Friday, December 24, 2010

Wong Joon Tai on Lishu 运开临隶书

It is inevitable that a new learner of Chinese calligraphy will ask these questions: Where do I start if I want to learn Chinese Calligraphy? What model calligraphic books should I use as a beginner?

Perhaps the easy way out is to find a good teacher. However, it is all too easy to talk about finding a good teacher.

Su Dongpo once said, ‘Running script is evolved from Standard script, and Cursive script from Running script. Standard script is like standing, Running script is like walking, and Cursive script is like running. It is not possible to learn walking before standing and to learn running before walking.’ In other words, you must master the basic skills by learning a Standard script before you are able to learn more complex skills.

Standard script refers to Official, Clerical and Regular scripts. As it is often said that all roads lead to Rome, so you can start the learning journey with either Official, Clerical or Regular script. But, our ancient masters also advised that, if you follow the very best, you probably can achieve fairly good result; and if you follow the fairly good, you can achieve only mediocre result. So, it is better that you choose the best method to start with. According to some calligraphy educationists in China, it is best to start with the Official script as it is the origin of the Chinese calligraphy. As Clerical script is the link between Official script and Regular script, it is the second best to start with. Regular script is the newest form of the three scripts, and when learning it, one must always refer back to the other two older scripts, and therefore it is the worst to start with.

From past experience, it is not effective to start with Regular script. This is because the structure of Regular script is too complicated and difficult to master. If the application of brush techniques is over emphasized, it will lead to a loss of interest in learning and therefore makes it difficult to achieve required result. On the other hand, Official script is an ancient script that is not recognizable by most people today, and as a result, there is a lack of interest in learning it.
It seems that taking the middle ground of starting with Clerical script is the most suitable way to go in our current social environment.

My own learning journey seems to confirm the above learning theory. I started with various Official scripts, and the feeling was that ‘not knowing what I was writing’. I then switched to practice Clerical script. At the Calligraphy Society, I was told to start with Regular script and then followed by Running script. This year, while learning the Running and Cursive scripts, I decided to practice the Clerical script again. I have discovered through this new experience that by taking the middle ground of starting with Clerical script, one can accomplish twice as much with half the effort.

‘The best method’ also refers to selecting the most suitable model calligraphic work to start with. The general rule is to select the most accepted calligraphic works and avoid those written by recent or contemporary calligraphers. Among the Han dynasty tablet inscriptions in clerical script, Cao Quan Stele and Ritual Vessels Stele are two shinning gems of the ‘delicate beauty’ category. New learners can therefore start with any one of them.

Shown here is my copy work of Caoquan Stele.
运开临曹全碑 Copy Work of Caoquan Stele








  1. 看来取法乎上不是硬道理,取法乎中是务实。高见也。

  2. We have 7 persons responded to our survey during the 7 days, of which 4 of them, or 57% said they started learning calligraphy with Kaishu; 2, or 23% started with Lishu and 1, or 14% learns from his teacher's calligraphy. While the number of participants is quite small, the result appears to be quite representative of the current state of affairs.