Ancient Chinese writing
The earliest known examples of Chinese script were inscribed on tortoise shells and animal bones around 1300 b.c.e., the time of the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600-1066 b.c.e.). These objects are referred to as “oracle bones” because they were employed by shamans, or priests, to predict future events. Later in the Shang, inscriptions were made on bronze vessels. When the Zhou (Chou) Dynasty (1066-221 b.c.e.) succeeded the Shang, its bronzes were also inscribed. A series of hunting songs carved on boulders, erroneously termed “stone drums,” dates to around 400 b.c.e. In 219 b.c.e., by order of Shi Huangdi (Shih Huang Ti), the first emperor of the Qin (Ch’in) Dynasty (221-206 b.c.e.), the Chinese script underwent a standardization process. Two new types of script were devised: One, to be used for formal and official purposes, was called xiao juan (hsiao chüan); the other, intended for general use, was called li shu (clerk’s style). Because it was found that the speediest and most efficient way of writing li shu was with brush and ink, such writing soon developed into an art in itself, the art of calligraphy. By the time of the Han Dynasty (206 b.c.e.-220 c.e.), calligraphy had achieved equality as an art with painting and poetry. Calligraphy and painting not only were seen as twin arts of the brush but also were intimately associated with poetry. This attitude is shown in the famous remark made by Su Dongpo (Su Tung-p’o) about the great Wang Wei, who was outstanding as a calligrapher, a painter, and a poet: “In his poetry there is painting, and in his painting, poetry.”
The distinctive visual properties of Chinese script that made its writing an art transcend its pictographic origins. Although Chinese writing began with pictographic word-signs, these word-signs were soon conventionalized into almost complete abstractions. Single characters were then combined to form not only compound but also complex characters, many simply with determinants of the broadest meaning and others with signs to indicate sound. The Chinese written language thereby expanded from around twenty-five hundred characters in early times to between forty thousand and fifty thousand by the Qing (Ch’ing) Dynasty, which was founded in the seventeenth century.
Writing such characters demands skill in drawing, a sense of form and proportion, and a sensitivity to the qualities of line, dot, and hook. Although a number of single characters can be combined into one, the resulting character must occupy the same amount of space and have the same square appearance as that of any other character. Furthermore, calligraphers tended to view the strokes in their characters in terms of natural objects and forces. To them, a horizontal stroke was a mass of clouds; a hook, a bent bow; a dot, a falling rock; a turning stroke, a brass hook; a drawn-out line, an old dry vine; a free stroke, a runner on his mark; and so on. Painters considered calligraphy their training ground, and poets saw their art as a kind of word painting. The three arts of calligraphy, painting, and poetry can be seen woven together in that school of composite art known as wenrenhua (wen-jen-hua; literary “men’s painting”). Here, the scholar-artist would display his calligraphy in the brushstrokes he used to fashion trees, rocks, or bamboo shoots. Then he would balance his picture with a poem inspired by his painting, written in his best calligraphy, as an integral part of his composition. Later, his friends or other connoisseurs might write additional poems or laudatory inscriptions on his painting that would add to its value.
Although the visual was preeminent in the development of Chinese poetry, it must not be thought that the musical quality of the words, even in silent reading, was ignored or considered unimportant. The sounds of spoken Chinese in its various dialects have their phonetic systems of vowels and consonants and also their distinctive tonal systems, which depend on the movement of or the...
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