided it was time to invent a system of writing that would be accessible to the common people:

    “A wise man can acquaint himself with them before the morning is over; a stupid man can learn them in the space of ten days” –Hunminjeongeum Haerye (lit. “Explanations and Examples of the Correct/Proper Sounds for the Instruction of the [Korean] People”)

With a bit of research I found that the calligraphic form of Hangeul is called Gungche (궁체 宮體) or “Palace Style” and is created in the same manner as both Chinese and Japanese calligraphy: With ink and a brush.

궁체 Gungche

궁체 Gungche

Now that the interesting task of overview has been done, you can now say with a little more confidence that you know a bit about what is considered proper and beautiful handwriting in several languages around the world.  The question is what are the underlying similarities and differences?  What basic principles does English calligraphy share with that of say Korean?  Spanish with Japanese?  What are the differences?  Then, why is it that such differences are taking place and why would one culture consider one way to be more perfect or beautiful while another does not seem to consider it at all?  Let me be a bit more clear.

Let’s start with the largest object of similarity: Connection. If there is anything that is shared by each calligraphic form of the  language is that they experience a point where letters or symbols are linked together.  Cursive in English or Spanish is the perfection of tying together groups of letters into a singular and continuous strand of ink. It has been refined to the point that there are font types like Spencerian that demand the mastery of the skill.  Cursive was taught to children in elementary school in every English speaking country around the world at one point (I’ll admit this is just a guess but the necessity of being able to write legibly was critical up until only a few decades or so ago when the typewriter and computer released the pupil and author from the pains of the pen.) Connectivity in writing was and still is experimented with in Chinese and Japanese script.  Being able to create an entire Chinese character with a single stroke of the brush…would have amazed audiences when it was accomplished gracefully.

Connectivity: Sosho

Connectivity: Sosho

To address for a minute one problem I see with this system Kaisho->Gyosho->Sosho, if I may, consider all kanji reduced a simple singular line.  What is lost?  Much!  The cost of a system that is easier to write is the deep history complete knowledge and comprehension of the character.  Do you understand?  Although it may be easier to write the word “Road” or “Way” with one stroke (as is the case in the example above) we as a society on this Earth are losing something valuable.  I find quoting J.F.K at this moment to be oddly appropriate:

“We choose to go to the moon….not because [it is] easy, but because [it is] hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…”

We are not going to the moon when we write the full structure of a Chinese character, but we are taking part in something much larger than ourselves and we complete the form in its full splendor not because it is the easiest and fastest way, no.  We complete the form and recognize the beauty of the character: the deeper meaning in between the lines, the interplay of the various characters within the one larger kanji, and the sound that it ultimately represents.

That is the way it is with calligraphy.  It is not done because it is the easiest way to write the language.  The result of such a philosophy would get us to something more or less like Morse code, the most simple and monotonous system of writing invented by man, in my humble opinion, and a language utterly incapable of a calligraphic form (for it may actually alter the meaning altogether!)  Calligraphy is done to recognize and honor the beauty of the written language.

If you are still reading, I congratulate you!  You are indeed deeply interested in the similarities that exist in the written world of language and ought to pursue it much further.  You can see now that calligraphy is practiced around the world and to no small extent.  The differences are a bit more obvious to point out but the point of research I hope is to find the similarities first in order to bring us together.  Only then can we marvel at our differences with respect because we know that within the other “way” a little of ourselves is reflected.

Below are additional links to explore.  They are extraordinarily compelling and many of them are quite eloquent in their wording.  Please do take the time to have a look see.  As always please leave your questions & comments at the bottom~

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3 thoughts on “Calligraphy: Eastern and Western

    • Thanks for your comment!
      Just knowing that you are reading is incentive enough for me to continue posting. If you have any ideas of your own that you would like to see researched a bit more I would be more than delighted to consider it (given of course that the subject is language)

      Also, I have seen your work and I think it is amazing. The fact that you make your own paper is pointedly stunning. Actually, I would like to use one of your works as my weekly image of inspiration and link it to your website if that is okay~

      Thanks again,

      ~Dorian

  1. Pingback: Language Fundamentals: Accents & Mumbling « Dorian Wacquez

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