chinese calligraphy

About “autumn”

In the Northern hemisphere we are embracing the autumn already. Autumn is such a pretty season, it is full of colours and is inspiring for people who love painting or photography. I certainly enjoy this period of time a lot, and I secretly love the European autumn more, because it lasts so much longer than in my hometown! In the Chinese language, the character for autumn has some interesting stories to tell, would you like to find out about its origin?

The character of autumn is “秋”, which is a character that has the “crop” on the left side and “fire” on the right. But this is only how we see it today, in the long historical evolution this character has actually changed a whole lot!

Autumn landscape, Fiona Sheng

In the beginning, autumn had to do with crickets or grasshoppers (the first two examples on the left side). We can clearly see how this character used to look like in the oracle bone script below. Obviously there were various ways of writing this character in this script, but they all resemble this general shape of a bug, with the tentacles on the head and some legs on the left. Also the field in the ancient time needed rest before the next planting session, which requires burning, and “fire” became a necessary component in this character, but the bug side slowly evolved and disappeared. Some theories say that the fire was also used to kill the grasshoppers that eat crops, but either way, a new component meaning “crop” started to appear in this character.

In the Spring and Autumn period this character started to take on a “turtle” side (see the example below on the far right side), rendering it too complicated to write. The various components of this character change location occasionally, but the character does not change in the meaning.

Since the union of Chinese calligraphy in the Qin Dynasty, the character of autumn started to be regulated to having two components only, the “crop” and the “fire” (see the example below on the left side). Although these two components also switch location from time to time for a long duration since then. The other two examples below shows some other variation of the Jinwen, another ancient style of script before the Qin Dynasty.

Now this character of autumn has been clearly determined to be written this exact way “秋”, however in Chinese calligraphy the two sides may still switch, for artistic purposes mostly. How do you like the final version of the character of autumn? Would you miss the bugs inside?

Enjoy such cultural discussions? Have comments? I look forward to hearing from you!


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The circular culture

Tomorrow will be the Mid-Autumn Day, also known as the Mooncake Festival, so happy Mooncake Festival everybody! This is the time of family union, and in this post let us follow the tradition and gather around to admire the moon above us, have a cup of tea while eating some nice food as we talk, shall we?

A long long time ago in the East far far away, there were a group of people who loved round things. The ancient oriental belief systems held a deeply-rooted belief that stated “the sky is dome and the earth is square”. As the very first root of a giant cultural tree, this belief has its extensions and applications consciously or subconsciously in almost every single branch that developed from this tree. So the notion of “round” equals “fulfilment” and “complete” took root in all the children and children’s children’s hearts of this cultural sphere until this very day.

Weekend Sale

This weekend as a celebration, our Bunny in the red leaves Round Wall Art (canvas print) will be on sale, you will receive 10% off over ONLY this weekend, and there are ONLY 3 prints available. Come quick!

Remember the bunnies and the moon? If not, come to our live streams to find out!

The circle not only represents the heavens, it also since the start of the oriental culture represented change and reincarnation. Just like in the theory of Yin Yang, where the world moves following certain regulations, and the wax and wane of all matters are normal. Events also evolve in a similar manner, where history eventually repeats itself, starting from the beginning. Perhaps gazing up into the night sky at the moon inspired a few great minds? We can only guess, but the oriental wisdom has a way to regulate the extremes and normalise our lives for us.

The application of round and circular shape is definitely seen everywhere, starting from architecture. You must have seen at least some images of the round shapes used in the traditional architecture, such as windows, doors, bridges, and sometimes even entire buildings. The shape feel safe, harmonious, comforting and pleasing, our sentiments towards it may have been carried in our genes.

Round window, photo from the internet
Round door, photo from the internet
Bridge, photo from the internet
Round building 土楼, photo from the internet

In the smaller cultural aspects of our lives there are ubiquitous round shapes too. The Chinese chess, ancient and modern coins, traditional plates, bowls, and jewelries, in all these objects the most common shape is round. In the oriental art, the best lines are never either round or sharp, we say there has to be edges in the roundness and in the roundness there has to be holding structures. Below is a fragment of a calligraphy piece written by one of the most important artists of the Cursive Script, where such lines are clearly visible. Even though you do not understand what has been written, nor do many Chinese people who has not been trained in such arts, you must be able to appreciate the flow, the harmony, and the emotion – we see round shapes everywhere yet nowhere, a true masterpiece.

Cursive Script, Zhang Xu, Tang Dynasty

Finally I would like to introduce you a rather important round object, the mooncake. We started the discussion from the Mid-Autumn Day, and on this day if you can find a Chinese store normally you can get a piece of mooncake. They are round and golden, just like the full moon on this very night. They are rather tasty, but do not have too much of it in one go, they contain quite a lot of sugar and oil. Although there are many healthier versions, and you can find many types of stuffings, some sweet, some savoury. Enjoy!

Egg Mooncake, photo from the internet

Enjoy such cultural discussions? Have comments? I look forward to hearing from you!


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Signature in an artwork

We know that the oriental artworks are often a combination of the painting, calligraphy, poetry and seals. When looking at a piece of painting, it will be clear that the main part of the painting is the images, but it will not be so clear when looking at the calligraphy on the artworks – we cannot identify the function of these characters directly without certain background knowledge, because some many be the title, some may be a poem, and others may be the signature. Let us focus on the signature today, and after this post you will know more about signing your own works!

Flower Bird Painting, Fiona Sheng

Above is an artwork I recently created, and on the top left side there is a line of writing that consists of the title and the signature. The simple way to tell the title and the signature apart would be by the size of them. The larger characters are usually the title, which is followed by the signature. Sometimes the title and signature section go horizontally, and in which case it is important to know how to read (assuming you can read Chinese characters) them.

Traditionally the writings follow the direction of Top-Bottom, Right-Left. So when reading the writings on a piece of oriental artwork, ancient and modern, the correct starting point would be the most top right side. In the past book pages also follow this order, which is still the case nowadays in Japanese manga! Even though in the modern Chinese texts the writing direction has switched to the same as in English, the traditional art still follow the traditional ways, so the characters are written in the old direction and in traditional Chinese characters, not the simplified ones.

Calligraphy, Qi Gong, Photo from the internet

Focusing on the signature alone, it is normal to only have the name written down, which can often be 1-4 characters long, and sometimes we add a character “書” behind it, meaning “xxx wrote”, but this character alone means both to write and the word for book. Other than signing short names, it is also very common to sign the purpose of the artwork or the year before the name. In the first painting in this post, you can see the title-year-name style, and in the photo above it states the purpose and then the name. This way the length and meaning of the signature is adjustable, fitting to the artwork.

When signing with the year, which is the most common signature style, the year should be signed in the traditional way, which means instead of writing “2022”, we write “壬寅年” instead, the way it was supposed to be in the Stem-Branches or Ganzhi system, also known as the sexagenary cycle. This is an ancient and long-surviving recording system that was common in the Eastern Asia, but its application can barely be seen other than in artworks anymore. As stated in the name of this system, it repeats every 60 years, and that means the same name of the year comes back once every 60 years.

Flower Bird Painting, Song Hui Zong, (example of a very short signature)

So how do we get the 60 year cycle? We have 10 stems and 12 branches, and we match them according to certain orders. These heavenly stems, written as 甲乙丙丁戊己庚辛壬癸, their functions are just like numbers 1-10, indicating an order; the earthly branches are animals, the same animals for the zodiacs, and they are 子丑寅卯辰巳午未申酉戌亥, each referring to an animal. It is worth noting that these character cannot be used to refer to the animal directly, they are associated to the animals only. Every other character from the top line matches with every other character from the bottom line, and then we have the complete chart of exactly 60 matchings:

甲子乙丑丙寅丁卯戊辰己巳庚午辛未壬申癸酉
甲戌乙亥丙子丁丑戊寅己卯庚辰辛巳壬午癸未
甲申乙酉丙戌丁亥戊子己丑庚寅辛卯壬辰癸巳
甲午乙未丙申丁酉戊戌己亥庚子辛丑壬寅癸卯
甲辰乙巳丙午丁未戊申己酉庚戌辛亥壬子癸丑
甲寅乙卯丙辰丁巳戊午己未庚申辛酉壬戌癸亥

One day I will show you have to write them in correct calligraphy, but for now if you need to sign your work, you have some notes to help!

Enjoy such cultural discussions? Have comments? I look forward to hearing from you!


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