East vs West Essay

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Chinese calligraphy & Western calligraphy

Weather in the East or in the West, calligraphy, the art of writing, is first and foremost an art form, by definition. This art is dedicated to practical purposes, but as any craft, it has taken its own individuality as an expression of the craftsman's abilities, his imagination, creative power and mastering of the specific techniques.

Calligraphy and literature are highly dependent on each other in Asia, particularly in China. Technology has brought typewriters and keyboards on writers' desks in most places in the world, yet Chinese writers as well as painters are still paying a great deal of effort and attention to the art of calligraphy. It is only through the lens of the Chinese culture that one might properly understand the value of calligraphy. Most of the western world would consider calligraphy as an art of the past with no particular resonance in the modern world. A way to understand why calligraphy is still important in some parts of the world, such as China, Japan or Korea, would be to look into its history.

Modern Chinese painters would still be guided toward learning to master to techniques of calligraphy in order to achieve the desired results in their paintings. One of the differences between modern and ancient Chinese calligraphy consists, according to Li Jikai, in the variation of constraints of form: "Despite its stylistic variety, ancient Chinese calligraphy generally followed specific rules and formats. By contrast, modern Chinese calligraphy is freer and less rule-governed."

Calligraphy offers an unexpected window into an artists' soul, regardless if the artists is writing in Chinese or any European language. Graphology has developed independently based on the observations made over time in the world of calligraphy. Every person's writing style is unique and its variations for the same person's handwriting can depend to a large degree on that person's disposition. Incomparably richer in symbols when comparing it to the western calligraphy which uses the Latin alphabet based on 22 letters, the ancient Chinese saw it necessary to standardize its style. Although the artist was left with a smaller degree of variation, calligraphy remained very personal.

Most materials are common in the Western as well as in the Eastern world of calligraphy: parchment, paper, silk, inks, brushes and pens. Ling Su Hua emphasizes the fact that Chinese and Japanese art treats calligraphy and painting as two interrelated art forms. The author enthusiastically pointed out that the art of calligraphy is still "the most popular art in China"(Ling Su Hua, 1954). One of the most striking differences between Chines and Western calligraphy, be it ancient or modern, is that few Western writers saw their writing style as essential to the content of their writings. The same applies to painters: European painters did not pay much attention to calligraphy and never considered it as essential to their work. The cultural differences between the West and Asia lead to a whole see of differences between western and Chinese calligraphy. The support, writing tools and colors may be the same, but the symbols themselves are of different roots. Attempts to compare and contrast the Chinese and Western calligraphy must look into the origins of those writings. The Chinese writing system started from pictograms.

David L. Keightley titles one of his essays: "The Origins of Writing in China: Scripts and cultural contexts." The author places the word cultural in the very title, thus showing the role culture plays in the context of Chinese writing. Being one of the oldest known to us and indigenous in character, Chinese writing plays a particularly important role in the world of art as well as in the ordinary world throughout China's history. Keightley quotes Michael Sullivan who understood the role calligraphy was reserved in the Chinese culture as pivotal: "Not only is a man's writing a clue to his temperament, his moral worth and his learning, but the uniquely ideographic nature of the Chinese script has charged each character with a richness of content and association the full range of which even the most scholarly can scarcely fathom" (Sullivan, cited by Keightely, 1991)

When analyzing calligraphy, most importantly Chinese Calligraphy, it is very important to start from the brush, as the primary tool. Since the first symbols of Chinese writing appeared till today, calligraphy has undergone a whole series of transformation and simplification. States united, the writing style needed to be adapted to the changing political and social circumstances. People needed adapted writing styles, thus standards and new rules were set in place. However, in spite of the standardization and the obvious practical purposes, calligraphy never actually descended from its throne in the world of the highly personal artistic expression. "Thus, Chinese calligraphy can be explained in terms of abstract painting; it is a combination of abstract structure and natural rhythm" (Li Jikai, 2011).

So far, looking back in the world of the manuscripts and painting in China, one has seen that calligraphy has been playing a particularly important role in the developing of the Chinese visual arts as well as in literature. When considering the role calligraphy plays in the western culture compared to the role it plays in the Eastern world, one has to keep in mind one important aspect: "Chinese writing and its relatives in the Sino-Tibetan family of languages, operates on quite a different principle from either cuneiforms or hieroglyphs. Unlike the latter, traditional Chinese writing is not truly phonetic; the writing system is made up of thousand of ideograms or logograms, each of which represents a concept or word" (Donald, 1991)

When considering calligraphy, one is bound to take into consideration the tools and the materials used for a certain work. Beside the actual visual image that appears in front of one's eyes, there is also the quality of the material and that of the tools and inks one used. The value of the content thus combines with that of the writing style and of the materials in order to provide the observer with as much information about the author of the manuscript as about its purpose and initial user(s). For example, an analysis of the handwriting in the first known piece of literature in the English language, the manuscript of Beowulf, dated around 1000 CE, shows that there were al least two writers who contributed to the creation of this document.

Some of the oldest manuscripts in the western world come from the ancient Greeks and Romans, of course. As many have emphasized, the very frail nature of the material of the manuscripts, few survive from those times. The scarcity of the material and its high costs made such documents travel through many hand, thus increasing the likelihood of their destruction through extensive use. Wars and extreme weather were also factors that contributed to the destruction of most of the ancient manuscripts both in China and in Europe. On the other hand, as Avi-Yonah explains: "it is astonishing how few manuscripts have sufficed to preserve the best writers of antiquity." With the spread of Latin over most of today's Western world, both religious and official manuscripts were mostly written in this language. Most of the surviving documents from medieval Europe come from the copies and translations monks made after ancient biblical texts.

The famous illuminated manuscripts, which date back to the classical period, developed and flourished in medieval Europe. Although very different in expression, they come closer to what calligraphy means to the Chinese culture than other forms of calligraphic expression from the western world. As Caswell Lazar notices in his book dedicated to this illuminated manuscripts, "the very idea of the embellished word, as an ongoing tradition, existed only when the word itself had more than a literal meaning and significance" (Lazar, 2012). According to the same author, the medieval illuminated manuscripts are threefold valuable: well preserved historic documents, testimonies of the evolution of design as well as of human thought. Illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages in Europe come closer to the meaning of calligraphy in Asia cultures because they combine the art of writing letters with that of the illumination of the word: the image, the painting. Often, the ground for such manuscripts used to be prepared as that for frescoes. Most of these manuscripts, as shown before, were religious in character, but there are also a few that belonged to the secular word: these were mainly astronomical treatises, the comedies of Terrance and the Psychomachia of Prudentius (an allegorical epic poem centered on the battle between the Virtues and Vices for the possession of the soul).

Considering the hugely different meaning calligraphy holds in the Chinese and the western world, respectively, the resemblances are only a few and belong mostly to the technical aspects of it. The differentiation in the use of symbols in the two parts of the world gives calligraphy different meanings in those particular frames. As underlined before, "if we look at modern Chinese writers in terms of calligraphic culture or "greater literature,"…[continue]

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