Fiona Sheng

Artist | Creator | Educator

Oriental art, where to start?

Lately there have been some questions regarding the learning of the oriental arts, especially for beginners, where is a good starting point? I would like to share some thoughts regarding this topic, as it is a rather key question, which can affect the results of learning.

The simple answer to this question is, if you have the time, start with the Chinese calligraphy. From here on, calligraphy or painting will become exceedingly easy. The calligraphy and painting share the same origins, they also share the tools and method of creation, so it is easier to start with the simpler of the two, calligraphy.

Calligraphy manual

I call calligraphy simpler, it is because this form of art does not require colors in comparison with painting. But in fact to write calligraphy well, one needs to take no less practice than painting. However, calligraphy can also be seen as an ultimate form of painting, where the planes have been reduced to lines and dots, but the dimensions are still there.

It is totally fine to start with painting too, however the start will take longer than people who are already familiar with using a brush and ink to create lines. A downside of only knowing painting, is that a complete piece of oriental art is composed of calligraphy, painting, and seals (we are not required to make the seals ourselves), so not being able to write nice characters (often poems and names) is an existing problem among modern artists.

Which script to start?

Among the 5 major scripts, the most classic starting point would be seal script 隶书, however the most useful and popular choice is the regular script 楷书. The seal script was an ancient form of writing, and most people nowadays do not even recognize the characters written in this script anymore. The best place to see these characters being used would be at the Terra Cotta Warrior site, where naturally everything was made to look original, and it was seal script that was used then.

The regular script being the popular choice is because of its wide applications. On the newspapers, TV show subtitles, most business signs, everywhere we see would be a font that came from this script. This script is the clearest to read, and is the most recognizable one. All the children in school are required to learn this script. So even though this script was developed later, and it is not the most expressive one, it is still the most popular one.

Me teaching a regular script class

So between the seal script and the regular script, either style could be a nice starting point of brush art training. As a child, I started with the regular script practice, which gave me very solid knowledge of character structures and balance. Although I can imagine writing seal script as a start, the brush stroke requirements in the seal scripts are more fundamental, which has a wider application in paintings. There are two basic ways of writing brush strokes, but only one of them displays true strength and this is the one used almost exclusively in seal script. The weakness of seal script is also rather apparent, apart from fewer application (outside of art creation), the character structures are rather different from modern writing.

Brush Strokes
What if I want to only learn painting?
A part of the plum blossom & fox painting with signature, Fiona Sheng

It is of course normal to only want to learn painting, but the advice is, some knowledge of calligraphy is necessary, so that you are not limited by the awkward signatures. Learn to sign the year, your name and perhaps the season, at least your paintings will be authentic. It will also be great to know a few useful and common phrases or better yet, idioms and sentences from poems, so that your paintings can also have an elegant title. These do not have to be long, but 1-4 characters can suffice! In this case, the best styles to learn would be the “more decorative” types, that include seal script and (semi) cursive script. The regular script will be too rigid as a title.

Considering all the above, perhaps you can have a good idea of what suits you in the oriental art pursuit! I am almost certain however, that whichever starting point you take will lead you further and further on this artistic quest, and you will want to learn more and more. Your mind will clear, your body will relax, and you will fall madly in love with simple lines of ink – can you believe that?

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Xuan rice paper knowledge share

The xuan rice paper is one of the most important materials on which we rely during the creation of the oriental arts. We have discussed in the past their categorization and properties. However, did you know that there are differences between the front and back side of them that affect our artworks? Today let us talk about how to tell the sides and find out which side to use for art creations.

Xuan Rice Paper

We know that these papers are made from natural fibers extracted from a few types of trees and plants, and the traditional way of making of them is a complex process. The modern technological advances provided additional options of machine making them, but the machine made qualities vary drastically. So in using the papers for painting or calligraphy writing, it is essential to find the right side.

Plain Paper

Normally there is a rough side and a smooth side when you touch the surface of a sheet of rice paper or look very closely at it – the smooth side is the front side. Also it is useful to know that when purchasing an entire batch (100 sheets) of 4 feet or 6 feet papers, the side that is folded inward would be the front side.

Raw Rice Paper

Paper with Patterns or Texture

Compared with the plain type of paper, some papers come with patterns or textures, and these can help us quickly to identify the front of the paper. Any side with patterns is the front side, and in the case of papers with long and visible fibers, the bumpy fiber side is the back side, and the front is also smoother in comparison.

Paper with patterns

Ripe Paper

The ripe papers have a different tell. Many of these papers have mica dots on them, and the side that include more and shinier dots is the clear front side. The plain type fall under the category above.

For these papers it is absolutely important to know which side to use for the art creation, because the making of these papers require an additional layer of substance which prevents ink or color to sink through, contrary to the raw paper. The Gongbi painting depends on this layer to make, and the only correct side to use is the shinier side.

Ripe Paper

But should we only use the front side of all kinds of paper? The answer is no.

Which side of the raw papers to use depends on the need. Most of the time we need the papers to create regular things, freehand paintings and regular calligraphy practices (regular script, semi-cursive and cursive script) would work well on the front side of the papers. But in the case of, for instance, seal script, official script or very large character writing that require a better “dry” effect, then the back side is the one to use. Higher friction on the back side would naturally produce more apparent textures during the creation, and therefore the characters could appear more powerful.

The high quality handmade raw papers sometimes have very little differences between the front and the back sides, so in this case, you can simply feel free to use either side that looks better to you!

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Halloween reinterpretation

It is Halloween again! Here in Europe the shops are decorated with spider webs and spooky witches and ghosts, and the candy shops are especially colorful around this time of year! The Halloween celebration takes places during the transitional period between Autumn and Winter, and it is intended to guide the way with lights for the deceased. The oriental world has a similar event, but it is between Winter and Spring, another point where the Yin and Yang are not in balance, although the Eastern ghost day has much fewer activities than the west, and is certainly less entertaining. The subject of “death” is not mentioned lightly, but the dressing up trend has certainly received a warm welcome, even though the “bloody” makeups are much less seen.

Something that is rather intriguing about the Halloween however, lies in the interpretations of some of the symbolic imagines. Today let is discuss three of them: pumpkin, spider, and bat. Because these “spooky” icons in the eastern world would mean something totally different, even the opposite.

My take on Halloween, Fiona Sheng


The pumpkins are considered nutritious foods, I guess this point is rather shared in the world, although more articles will mention the medicinal use of pumpkins if you search in Chinese. I doubt it that many Chinese are comfortable with making Jack-o’-Lanterns, playing with food sounds rather wasteful.

Artistically, pumpkins are seen as fruits with wonderful meanings. They are golden red in color, and they are large and round, with many seeds inside. Above it all, they provide a beautiful source of food, what a magnificent combination! Warm colors like the pumpkin are often associated with wealth and harvest, when surrounded by these colors one can feel empowered, as if the world of luck is rushing in. The round fruits are always seen to suggest union, and nothing beats the union of a family. Seeds would always be linked with large and happy families with lots of children. It is widely accepted that the larger families were usually the more resourceful ones, the ones with the most potential to be prosperous.

So perhaps even if the eastern world would make pumpkins into lanterns, no ghosts would really be scared away anyway.

two jack o lanterns


The spiders are often accompanied by other dark creatures in the western world, they are seen as the children of the dark side. In the east however, the spiders are quite the symbols of great fortune and happiness!

An urban legend once told of a mother who was missing her traveling son terribly, until one day she looked down and on her dress she saw a spider crawling, and she knew that her son would return shortly. And sure enough, her son returned safe and sound within a few days! From then on, spiders and good fortune became connected, and people believe that when they see spiders dangling from a thin thread, then something wonderful is about to happen. The spiders also received a name “mother of fortune” (喜母). Therefore in paintings the most commonly described spiders would be dangling from somewhere high, suggesting that the good fortune is coming from the sky.

spider web


The bats often come together with the spiders in the western stories, especially in the creepy ones. But their cultural interpretation in the east is vastly different! The bats in Chinese are called “fu”, which sounds the same as happiness, so these little creatures became the spokesmen of happiness, particularly since the Ming and Qing Dynasties these robust and rather mysterious creatures were categorised as one of the auspicious animals, and their images appeared in all kinds of containers as decorations, such as the vases in the image below. Sometimes the bats appear red in certain paintings, enhancing their meaning of bringers of good fortune.

Vase with bat patterns

We have discussed the symbolism in the past, but there are so many that we have not talked about yet. So stay tuned and Happy Halloween! Are you going to see Halloween with a different perspective this year?

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Brush selection

In our previous posts we discussed the life of brushes, how they are made and we even briefly talked about their selection and maintenance. Sometimes when we practice according to the ancient painting or calligraphy books, but the strokes we make are simply not similar to the master’s. A lack of practice is surly a main reason, but the wrong use of our brushes can also be a major contributing factor. Therefore in this post let us categorise the various brushes, learn about their properties and then I will give you suggestions about how to select them for various purposes.

A goat hair brush


You must know that generally speaking we have goat hair, weasel hair and mixed hair brushes that stand out among the many natural hair brushes, for the purpose of oriental art creation. The three hair styles are the most common and price-quality balanced options which are preferred by the majority of creators. The goat hair brushes are usually softer, multi-purpose, durable, and can contain a greater amount of ink for art creation; Weasel hair on the other hand is tougher, stronger, more flexible, yet hard to be made into large brushes and are rather pricy; Mixed hair (often weasel-goat mix) usually has a tougher core and a softer coat, therefore it has the quality of both of the brush types. The other common hairs include rabbit hair, badger hair or synthetic fibers, and the prices vary. The main differences in use are the same as the distinctions between the goat and weasel hairs, so these other “less main-stream” hairs are more for personal pleasures. Depending on where and when the hairs of animals are collected, plus the manufacturing techniques, the quality and characteristics of the brushes can still be rather different, and so is the price.

If you have payed more attention however, you should also realise that the length-width proportions are not always the same among brushes – some brushes are extremely long, some rather short, while others are in between. There are also brushes that are simply chunky. Do you know for what reasons these differences are made?

Chicken spur brush

Short Hair Brush

The most famous of the short hair brushes is the “chicken spur”, from the name we can assume the look of these brushes. Now we can call these brushes the “garlic head” brushes too, also because of the shape. These are rather ancient brushes that have been made and used in the Jin and Tang Dynasties (around the 6th century). At this time the paper making was not mature yet, and therefore brushes needed to be rough and tough, and these short brush heads became very useful. During the Jin and early Tang Dynasties, the most popular calligraphy scripts were seal and official scripts, so the best fit for these brushes would also be these rather ancient scripts, especially the official scripts. The strokes required in the official script are solid with great strength, long and thin brushes simply fail to do the job.

Long Hair Brush

Some of the brushes appear to have rather long brush head compared to the width. They are usually brushes chosen for their flexibility, and therefore the best use for them are the faster and more fluid strokes in calligraphy, such as the cursive scripts. The long hair brushes often have mixed hair or goat hair, but the control required for the goat hair brushes is higher, because when the brush does not naturally “push back”, it becomes more difficult, though it is great practice.

Cursive script, Zhang Xu

Medium-Length Brush

In between the extremes there is the all purpose medium length brush. These are suitable for quite a lot of situations, and are often seen in the most hair types. So if you are beginning to practice either calligraphy or painting, it is best to choose a medium-length brush, and the easiest hair type would be mixed hair. In fact, as a beginner, if you get used to a special kind of hair length or hair type, it may trigger some bad habits that hinders your future advances. The medium length brushes are also a great choice for regular script practice.

Long and medium-length brushes, my personal collection

Brush Size

The sizes of brushes vary a lot, and for different maker of brushes, the categorisation of large-medium-small is never the same. Therefore we simply cannot accurately define the size of a large, medium or small brush. So how to choose the suitable brush size?

The general rule of brush size choice is dependent on the size of character you will write: each stroke of the character you make should not exceed half of the brush’s hair length. This means we almost never use the root area of the brush to write, and this means you should not use small brushes to write large characters – this rule is often neglected by the modern enthusiasts, probably because it is easier to draw thinner and even lines with a small brush I presume, but I cannot stress enough how wrong this practice is.

For paintings everything we have talked above is less strict, and most brushes can be used for painting, but the medium length, small weasel hair brushes are still the best choice for making the finer detail and outlines.

Other Common Brushes

You may have also seen a rather large and short-stem styled brush, we call them the dipper brushes. They are used for writing very large characters, especially on a plaque for the sign of businesses or palaces. The stems can have various shapes and be made from different precious materials, so these can also served as a beautiful decoration in the study.

Dipper shaped brush

I hope that after reading this post you have better ideas about which brushes to use, and what the different shapes and sizes of brushes are used for. If you need further help with selecting the brushes for yourself, you know where to find me! Also, there will be more brushes arriving in the shop shortly, so stay tuned!

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A few thoughts about art

I had a rather intriguing discussion from a friend of mine who has been learning the Oriental brush art recently. She found this art style completely healing and essential to the soul, which I fully agree, it is in fact my meditation. Our conversation shifted toward the relationship between the Eastern art styles and the Western ones, and I think it may be interesting to share some of my thoughts with you too regarding this point, because perhaps you will find some pearls buried in the pile of sand.

An Oriental Style Cat?

First of all, I believe that the basis of art forms of the world are shared. It was until we perceived of the cultural differences from East and the West, we started to naturally classifying the art forms into separate styles. Admittedly there are obvious differences amongst art forms, but at the core they are all expressions and descriptions of the world around us. The mediums that were used for the art creation could even be similar, for example, oil painting was used in China some 2000 years ago, much earlier than the use of ink. Obviously those ancient oil paintings and the oil painting of today are not the same, but the tradition of using oil based color to paint on silk or wood has long existed in the East, and therefore the clear separation between the Eastern and Western styles may not be as clear as we imaged. The image below consists of one of the earliest oil paintings discovered in China, this one in particular has been around for about 2400 years.

Silk Oil Painting, Warring State

The overtake of the ink and water painting was more of a choice made by the literati scholars in the later periods, because these people had a need to “stand out”, to show to the others that they were in fact different, better. The first person to start the trend may have been Wang Wei, a Tang Dynasty poet. In this style of painting the artists avoid the social reality, and the artworks usually focus on the expression and the emotions. This painting style also detaches from the actual shape and form of objects, using various strokes, the artists strive for a spiritual expression.

In order to make the most of these expressions, there came the techniques and other tools. These scholars at the very core were all about how they feel, and the tie between the lines created and their soul. This also meant that these people were almost complete supporters of “content over form”, meaning the transmission of their emotions trumped all accurate shapes and colors. The Song Dynasty Gongbi paintings were almost disregarded because they resemble the real world too much, which they actually do not. 

Fox, Chinese painting style?

Now there is an ongoing debate regarding whether Chinese art students who study paintings should learn the western styles first before picking up their brushes. For the past few decades it has been the requirement that art students start their basic training from the western art. It was the same for me, I started with calligraphy first and then learnt both eastern and western paintings as a child. The sketches and the basics of western painting (such as gouache) were definitely important in my understanding of shapes and form. I find such training important – it is because without such training it becomes “too easy” to make art! If any shape can express our intention, then why bother making these shapes in a special way? Plus, the quest for these artistic expressions developed naturally this way in history, and the content and the form were never really separated. 

Therefore I really believe that art forms do not hinder each other, especially when the basics are all sort of shared. The truth is, I think the better we get at one style, the easier it is to take on anther. So the relationship between the Eastern and the Western art is simple, they are the same in essence, and they serve the same purpose.

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Chrysanthemum culture

In the Eastern society we have the Four Gentlemen Plants, and we discussed the bamboo last time. Another one of the “gentlemen” would be the chrysanthemum flower, which is exactly in season right now! Yesterday was the Double Ninth Festival, so our discussion about these flowers will start with the number “9”.

Chrysanthemum flower

The number “9” is a Yang number according to the Book of Change, which is also the largest digit. Sky can even be referred to as “9”. Yesterday according to the lunar calendar, was the ninth day of the ninth month, which is where the name Double Ninth came from. So when this special Yang number doubles (the name in Chinese is in fact, double Yang), there must be celebrations, because we have encountered an auspicious day!

But what does the chrysanthemum flower have to do with the number “9” or this festival? It is because around this festival there are plenty of activities, and amongst them, the appreciation of the chrysanthemum flowers. These flowers bloom right around the time of the Double Ninth Festival, and the chrysanthemum flowers have always represented longevity (this festival also involves the respect toward the elderlies or ancestors), then naturally a connection was created.

Chrysanthemum Longevity, Qi Bai Shi

Around this time of the year, various parks would have chrysanthemum flower exhibitions, displaying hundreds of kinds of these colorful flowers. In fact the chrysanthemum cultivation has existed for about 3,000 years in China already, and it was at first planted for its medicinal use. Starting around the Tang Dynasty these pretty flowers also attracted more attention and started to be appreciated for their beauty. It was also around this time that the Japanese chrysanthemum culture was developed. The Song Dynasty recorded many detailed variations of these flowers, and it was also around this time that the flower exhibitions became popular. As the technology develops, more and more styles of these flowers appeared, and in the Qing Dynasty there were already 233 variations of these flowers! It was only toward the end of the Ming Dynasty (mid 17th Century) that the Dutch merchants brought these flowers into Europe, where they started to be enjoyed worldwide.

Along with the appreciation of the flowers, people also drink chrysanthemum wine. The making of such wine already started in the Han Dynasty, and lasted until today. Obviously made for its medicinal purpose, this drink has a tint of bitterness, which according to the traditional medicine, usually clears the mind and with the chrysanthemum, it also brightens the eyes. Eventually drinking this wine became an auspicious tradition, indicating a long and happy life. In the painting above, the artist Qi Bai Shi at the age of 91 described, in his rather distinctive style, the association of health, longevity and these chrysanthemum flower and flower wine. The title also says the same meaning: chrysanthemum wine for a happy long life.

Chrysanthemum, Pan Tian Shou

The chrysanthemum flowers also carry the spirit of bravery, especially only when all the other flowers have waned, these brave souls would bloom. This character in particular is what the literati scholars admire, the spirit of a true gentleman. The attraction toward chrysanthemum flowers also has to do with the hermit quality they represent, as the scholar and social elites who aspire to be chrysanthemum generally preferred the peace and quiet outside of the messy society. The Jin Dynasty poet Tao Yuan Ming (365-427) famously demonstrated his grand love for these flowers, as he described his desired life. Below is a wonderful translation of one of the versions of Tao’s poem, translated by Yang Xian Yi and Dai Nai Die, and here I share with you:

Drinking (V)

Within the world of men I make my home, 

Yet din of horse and carriage there is none; 

You ask me how this quiet is achieved — 

With thoughts remote the place appears alone. 

While picking asters ‘neath the Eastern fence 

My gaze upon the Southern mountain rests;

The mountain views are good by day or night, 

The birds come flying homeward to their nests. 

A truth in this reflection lies concealed, 

But I forget how it may be revealed.

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Amongst the Four Gentlemen Plants and the Three Friends of the Winter, bamboo is one of the overlapping images. These groupings are both collections of symbolic flowers and plants that represent a certain characteristic that men admire. Bamboo, 竹 (zhu) in Chinese, is rather special, in the various ancient painting theories it has also been listed as an independent subject, demonstrating its significance in society and in people’s heart.

bamboo grass

Even though common, bamboo is loaded with cultural notions, and in the mind of the literati scholars, bamboo could never be replaced. One of the most famous scholars of the Song Dynasty, Su Dongpo, once wrote (I attempt to translate here): not eating meat will make people thin, but not having bamboo will make people vulgar. It is easy to gain weight again, but there is no cure for vulgarity. Harsh as it sounds, the message is loud and clear – to maintain elegance, one has to be surrounded by bamboo and bamboo like people. What kind of people are these?

Bamboo was given characteristics and personalities that resemble the most virtuous people. In fact people in the eastern societies love learning from various aspects of nature, including flowers and plants. Bamboo is seen to be shooting straight into the sky, never bending. It is gentleman like, standing with integrity and behaving courteously. Bamboo has joints, in Chinese these joints are called “节” (jie), also referring to integrity and a positive energy. Bamboo stays green in colder seasons, a reflection of its perseverance. Bamboo is hollow on the inside, a sign of modesty and broad-mindedness. Bamboo is tidy, clean, and elegant, giving people the impression that it is honest. There are more aspects but you get the idea, all these above mentioned characteristics can be human traits, and when somebody has all these qualities in him or herself, this person must be a good model from whom the others should learn.

Bamboo, Zheng Banqiao

The practice of comparing people with bamboo started already in the early Qin Dynasty ( -221BC). The great philosopher Zhuang Zi (369BC-286BC) in his articles wrote the baby phoenix fed on bamboo fruit only, unintentionally gave the reputation of bamboo a boost, because the phoenix is an elegant bird, and therefore the food it eats has to be elegant too. The connection between literati scholars, the social elites, and bamboo was reinforced in the periods leading up to the Tang Dynasty. The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove was formed in the 3rd Century, composing of scholars of literature, writers, and musicians. These people resided in the town known for its bamboo forest (no concrete proof), and therefore came the name of the group. These scholars expressed themselves in inferred ways, using symbolism, comparison, or myth to tell the world in an ironic way that they were frustrated towards the system and crude ruling.

In the collection of Tang Poetry (全唐诗) of the alleged 49,403 (some poems are considered not genuine) poems, the bamboo as a single subject covered 1,000 of them, a rather significant number. Most poets used the image of bamboo to express their admiration of its qualities, every single one mentioned above.

Bamboo, Wen Tong

The Song Dynasty was the most prosperous time of bamboo culture, and painting accompanied poetry had became a common method of expression. One of the most noteworthy artists of the time was Wen Tong, who was known to be able to paint two differently shaded bamboo using both hands simultaneously. The tradition of bamboo painting lasted until today, and as Ni Zan (a great Yuan Dynasty painter) said, my bamboo painting may not look like the real one, but so what? I paint bamboo as an outlet, and I cannot care less about whether it is straight, bent, or whether the leaves are prosperous. I think Ni has indeed captured the true essence of the bamboo spirit after all.

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A parallel universe of the Chinese Painting

Have you also considered certainty in our universe that is filled with randomness? Ok, let us narrow it down, what about the development of the Chinese painting or the so called Sumi-e painting? What would happen if the universe took a different turn concerning the oriental art? I suppose there is at least one scenario, issuing from the rock painting.

The rock painting means exactly as it sounds, and it was born in the pre-historical times when ancient ancestors of ours painted animals, figures and tools on the surface of caves. It experienced a glorious development during the Sui and Tang Dynasty (6th Century), and the evidences are clearly visible today, such as in the Dunhuang frescoes (see the gorgeous example blow), dating back as far as the year 336. Located in the western side of China, along the silk road, these paintings contained the wisdom of many ancient civilizations. This was also the type of painting that went all the way to Japan, deeply influencing its artistic taste. In China however, the rock painting encountered an overwhelming crush from the later water-ink painting and the literati-scholar art, and the techniques of rock painting were almost completely lost in the course of history. In Japan however, after its initial introduction in the 6th Century, it reached a peak during the 9th Century, manifesting into a rather Japanese style of painting, which led to the Yamato-e. Unfortunately in China, it was rarely seen anymore until recent years.

Dunhuang Murals, photo from the internet
Yamato-e, photo from the internet

The truth is, the usaeg of color of this ancient painting style still lives on in our so called “traditional Chinese Painting”, especially in the Gongbi style. The Gongbi painting also requires color pigments that are rock based. In the rock painting the majority of colors used came from minerals, and some others are chemically made. Some of the particularly beautiful colors such as Azurite (石青), Malachite Green (石绿), Orpiment (雌黄), Cinnabar (朱砂), Ocher (赭石) are still in our daily painting use, where the traditional craftsmen of the high-quality painting colors continued using traditional ways to refine these colors.

However these rock colors could not be mixed to create a new color due to the large grains, even the very fine modern versions. Also, the rock painting color pigments are not transparent, and the less fine pigments would create rough textures on the surface of the artwork, deeming it not desirable in the Gongbi painting, which strives for silk like smoothness.

Azurite ore, photo from the internet

So what would happen if the rock painting continued to influence the Chinese painting without interruption? I imagine the oriental painting materials would be completely different from today. Suppose the mineral paints could be refined at will, the surfaces used to paint on (paper or silk) may not exactly complement the purpose. Delicate paper or silk would be wasted to bear the thick layers of color above it, whereas thicker and less fine surfaces may fit better. The content of the painting may not change but the scale may. The Gongbi art is usually small with great details, thanks to the fine surface and the fine color; art such as Thangka would demand a much larger scale. Perhaps the painting brushes need changing as well, the delicate animals hairs may not be able to sustain the overwhelming rock paints, so perhaps the synthetic hair brushes or even tough hair brushes would be more popular. Also the plant based painting colors may never be developed, simply because these colors will not last as permanently as the mineral colors. Last but not least, ink may never be developed, and therefore, no ink stones.

I think I will be sad to not having silk like papers and silk to paint, not being able to paint in a smaller scale, and not to have the plant based color variations to use. In addition to all the above, I would miss the simplicity of painting using only ink. So in summary, continuing on this path may lead to the disappearance of all the treasures of the scholar’s chamber that we all love (brush, ink, paper, and ink stone), wow, I would be really sad.

Thangka, photo from the internet

History cannot be assumed, but after this thought experiment I do appreciate the various branches of the oriental art more. I love the fact that the ancient rock painting is not the dominate artistic expression any longer, but we are fortunate enough to still be able to enjoy this ancient art style and be able to paint in that way. What do you think?

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Introduction to Chinese Calligraphy

I am excited to announce to you that you can now subscribe to our membership to follow in-depth art learning! In the various tiers of the memberships you can receive different awards that are exclusive. One of the projects involve the creation of art syllabus, where I interpret original and important contents from books written in Chinese (such as art theories) and edit related comments and add related images to provide you with simple to understand yet applicable information. There will also be tutorials and audios, providing you with as many perspectives of the oriental art as possible. Below is a sample of our downloadable resource that introduces you to the Chinese Calligraphy.

Each country has its unique scripts, and calligraphy refers to the law of construction of each of the components within these scripts. The calligraphy is a representation of the civilization, when the law of writing wanes, the country cannot be strong. The Chinese education started in the Zhou Dynasty (around 1100BC-771BC). At that time one enters elementary school at the age of 8, and the young pupils study the “six basic skills”, including courtesy, music, archery, driving, calligraphy and mathematic.

The origin story of the Chinese characters is rather legendary. An official (some say a tribe leader) of the Huang Di period (primitive society) Cang Jie (仓颉) was considered the creator of the Chinese characters. He was born with four eyes and great wisdom, allowing him to observe the paw prints of various birds, shell patterns of turtles, landscapes of mountains and waters, palm prints, and analyze the movements of the stars, therefore abandoning the recording of events by tying knots, and creating writing systems. This is a hieroglyph system mainly based on the images of an object, but it has 6 variations and categories. This system has been used since its creation until today. The script that was created during this time was used called Seal Script (篆书), used for over 2,000 years, until the Qin Dynasty (221BC-207BC) unification, where the small seal script was put to use.

Stone tablet with writings created by Cangjie

One of the reasons for the creation of small seal script was due to the burning of ancient books during the Qin Dynasty. So scholars such as Li Si (李斯) created the small seal script. Around the same period, the Official Script was also formed, facilitating the convenience of writing. Cheng Miao (程邈) was known to be the creator of the official script, marking one of the major transformations of the Chinese writing systems. Today both scripts are alive.

Since the Han Dynasty (202BC-220) the national official examinations included calligraphy as one of the test parameters. These calligraphy scripts included both Seal and Official Scripts and other smaller scripts from the Qin Dynasty (8 in total). In the Tang Dynasty (618-907) an official position was set up for master calligraphers.

Han and Jin (226-420) Dynasties gave birth to 3 more important scripts, the Standard Script (楷书) and 2 Cursive Scripts (行书、草书). The Jin Dynasty in particular was known for its achievements in the calligraphy, but the later periods including Tang and Song (960-1279) Dynasties both produced many great masters. These 3 later scripts are all much more convenient to use than any ancient scripts, which produced another major transformation of the writing system that influences us until today.

Chun Hua Ge Tie

The Yuan Dynasty (1721-1368) introduced Mongolian culture and new scripts into the Chinese land, but the mainstream practitioners continued with tradition. Since the late Tang Dynasty the most important calligraphy “text books” have been carved onto stone or wooden tablets, making it possible to study by later period scholars. The most notable one is called Chun Hua Ge Tie (淳化阁帖), known as the earliest collection of various calligraphers made in such way. There were 10 scrolls in total, collecting over 1,000 years of 420 art pieces from 103 artists and emperors. There are rubbing editions from various periods and a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) edition even surfaced in an audition in 2019.

Stone tablet

In the Qing Dynasty (1636-1912) the study of stone tablet rubbing scripts from the past became a popular trend, the scholars of this time both went into tradition and strived for innovation. It is unknown where the Chinese calligraphy will go from here on, but it is extremely fortunate that these scripts are still available and being studied today.

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Ancient stationary

It’s time for back to school, how are you prepared for it? One thing I have always loved about back to school is the potential awesome new stationaries I could add – there would be new pencils, pens, rulers, pencil sharpeners (I used to collect them), notebooks, papers to make new book covers, so many wonderful things! I sometimes linger around the stationary shop, just to see the new collections, try them out, and finally decide that I really have no need for a 10th eraser – but I’d return the next week anyway! In our previous posts you have seen the “four treasures of the scholar’s chamber”, the brush, ink, paper, and ink stone, and today let us expand our horizon and admire some ancient stationaries together, and see if you can recognise them!

Brush, Qing Dynasty, Forbidden City Museum
Ink, Ming Dynasty, Forbidden City Museum
Paper, Yuan Dynasty, Forbidden City Museum
Ink stone, Han Dynasty, Forbidden City Museum

The collection above shows antiques from various ancient Dynasties, some dating back over 2,000 years. They are the most important classic stationaries in the oriental study. I do not know about you, but if I were to acquire something this beautiful, I may never use them, do you think it is why they lasted until today?

Ok, those items above are easy, I bet you know almost immediately what they do. How about levelling up a bit? Do you know what this item below is without looking at the caption?

Brush holder, Qing Dynasty, Forbidden City Museum

I guess this was not that hard either, it is used for resting brushes, a brush holder. Now, increasing the difficulty! I am not adding a caption to the one below, but if you think it is a brush container, then you are wrong. Think again!

In fact the above item is a book holder. Indeed, it is used for holding scrolls of books, but similar containers could also be used to hold brushes, so you are probably not that wrong anyway! Now, let us try again, what is the one below? This one was made of jade.

The answer is, a paper weight! The most common shapes of paper weight is rectangular, but I do like these amazing paper weights, imagine holding them in your hands when moving them around on your paper! Let me show you one that I find rather exquisite, can you guess what it does?

The above item is called an ink bed. Probably though it was for holding pots of flowers? In fact after using ink sticks to grind ink, it remains moist, and we should never leave it on the ink stone, so we need a nice place to keep the still moist ink, and voilà, there is an elegant solution! How are you doing with these stationaries? How about we try a last kind? For this kind I will give you two photos, but they are used for the same purpose. Try to guess what they do, ready?

What do you believe these stationaries are used for? Look forward to hearing your thoughts!

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