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Asian Heritage Month Blog Event: Chinese Calligraphy

Asian Heritage Month Blog Event: Chinese Calligraphy

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez

Chinese calligraphy (Shūfǎ 書法 in China) is an art unique to Asian culture and literally means, “the way, method, or law of writing.”

In Japan, it is called Shodō 書道, which means “the way or principle of writing.” In Korea, it is Seoye (서예) 書藝, “the skill/criterion of writing.”

To me, it seems to be both a serious Asian discipline as well as an art and according to Chinese culture, is often thought to reveal personality and inner aesthetic due to both the expectation of excellent and correct execution as well as creative expression.

Depending on the concentration of the ink, the thickness of the paper, and the flexibility of the brush, the calligrapher is able to create a variety of styles.

It is both a highly disciplinary act as it is a meditative one, I think.

The Four Treasures of Study


The Four Treasures of Study (in China) and The Four Friends of the Study (in Korea) is an expression used to describe the essential tools of East Asian calligraphy:

  1. Ink brush
  2. Ink
  3. Paper
  4. Ink Stone

The Ink Brush

The body of the brush can be made from either:

  • bamboo
  • red sandalwood
  • glass
  • ivory
  • silver
  • gold

The head of the brush can be made from the hair or feathers of the following animals:

  • weasel
  • rabbit
  • deer
  • chicken
  • duck
  • goat
  • pig
  • tiger
  • wolf

There is also a tradition in both China and Japan of making a brush using the hair of a newborn, as an once-in-a-lifetime souvenir for the child.

I have my own personal set of brushes that I purchased in Chinatown, Toronto on a day-trip I made with my family.




Special types of paper are used in East Asian calligraphy.

In China, Xuanzhi (宣紙), is the preferred type of paper made from rice, paper mulberry, bamboo, hemp, etc. In Japan, washi is made from the kozo (paper mulberry), ganpi, and, mitsumata, as well as bamboo, hemp, rice, and wheat.



Paperweights are used to hold down paper and often placed at the top of all but the largest pages to prevent slipping and come in several types. Like ink stones, paperweights can be collectible works of art.


Desk pads


The desk pad is made of felt and can be printed with grids on both sides, so that when it is placed under the translucent paper, it can be used as a guide to ensure correct placement and size of characters. However, printed pads are used only by students (that means me!).


Ink and Inkstick


The ink comes in inksticks, which must be rubbed with water on an inkstone until the right consistency is achieved. Much cheaper, pre-mixed bottled inks are also available, but are used primarily for practice since inksticks are considered higher quality.

Learning to rub the ink is an essential part of calligraphy study. Traditionally, East Asian calligraphy is written only in black ink. Calligraphy teachers use a bright orange or red ink with which they correct work or write practice characters, which students can trace.



Stone, ceramic, or clay from the banks of the Yellow River inkstone is used to grind the solid inkstick into liquid ink and to contain the ink once it is liquid. Chinese inkstones are highly prized as art objects.

Seal and Seal Paste


Calligraphic works are usually completed by the calligrapher putting his or her seal at the very end, in red ink. The seal serves the function of a signature.


My cousin who had travelled to China for a vacation to visit with her husband’s relatives brought home a custom-made name seal for me. It’s one of my favourite pieces.

My personalized Chinese seal and seal paste. (c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.


What is considered to be good calligraphy?

Of course, when asking what is considered to be good calligraphy really depends on individual preference and taste, but there are some established, traditional rules, which cannot be violated. Those who repeatedly “violate” these rules are not considered legitimate calligraphers.

These rules are:

  • The characters must be written correctly.
  • The characters must be legible.
  • The characters must be concise.
  • The characters must fit their context.
  • The characters must be aesthetically pleasing.
Here’s my personal collection of ink brushes and my seal from China:
My Chinese ink brushes. (c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.
My personal collection of ink brushes and my Chinese seal and seal paste. (c) Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.


 Here is a fun link to generate for yourself a Chinese name and discover your Chinese zodiac: Chinese Name Generator.  Try it!

My name translated from:

Zara Alexis D. Garcia-Alvarez and born on January 6 is:


Zhen is in place of my given name, Zara, which means raise, excite, arouse action.

Rui is in place of Alexis, which means sharp.

I was born in the Chinese Year of the Tiger.


What is your Chinese generated name? What does it mean? Do you feel it properly reflects your personality and the sound of your English name?


To see more posts for The Asian Heritage Month Blog Event here at The Bibliotaphe’s Closet, please visit here.