Calligraphy, or the art of writing, was historically considered the highest visual art form in China. To study and develop their skills, students of calligraphy would copy the works of well-known practitioners, using brushes, ink, inkstone, water, and paper to write and paint.
Chinese calligraphy is practiced with what are called the Four Treasures of the Study: brush, paper, ink, and inkstone. These functional items took on great significance as symbols of study and scholarship. These tools used to create artwork are often so beautifully crafted that they, too, are considered works of art.
Inkstones are the surfaces on which calligraphers mix solid ink and water to create a liquid of their preferred consistency. As seen in this example, craftsmen often used decorative motifs to enliven otherwise utilitarian objects.
Dragon designs were considered very auspicious signs and symbols of power, and they frequently adorned works intended for the imperial household.
Like the other members of the Four Treasures, ink sticks could be made both in utilitarian and decorative versions. Given as gifts, some commemorative sticks were intricately carved and inscribed with calligraphic inscriptions.
Today, some calligraphers continue to mix ink stick and water to create their ink, while others use pre-made, commercially available liquid ink.
Practice writing Chinese characters by following the brushstrokes of a skilled calligrapher. And, as you do, learn more about symbols of good fortune that can be found in VMFA’s collection of Chinese art.
When students learn to write Chinese characters, they also learn that the strokes are to be written in a certain order.
The rules for writing Chinese characters are based on creating a smooth motion with your hand, which will make your writing more efficient and beautiful.
As a general rule, strokes are written from left to right and top to bottom. Horizontal strokes are usually written before vertical ones.
The Chinese word for sheep (yang), shares its pronunciation with another yang—the masculine forces of nature, known commonly as half of the principle of yin and yang.
Because of this connection, as well as the sheep’s importance to sustaining life in ancient China, the animal is considered especially auspicious, and often appears in art and on household goods.
Because it can survive through long and harsh winters, the evergreen pine is considered a symbol of longevity in Chinese culture.
This lyrical couplet describes an affinity for nature. A solitary pine tree connects the reader to the much larger natural world.
The script can be translated as follows:
Befriend the orchids in the valley, I stay still
Caress the single pine tree, I wander around
A sign of longevity, the peach is associated with long life through the stories of Xi Wangmu, a Daoist goddess who bestowed immortality by granting her guests mythical peaches.
In this work, Magu, one of Xi Wangmu’s handmaidens, distributes a “longevity peach,” which will extend the recipient’s life by three thousand years.
As an imperial symbol, the phoenix, a mythical bird, is a sign of prosperity and peace. Images of the phoenix in Chinese art represent a wish for harmony and good fortune.
The phoenix is a symbol of the empress, and when paired with the dragon, it can be a symbol of marital stability and of an ordered and balanced society.
The dragon is one of the most powerful Chinese symbols of good fortune.
When paired with the mythical phoenix, it can be a symbol of marital stability and also of an ordered and balanced society.
Dragons are often shown to denote high rank and power and are found on court objects and robes.
In imperial China, the number nine was historically associated with the emperor. The chrysanthemum flower begins to bloom in the ninth month of the year, and has been linked to the imperial family.
The chrysanthemum is also believed to have restorative properties, and the petals are used to brew tea, promote good health and a long life.