Chinese calligraphy / extreme variations

Each character represents a word and is composed of a number of distinctive strokes. To put it simply, the shape of a character in calligraphy is like a drawing, and each calligrapher has his own way to render it, with variants and short-cuts. Short-forms have been invented by different calligraphers at different times in the past. And if the same character is found a number of times in the same work, it will be drawn a little differently each time.

This may seem strange at first, but let us take the analogy of an artist who is painting a bouquet of sunflowers. It is only natural that each flower in the composition be drawn or painted differently. But they are all still sunflowers. From one artist to another, the sunflowers will be different, painted in the artist’s individual and sometimes completely recognizable style. Furthermore, the way the artist paints the sunflowers will evolve over a period of months or years.

The following illustration is copied from Shogen, the dictionary of calligraphy published by Fujiwara Kakurai, Nigensha, Tokyo, 1970, 1635 pages, pp. 44-45. 

character “er” Shown here are different ways of executing the Chinese character “er” which represents the number two. This character is composed of two strokes, one above the other, the top one shorter than the bottom one. In each example, executed by a different calligrapher, great variety can be seen between the top and bottom strokes, between the beginning and the end of each; variations as well in the positioning of the two strokes relative to each other, without any real symmetry. None of the strokes is perfectly horizontal; on the contrary, they slope slightly upward to the right. The calligraphers also take tremendous liberty in interpreting what could be called two simple horizontal lines.

There are a number of dictionaries of calligraphy (shufa zidian) ) which bring together the best compositions for each character by famous calligraphers, interpreted in different eras and in every style. It is a sort of anthology of calligraphy. Here are some of the examples given for the character “feng” (wind), in an excerpt from the Xinbian Zhongguo Shufa Da Zidian, the complete dictionary of Chinese calligraphy.

character “feng”

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character “feng” engraved on stone
Character “feng” (wind) engraved in stone
photo © Françoise Cloutier


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