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How to write Chinese Calligraphy - Process of practicing handwriting

The effective, traditional process of practicing handwriting consists of three steps: mo, Lin and xie. Mo means tracing. There are two ways to trace: Trace the calligraphy printed in red in the copybook, or use the model in the exercise book to trace the character on semitransparent or transparent paper. Mo means to practice wielding the brush. You must acquaint yourself with the process of basic stroke writing and the order in which you write your strokes. In practice, attention should be focused on the strokes of your model, the structure and the style of calligraphy. This lays the foundation for the next step, Lin, which is to put the model on the desk for you to copy. Deng Sanmu (1898-1963), a calligrapher, cautioned against tracing the model characters slavishly. You must study the structure of the character. Study the way it is written. Study the characteristics of the structure. In this way you will have some idea about writing it before you take up the brush. Mere copying without thinking leads nowhere. After a few months of study, proceed with the next step-lin xie.

Lin xie means that you have before you a specimen of writing-inscription on a stone tablet, etc. There are two steps in /in xie. You have before you a specimen of writing, then you make a copy of the specimen on paper with squares. You use this new copy as the model and copy the characters from it on paper also with squares. This is the first step of /in xie. After copying you compare the copied strokes with those in the model to see whether the positions of the former strokes are similar to those of the latter ones in the squares. This will make you acquaint with the characteristics of the form and structure of the characters.

The second step is to study the specimen, trying to memorize the strokes, then take it away. At first you may be able to memorize only a few characters. Later you may memorize the entire specimen of writing. Now study the specimen again. Compare your own work with the specimen. This is a basic skill in calligraphy. Guo Moruo (1892-1978), a calligrapher, remarked that he could still remember every stroke in the calligraphy of Wang Xizhi in the preface to The Literary Gathering at the Orchid Pavilion, even though Guo was already over eighty years of age.


The aim in copying is to learn the basic method in handwriting. Once you have acquired this, you can practice handwriting independently by yourself. Your practice need not be confined to copying inscriptions from stone tablets. You may practice handling the brush and trying out the structure of a character and the style of calligraphy. Reassess these points and make some alterations. In the course of practicing over a long period of time you may be able to convey your ideas, reveal your character through calligraphy and create your own style. As I have said before, the initial practice in lin xie is to copy-copy the specimen-to make your writing similar or close. Afterwards you should emancipate your mind and become creative in a daring way. Depart from the specimen. Write in a way that will show your character and your own style. It is not easy. You must have your culture level and esthetic feeling raised to a higher level. You must practice the use of the brush, but you must acquire something beyond calligraphy. You must be skillful and follow the rules or methods of calligraphy, but you must envisage things beyond calligraphy, extending your horizon. This is rather important.

My personal experience in practicing handwriting tells me that the learner must accomplish four things: 1. Acquire skill in handling the brush. Be careful in observing the specimen. Copy the specimen, and make your writing look exactly like the specimen. Try to reproduce the specimen exactly, in both form and spirit. 2. Focus your attention on structure. The structure of characters in specimens by famous cal-ligraphers differs. Each has its good points. Study these good points carefully and imitate them repeatedly so as to employ them in your handwriting whenever you write. 3. Try to master the technique of one school of calligraphy. Only when you have learned the good points of one school, can you absorb the good points of other schools. 4. Study diligently. Practice handwriting with perseverance. Only when you persevere, will you accomplish your aim. Wang Xizhi, the great calligrapher, used to say that with determination the learner could learn calligraphy in two months; the clever ones might spend one hundred days and acquire the basic skills. An ordinary Chinese saying goes, to write characters well enough, one hundred days spent in practice are quite enough. This means that it is not too difficult to write characters thoughtfully and correctly. A few months will be enough. To learn the rudiments of calligraphy is not too difficult. To be a calligrapher or an artist, the learner must persevere, spending a few years at least in learning his craft.

Book References Guo, Bonan 1995. Gate to Chinese Calligraphy. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.