Learning Asian History Through Avatar: The Last Airbender [Chinese Calligraphy Edition]
[Image: A poster of The Ember Island Players “The Boy in the Iceberg” propaganda play. The text reads in Chinese Calligraphy - 冰山上的男孩. 土國著名劇作家浦安添新作搜集全球有関降世神通資料由南極冰山至土國首都．資料来自牧民歌手海盜戰犯和菜販． 由餘烬島演員主演. In english this translates to - “The Boy in the Iceberg: The famous Earth Kingdom playwright Pu-On Tim’s new work has collected information about the Avatar from around the globe, from the icebergs of the South Pole to the Earth Kingdom capital. Information came from nomad singers, pirates, prisoners of war and a knowledgeable merchant of cabbage. Starring the Ember Island Players.” ]
I’ve been asked to recommend places for research on Chinese Calligraphy, but I found myself wanting to combine this with another A:TLA post and a brief overview of what Chinese Calligraphy is. Avatar: The Last Airbender makes a perfect example of Chinese Calligraphy for one major reason - every line of text in the series is written in either Classical or Ancient Chinese calligraphy by cultural consultant Dr. Siu-Leung Lee who is an expert in a variety of styles.
So about Chinese Calligraphy? What’s the deal?
Chinese Calligraphy (the artistic creation of Chinese characters) dates back to Ancient China (BCE) and it is still used, practiced, and created today. It covers a long period of time, and is a huge formative influence even beyond China, including Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.
Calligraphy serves as both a discipline, and an artform, and has several rules that govern its practice. Generally speaking, characters must be: written correctly (with the right stroke order), written legibly for those who are familiar with the style being used, they must be concise, they must match the context they are serving in, and they must be ‘aesthetically pleasing’.
The tools of the trade…
The ink brush, ink, paper, and inkstone are essential implements of East Asian calligraphy: they are known together as the Four Treasures of the Study (T: 文房四寶 / S: 文房四宝) in China, and as the Four Friends of the Study (HG: 문방사우 / HJ: 文房四友) in Korea. In addition to these four tools, desk pads and paperweights are also used by calligraphers.
Early Chinese Calligraphy
The earliest known examples of Chinese writing are inscriptions on animal bones and tortoise shells dating from the 13th century B.C. during the Shang dynasty. These inscriptions were the records of divinations made by heating the bones or shells over a fire until cracks appeared on them. Predictions were read form the pattern of the cracks and recorded directly on the bone or shell. The figure below shows an oracle carved on the plastron of a tortoise. Note that the characters are composed of fairly straight lines with sharp endings.
The Great Seal Style
This term covers a broad range of styles which came into use during the Chou dynasty (1122-221 B.C.). Compared to the Oracle Style, these characters are more rounded at the corners and show a mixture of thick and thin strokes. Many of the surviving examples of this style, such as the one below, come from inscriptions that were cast on bronze vessels. At the bottom of the first column is the pictograph (picture-word) for “house.” The first word in the second column is also a pictograph. It shows “carriage” from a bird’s eye view — a compartment with two wheels on either side, joined by an axle.
The seal script (often called “small seal” script) is the formal script of the Qín system of writing, which evolved during the Eastern Zhōu dynasty in the state of Qín and was imposed as the standard in areas Qín gradually conquered. Although some modern calligraphers practice the most ancient oracle bone script as well as various other scripts older than seal script found on Zhōu dynasty bronze inscriptions, seal script is the oldest style that continues to be widely practiced.
Then came later styles -
This image compares Traditional and Clerical styles, with the Clerical style being the right hand side.
The clerical script (often simply termed lìshū; and sometimes called “official”, “draft”, or “scribal” script) is popularly thought to have developed in the Hàn dynasty and to have come directly from seal script, but recent archaeological discoveries and scholarship indicate that it instead developed from a roughly executed and rectilinear popular or ‘vulgar’ variant of the seal script as well as from seal script itself, resulting first in a ‘proto-clerical’ version in the Warring States period to Qín Dynasty , which then developed into clerical script in the early Western Hàn dynasty, and matured stylistically thereafter.
Clerical script characters are often “flat” in appearance, being wider than the preceding seal script and the modern standard script, both of which tend to be taller than they are wide; some versions of clerical are square, and others are wider. Compared with the preceding seal script, forms are strikingly rectilinear; however, some curvature and some seal script influence often remains. Seal script tended towards uniformity of stroke width, but clerical script gave the brush freer rein, returning to the variations in width seen in early Zhōu brushwork. Most noticeable is the dramatically flared tail of one dominant horizontal or downward-diagonal stroke, especially that to the lower right. This characteristic stroke has famously been called ‘silkworm head and wild goose tail’ (蠶頭雁尾 cántóu yànwěi）in Chinese) due to its distinctive shape.
The semi-cursive script (also called “running” script, 行書) approximates normal handwriting in which strokes and, more rarely, characters are allowed to run into one another. In writing in the semi-cursive script, the brush leaves the paper less often than in the regular script. Characters appear less angular and rounder. The characters are also more bold.
The cursive script (sometimes called “grass script”, 草書) is a fully cursive script, with drastic simplifications requiring specialized knowledge; even a person who can read the semi-cursive script cannot be expected to read the cursive script without training.
Entire characters may be written without lifting the brush from the paper at all, and characters frequently flow into one another. Strokes are modified or eliminated completely to facilitate smooth writing and to create a beautiful, abstract appearance. Characters are highly rounded and soft in appearance, with a noticeable lack of angular lines. Due to the drastic simplification and ligature involved, this script is not considered particularly legible to the average person, and thus has never achieved widespread use beyond the realm of literati calligraphers.
The cursive script is the source of Japanese hiragana, as well as many modern simplified forms in Simplified Chinese characters and Japanese shinjitai.
David Beckham has an excellent example of (correct) Chinese Grass Script as a tattoo. It reads: “生死有命 富貴在天”, which is Chinese proverb of “death and life have determined appointments, riches and honor depend upon heaven.”
[It is not recommended you get a tattoo in Chinese until you can actually read Chinese, or you have very gracious friends who do that you trust very very much.]
Sources & Further Reading: