Beyond the WallsCalligraphy

Write it! Learn Chinese Calligraphy

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.

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Learn! The Four Treasures of Chinese Calligraphy

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.

Writing Brush

Writing Brush, 19th century, Qing dynasty (1644-1911), Nephrite with goat hair, 11 1/2 x 1 1/4 in.
Gift of John C. Maxwell Jr. and Adrienne L. Maxwell, 2008.152

The type, length, and consistency of the hair used in a brush’s construction plays a crucial role in the character of the writing it can produce. Goat hair is prized for its flexibility, and yields a multitude of brush effects.


Weng Tonghe, 1830-1904
Five Character Verse in Running Script, 19th century
Chinese, Qing dynasty (1644-1911), Ink on paper, 74 3/8 in x 17 3/4 in.
Robert A. and Ruth W. Fisher Fund from the Y. T. Bay Collection, 2012.71.1-2

The invention of the modern paper-making process is attributed to court officials in the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 CE). Xuan paper, a type used in ancient works of calligraphy and painting, was created from the bark of the sandalwood tree and held a reputation for legendary longevity.


Inkstone with Dragon Design, 18th century
Qing dynasty (1644-1911), Duan stone, lacquered wood, 8 9/16 x 5 11/16 x 3/4 in.
Gift of John C. Maxwell Jr. and Adrienne L. Maxwell, 2008.150.1-.2a-b.

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.

Ink stick

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.

Photo: See Credits and Sources for details.

Watch! Chinese Calligraphy

Watch as skilled calligrapher Yi Hao, a volunteer teacher from the Confucius Institute at The College of William & Mary writes the characters found in this interactive. Modern calligraphers work with the same basic tools as those writing thousands of years ago.

Write It! Practice Chinese Calligraphy

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.

calligraphy stroke order for the meaning of Ram

Stroke Order

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.

Show Hint

Well done!

Ram, 19th-20th century
Chinese, Qing dynasty (1644-1911)
Nephrite, 4 9/16 x 5 5/8 x 3 in.
Gift of John C. Maxwell, Jr. and Adrienne L. Maxwell, 2003.75

Ram (yang)

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.

Tablets after Weng Fanggang, 20th century
Luo Shanbao (Joseph Shan Pao Lo), Chinese-American, 1922-1998
Ink on paper, 26 3/4 x 13 in.
Gift of the artist’s family in celebration of VMFA’s 75th anniversary, 2011.142

Pine (song)

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

Fish-Shaped Pendant, 13th-11th century BC
Chinese, Shang dynasty (1600-1045 BC)
Nephrite, 3 3/4 in. long
Adolph D. and Wilkins C. Williams Fund, 59.17.1

Fish (yu)

Fish motifs often stand for wealth and prosperity, as the Chinese word for fish is a homophone (meaning it is pronounced the same way) for the words “abundance” and “Fcr;affluence.”

Magu Offering a Longevity Peach, ca. 1889
Pan Yingcheng, active 1880s-1910s
Chinese, Qing dynasty (1644-1911)
Album leaf; ink and color on satin; 10 3/8 x 8 1/4 in.
Bequest of Mr. Charles B. Samuels, 41.11.111

Peach (tao)

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.

Dish with Phoenix Bird Design, 7th century
Chinese, Tang dynasty (618-907)
Earthenware with polychrome glaze, 1 3/4 in. high x 6 15/16 in. diameter
Adolph D. and Wilkins C. Williams Fund, 79.111

Phoenix (feng)

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.

Court Robe, 19th century
Chinese, Qing dynasty (1644-1911)
Silk, 56 x 72 in.
Gift of Brigadier General John S. Letcher, 81.33

Dragon (long)

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.

Bowl with Design of Chrysanthemum, 18th century
Chinese, Qing dynasty (1644-1911)
Porcelain with molded and incised decoration under celadon glaze, 1 7/8 in. H x 4 5/8 in. diameter
Gift of Frank Raysor in celebration of VMFA’s 75th anniversary, 2009.359

Chrysanthemum (ju)

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.

Crane, Pine, and Calligraphy, 1944
Zhang Yuanji (painter), 1867-1959 and Hu Yaguang (calligrapher), 1901-1986
Chinese, People’s Republic Period (1949-present)
Folding fan; ink and color on paper, 7 1/16 x 17 7/16 in., image
Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Endowment and partial gift of Y.T. Bay Collection, 2013.128.a-b

Crane (he)

Because of their long lives and white feathers, cranes are viewed as auspicious symbols of old age.

When paired with pine trees, another marker of longevity, they form an expression called song ling he shou, or “live as long as pine and a crane.”

Tray with Lotus Design, 14th century
Chinese, Yuan dynasty (1279 -1368) Ming dynasty (1368 -1644)
Black lacquer with red layers, 1 in. high x 6 5/8 in. diameter
Special Oriental Art Purchase Fund, 73.65

Lotus (lian)

Blooming fresh out of the summer mud, the lotus flower rises and blossoms each day. At night, the flower closes and sinks underwater. In Chinese art, the lotus symbolizes purity and tranquility.

The lotus flower is also one of the eight symbols of Mahayana Buddhism.

Bowl with Bats, Waves, and Rocks, 18th century
Chinese, Qing dynasty (1644-1911)
Jingdezhen ware; porcelain with underglaze blue and overglaze enamel; 3 1/4 in. high x 7 in. diameter
Special Oriental Art Purchase Fund, 72.37.1

Bat (fu)

Fu, the Chinese character for bat, is a homophone (same-sounding word) of the character for "good fortune".

Because of this similarity, the image of a bat is often used as a symbol of happiness and blessing, as in this Qing-dynasty porcelain bowl.

Armrest with Design of Plum Blossoms, 18th century
Chinese, Qing dynasty (1644-1911)
Bamboo, 9 3/8 x 2 3/8 x 3/4 in. without wooden stand
Gift of John C. Maxwell Jr. and Adrienne L. Maxwell, 2008.153

Plum (mei)

Blooming even in the cold of winter, the plum blossom is a symbol of endurance and perseverance through adversity.

The plum blossom flower has five petals, which can symbolize the five blessings in Chinese culture: longevity, prosperity, health, virtue, and good living.