Chinese Calligraphy: A Beginner’s Guide

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Many years ago I attended a two-weekend workshop where I learned about Chinese calligraphy. This is an art form that has been around for many centuries, and it is beautiful and elegant.

It can also be a bit tricky, especially if you tend to have a heavy hand, which the instructor said I did. You need to be able to create light brush strokes to create the characters and designs properly.

After much practice, I have found that I am now able to do Chinese calligraphy, and I am going to start offering classes to help others learn this art form.

Chinese calligraphy is completely different from other types of calligraphy. Instead of using a pen, the artist uses special brushes, ink, and water.

Today we are going to take a look at this art form, where and how it originated, the tools used, and different styles of Chinese calligraphy.

Let’s get started.

What is Chinese Calligraphy?

We’ve all seen Chinese characters in artwork, jewelry, tattoos, etc. But, do you know how it originated?

The practice of Chinese calligraphy has been used for more than 3,000 years! The artist uses a special brush or writing tool. Brushes used to be made from animal hair, but synthetic brushes are often used today as they are easier to care for and cost less.

The artist dips the brush into ink and applies the designs onto paper, silk, rice paper, and other substrates. Earlier inks were made from a combination of animal glue and soot. Today, water-based inks are used.

This art form originated during the Xia Dynasty, which existed between 2070 and 1600 BCE. The “canvas” originally used was animal bones, and the characters were etched into the bones.

Chinese calligraphy was invented to allow more people to be able to read. It made it faster and easier to write. Since there were so many dialects, having one specific set of symbols made the language for all Chinese people to understand.

Chinese calligraphy characters are not letters, as we would see in other languages. Instead, the characters are pictures of objects that people see every day, including trees.

While this was initially a means of communication, today Chinese calligraphy is an art form. There are rules for creating brush strokes and patterns, just as there are with most other art forms.

Styles of Chinese Calligraphy

Unless they actually do Chinese calligraphy, most people don’t know that there are many different styles of this art form. Today, most artists concentrate on the following five styles.

#1. Oracle-Bone Script

The oracle-bone script is the oldest form of Chinese calligraphy, first used during the Shang Dynasty between 1600 and 1100 BCE. These scripts were written on ox bones and turtle shells.

#2. Clerical Script

The style of Chinese calligraphy that has been used for the longest period is the clerical script, and it is still used today. This script is usually found only on official stones and inscriptions on stones.

#3. Standard/Regular Script

Most of the Chinese characters we see today in printed works are done in standard or regular script. This style of calligraphy came from clerical script, but it is more upright rather than leaning.

#4. Running Style (Semi-Cursive) Script

This style of Chinese calligraphy was created for those who wanted to write letters, notes, etc. It is less “fancy” than the clerical script and much easier to read.

#5. Cursive Script

The most informal type of Chinese calligraphy is a cursive script. This style gained popularity during the Han Dynasty, which reigned from 202 BC through 220 AD.

It was used by people to write letters to friends and family members. Just as handwriting today tends to be a bit slanted, so is cursive script. A single character can be written in several ways.

Creating Painting with Chinese Calligraphy

Rather than simply focusing on letters, the Chinese calligraphy workshop I attended involved learning how to create pictures with various brushes and brush strokes. We were taught how to create a painting of a bamboo plant that had a few leaves.

As I mentioned, I am planning on offering classes to teach this art form. When I can get enough people interested, I have a feeling that I will also be teaching them how to paint bamboo, because it is simple yet beautiful.

Tools Needed for Chinese Calligraphy

I mentioned that early Chinese calligraphy was drawn with animal bones. Some people also used chopsticks made from bamboo to scratch out the characters.

Today, we use black ink and a variety of brushes. Most commonly, water-based ink brushes are used. These brushes can be synthetic or manufactured with animal hairs.

Many say that the absolute best brushes to use are those made with grey wolf hair. These brushes aren’t as popular as they once were because animals are harmed to make them.

The type of ink used depends on what is being written or drawn. No matter what you are creating, it is important to always use water-based ink that is a specific consistency. It should not be too thin or too thick.

If you are going to get serious about Chinese calligraphy, you will need to use the right paper. Regular paper can be used, but many artists prefer to use silk paper.

The paper used should have a smooth texture, which will allow the brush strokes to be smooth and even. I don’t advise using paper that is too thin, but thick paper isn’t great either. I suggest using medium-weight paper for this type of calligraphy. It should also not be too absorbent so the ink doesn’t seep through.

What You Will Learn in a Chinese Calligraphy Class

If you are thinking about taking a class in Chinese calligraphy, you will start out using the tools I have talked about today. Many instructors start with a few simple characters to get students used to holding the brush and using the ink.

One of the characters used by beginners is “yong”, which means “eternal” or “forever”. This character uses all of the basic strokes, making it ideal for practice.

Depending on the instructor and the skill level of the students, the style of Chinese calligraphy learned will likely be running or clerical. In some cases, instructors teach both styles. Students practice on paper, and once they are ready they begin working on silk.

This is not an art form that you are going to master in a single class. It will take a lot of practice before you can be really adept. I suggest practicing one simple brush stroke each day until you are comfortable with it, and then you can work on the more difficult strokes as you get better at it.


If you are interested in learning more about the art of Chinese calligraphy, I suggest finding a class to take. You can go online and see if any classes are being taught in your neighborhood.

Another option is to visit stores that sell Chinese calligraphy tools and ask if any classes are going on. These stores often hold workshops in many different art forms, including Chinese calligraphy.

This is an art form that is as beautiful as it is ancient and one that I am sure you will enjoy playing around with.

*image by HiTecherZ/depositphotos