Chinese calligraphy: A top guide to the art of Chinese characters

Want to learn more about Chinese calligraphy but aren’t sure where to start? This guide will take you all the way.

Learning Chinese can take you places you maybe wouldn’t expect from a simple language classroom. The Chinese language involves more than just learning Chinese grammar rules and memorizing vocabulary words — learning Chinese also requires learning about Chinese culture, art, food, and society.

As you may have noticed, Chinese doesn’t have an alphabet like Latin languages do. Instead, Chinese characters are made of strokes, radicals, and other components that make up modern Chinese scripts. But where exactly do these characters come from, and how were they created? Chinese calligraphy can help us understand and appreciate the rich history behind these characters on a different level.

The art of writing Chinese characters is much more than just a means of communication — it’s an expression of thousands of years of cultural legacy. This form, revered as one of the highest visual arts in China, beautifully blends the precision of Chinese characters with the aesthetic freedom of painting.

Whether you’re a complete beginner in Chinese or have already taken a few classes before, you’re sure to gain a whole new appreciation for the language after learning about the basics of calligraphy in Chinese. Let’s dive in!

Table of Contents

An introduction to Chinese calligraphy

Although you might be eager to take your brush and start your first calligraphy session, let’s take a moment to review the basics of calligraphy. This will help you understand why we have calligraphy in the first place and appreciate it for its historical and cultural significance.


History of Chinese calligraphy

The history of Chinese calligraphy spans thousands of centuries, tracing back to ancient civilizations. It began with pictographs and simple inscriptions on oracle bones and bronze vessels, which can be traced back to as early as the Shang Dynasty, around 1600 BCE to 1100 BCE, and eventually evolved into more advanced styles and techniques, from the angular scripts etched in stone to the flowing brushstrokes on silk and bamboo.

Around 220 BCE, Emperor Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇, 259–210 BCE), the first ruler to unify China, implemented several reforms, including the standardization of Chinese characters. His advisor Li Si (李斯, 246–208 BCE) led the process, establishing a set of 3,300 characters. By this period, writing brushes have already been invented. However, it wasn’t until the Han Dynasty that brushes and paper became more widely used writing tools that we are familiar with today, thanks to developments in brush-making and the invention of paper.

Calligraphy in Chinese art

In Chinese art, calligraphy is a fundamental form that is closely tied to Chinese philosophy and aesthetics. Alongside painting, poetry, and music, calligraphy is celebrated as a form of artistic and scholarly expression.

For artists and scholars, calligraphy serves as a spiritual practice that mirrors the writer’s personality and mood. Although when writing each character, there is a structured stroke order to follow, each writer still has room to use their own unique way of tracing each stroke. In fact, it is said that a single stroke can reveal the calligrapher’s skill and state of mind — helping you get a glimpse into their emotions and well-being. Due to its profound significance, calligraphy is seen as both visual art and literature, often displayed in homes and spaces, showcasing artworks with pride.

Is Chinese calligraphy just writing Chinese characters?

To the untrained eye, Chinese calligraphy may appear as merely a series of written characters. However, to those familiar with its depths, it represents a complex interplay of history, technique, and personal expression. Calligraphy isn’t just writing characters — it’s an artistic practice where every stroke is meticulously planned and vibrates with meaning.

Calligraphers must consider the weight, texture, and absorbency of the paper. To do this, they must consider the viscosity of the ink and the flexibility of the brush and understand the traditional rules governing the structure of characters, which demand precision and creativity in equal parts. Additionally, the rhythm, balance, and harmony of the composition are crucial, turning each character into a unique artistic expression.

Chinese pictographs

Pictographs are characters that visually represent objects or concepts through graceful strokes. These are the origins of the Chinese writing system, and they typically represent simple concepts like fire and trees. Since there is no Chinese alphabet, characters quickly evolved past pictograms into ideograms and other types, which is why we have thousands and thousands of characters today.

RainyeuRepresents rain falling from the sky with clouds, visually depicted as dots under a line (sky) and an unsealed box (cloud).
CarchēcheThe traditional character (車) depicts a chariot, showing a side view with two wheels and the carriage in the middle.
BigdahDepicts a person stretching out arms and legs, symbolizing “big” or “great.”
TreemuhResembles a tree with branches.
EyemuhLooks like an eye turned vertically with the pupil in the middle.
Electricity/lightningdiàndiannThe traditional form (電) shows a rain cloud with bolts, suggesting the idea of lightning.
FirehuǒhuooRepresents fire flames leaping upwards.
MountainshānshanLooks like a mountain range with three peaks.
SunryhRepresents the sun, depicted as a rectangle with a bar, indicating the light spot of the sun.
MouthkǒukoouClearly looks like an open mouth.
PersonrénrenLooks like a person walking in profile, with open legs and a torso.
FieldtiántyanClearly shows divided fields, representing farmland.
HeartxīnshinOriginally written in a form that looks like a heart, representing the heart and emotions.
PowerlihRepresents a flexing arm, symbolizing strength or force.
WatershuǐshoeiOriginally written in a form that resembles flowing water or waves.
HorsemaaThe traditional character (馬) shows the features of a horse, clearly illustrating its form with four legs and all.
RicemiiRepresents rice grains placed beside a plant stalk in the middle.
SheepyángyangShows the head, body and horns of a sheep.
DoorménmenThe traditional character (門) represents a door with two side panels.
NetwǎngwoangOriginally written in a form representing ropes intertwined between wooden piles as a fishing tool.

Chinese calligraphy basics

Technically, you don’t need anything specific to practice calligraphy. You can practice with your finger in the sand or with a garden hose on the street. Really, you could even use your imagination and your hand to draw air characters!

With that said, nothing beats having the proper tools and knowing the right form of calligraphy. Here’s what you should know, even if you’re a complete beginner.



Chinese calligraphy relies on a set of traditional tools, collectively known as the “Four Treasures of the Study” (文房四宝, wén fáng sì bǎo). Each element plays a crucial role in the practice, bringing together the spiritual and material aspects of this ancient art. Here are some essential materials:

Brush毛笔máo bǐmau biiA soft brush used for writing, typically made from animal hair. This is the most important tool in calligraphy!
InkstickmohSolid ink used in calligraphy, ground and mixed with water on an inkstone. It produces rich, deep black tones.
Paper宣纸xuān zhǐshiuan jyySpecial paper designed for calligraphy. It’s highly absorbent and thin ideal for ink brushes.
Inkstone砚台yàn táiyann tairA stone platform used for grinding inksticks with water to make liquid ink. It’s known for its durability and aesthetics.
Paperweights镇纸/纸镇zhèn zhǐ / zhǐ zhènjenn jyy jyy jennUsed to hold down the paper on the desk, preventing it from moving while writing.
Desk pad书法垫shū fǎ diàn

shu faa diannA felt pad placed under the paper to provide a smooth, stable and absorbent surface for writing.
Seal印章yìn zhāngyinn jangOften carved from stone and used to stamp the artist’s name or a meaningful symbol in red ink on the artwork.
Seal paste印泥yìn níyinn niRed ink paste used with seals to leave impressions on artwork, marking authenticity and ownership.
Brush holder笔架bǐ jiàbii jiahA stand or rack used to hold brushes when not in use, keeping them in good shape and within reach.
Brush rest笔搁bǐ gēbii geA small tool where the brush is rested during pauses in writing to prevent the ink from smudging the paper.
Water dropper砚滴/水滴yàn dī/shuǐ dīyann di/shoei diUsed to add water to the inkstone with precision to control the ink’s consistency.
Water well水盂shuǐ yúshoei yuA container used to store clean water for mixing with ink or washing brushes.
Silk Cloth绢布juàn bùjiuann buhA type of light, smooth and thin silk fabric used as a writing surface in calligraphy. It’s easy to store and can be preserved for many years.
Fan扇子shàn zishann tzyA medium for calligraphic art, especially for poems.
Script guide字帖zì tiètzyh tiehPractice books with examples of different script styles, used for learning and reference.
Ruler直尺/尺子zhí chǐ/chǐ zijyr chyy/chyy tzyUsed for measuring and creating lines to ensure text alignment and spacing.
Magnifying glass放大镜fàng dà jìngfanq dah jinqUsed to inspect and refine small details in intricate characters.
Lighting灯光dēng guāngdeng guangProper lighting is crucial for ensuring that the artist can see the fine details clearly.
Atmospheric elements气氛/氛围元素qì fēn / fēn wéi yuán sùchih fen fen wei yuan suhElements like incense or soft music that create a conductive atmosphere for the meditative aspect of calligraphy.

Chinese calligraphy strokes

Calligraphy as a discipline, follows a structured order of strokes. Each character is built of a finite number of strokes, each with its own direction and order within the construction of the character. Think of them as different types of bricks that, when organized in different ways, can make many types of buildings.

Stroke ExamplesChinesePinyinPronunciationDescription
héngherngA horizontal stroke, often starting thin and ending with a slight tick.
shùshuhA vertical stroke that falls downwards, typically starting thick and ending in a taper.
diǎndeanA small dot or a slight dab, quick and forceful.
丿piěpieeA swift, leftward stroke that arcs downwards, thinning as it goes.
nahA rightward pressing motion that starts thin, broadens, and often finishes with a sharp taper.
𠃍zhéjerA bending stroke that changes direction clearly, fundamental for constructing complex shapes.
gōugouA hook-like stroke, added typically at the end of a stroke sequence.
tyiA lifting stroke, where the brush is smoothly lifted away from the paper to end the stroke.


Did you know that your posture can impact how you draw Chinese characters? Indeed, practicing calligraphy isn’t just about mastering strokes but also about adopting the right posture. The traditional posture used in calligraphy is a reflection of the mental state needed for this meditative art form, which also provides the correct ergonomic support for nailing the stokes.

Here are the recommended postures and their Chinese names to help you practice your calligraphy with the precision of a true master:

Correct sitting posture (端坐, duān zuò)

You must sit upright and centered at the table, ensuring that your body is balanced and stable. The back should be straight, shoulders relaxed, and feet flat on the ground. This position promotes steady breathing and allows for greater control over fine motor movements, essential for precise brushwork.

Hand posture (手势, shǒu shì)

You should grip the brush firmly but not tightly between the thumb and the first two fingers, with the remaining fingers supporting the brush from below. This grip allows for a range of motion necessary for creating the various strokes while maintaining a relaxed hand posture.

Distance from the table (桌边距, zhuō biān jù)

Maintaining an appropriate distance from the table is crucial. Calligraphers should sit close enough to the table to have full control over their arm movements but far enough to prevent the body from leaning too far forward, which can lead to tension and fatigue.

Eye positions (目视方位, mù shì fāng wèi)

Keeping the eye comfortably positioned with a clear view of the paper and the brush tip is extremely important for nailing calligraphy. This position should allow the calligrapher to see their work without straining the neck or eyes, ensuring accuracy in stroke placement and brush movement.

Mental focus (精神集中, jīng shén jí zhōng)

Finally, 精神集中 (jīng shén jí zhōng) emphasizes the importance of mental focus and calmness. Calligraphy requires a peaceful and focused mind, as the emotional and mental state of the calligrapher can influence the fluidity and quality of the strokes. Calligraphers often take a few moments to clear their minds and focus their energy before beginning a session.

Tips and advice

Can’t wait any longer to start working on your first art piece? Then take a look at the following quick tips for learning Chinese calligraphy!

  • Choose quality materials: Invest in high-quality brushes, ink, and paper. Good materials will last longer and provide a better experience and results. Experiment with different brush sizes and types to find what best suits your style.
  • Take classes: Enrolling in calligraphy classes can provide the structured learning and direct feedback from experienced instructors you need to become an expert.
  • Control ink flow: Manage the amount of ink on your brush to avoid blotches. Start with less ink to ensure smoother strokes and gradually adjust based on your brush handling comfort.
  • Practice consistency: Work on maintaining consistent pressure, angle, and speed throughout your strokes.
  • Try out various scripts: Familiarize yourself with the calligraphic styles (more on this in the following section!). Each style has its own rules and beauty, so you can choose the one that vibes the most with you.
  • Use guidelines: Using grids or guideline papers can help you align characters and maintain proportions when you’re just starting to learn. Over time, this will help you develop a sense of spacing that is vital for freehand calligraphy.
  • Study the masters: Analyze and replicate works by renowned calligraphers to understand the different techniques and applications of strokes.
  • Mind the environment: Create a conducive environment for writing. A quiet, well-lit space can enhance your focus and overall calligraphy experience.
  • Join a community: Engage with other calligraphy enthusiasts or join classes and workshops. Learning from others can provide new insights, motivate you, and improve your skills through feedback.
  • Reflect and adjust: Take some time to reflect on your work after each practice session. Identify areas of improvement and adjust your technique accordingly in your next session.

Chinese calligraphy styles

Over the millennia, there have been several Chinese scripts that have evolved from the very basics. Although most of these scripts aren’t used in everyday communication anymore, they’re still commonly appreciated in calligraphy. Here are some of the most commonly practiced:

Seal script 篆书 (zhuàn shū)

Seal script is the ancient form of Chinese calligraphy that became prominent during the Qin Dynasty over 2,000 years ago, known for its intricate and rounded strokes with relatively even thickness. Originating over 3,000 years ago, these characters are beautifully complex, carved into stone and metal for making seals. This script is notable for its rounded, intricate strokes that gracefully twist and turn, capturing the elegance of ancient Chinese writing.

Learning Seal script offers insights into the ceremonial and administrative life of early Chinese civilizations. The robust and detailed characters of Seal script require meticulous brush control, making the practice both challenging and deeply rewarding for those interested in the origins of Chinese script.

Clerical script 隶书 (lì shū)

Clerical script achieved the highest popularity during the Han Dynasty, evolving from Seal script under the influence of administrative needs. It features characters with a distinctly flattened, broad brushstroke style that emphasizes clarity and readability, which are crucial for official documentation. Clerical script’s aesthetic — marked by strong, measured lines and a slightly tilted brush angle — reflects the practicality and formality of the bureaucratic systems of ancient China. For calligraphy enthusiasts, mastering the Clerical script isn’t just about learning a new style — it’s about connecting with the historical narrative of Chinese governance.

Standard script 楷书 (kǎi shū)

The Standard script, also known as Regular script, is the cornerstone of contemporary Chinese calligraphy and typography. Developed from clerical script, this style is prized for its precision and uniformity, making it ideal for educational, professional, and various formal writings.

Standard script is characterized by its structured and balanced characters that are designed to be easily legible, providing a foundational script for learners of Chinese calligraphy. The discipline required to master Standard script offers a deep understanding of the spatial and proportional aesthetics of Chinese characters, both essential skills for any advanced study of the art.

Cursive script 草书 (cǎo shū)

If you’re looking for a free-form script, then this is it. Known for its bold and unrestrained style, cursive script is as personalized as calligraphy gets. It’s characterized by abbreviated and sometimes radically transformed character forms, where strokes and components are often merged or omitted entirely.

This script is also the preferred one for speed writers, as its flexibility allows you to write as fast as your brush/pen allows you to. Learning cursive script will challenge you to let go of strict formality and embrace your creative instincts, making it a true artistic challenge. And good luck reading the cursive script — that will require tons of creativity as well!

Semicursive script 行书 (xíng shū)

This script, also known as running script, is a bridge between the meticulous Standard script and the unrestrained Cursive script. It evolved as a practical means for faster writing while maintaining legibility. With its flowing, connected strokes, semicursive allows for quicker writing speeds without fully abandoning the form of the characters.

This style is especially popular for personal correspondence, so it might be a good choice if you’re planning on writing a letter in Chinese any time soon.

Fun facts

Differences between English and Chinese calligraphy

If you’re familiar with English calligraphy, you might be wondering if your skills will transfer over. While there are many similarities between the two art forms, there are several important differences to keep in mind before you start practicing calligraphy in Chinese:

Script and symbol systems

English calligraphy is based on the Latin alphabet, which consists of 26 letters that can be written in upper or lower case. This linear alphabet forms words through combinations of these letters, making it a relatively straightforward system to learn. In contrast, Chinese calligraphy is composed of thousands and thousands of characters, each representing a word or a component of a word. This makes it highly symbolic.

Tools and techniques

Traditional Chinese calligraphy is predominantly performed with a brush and ink on paper, which allows for a variety of stroke widths and intensities depending on the pressure, angle, and speed of the brush. This creates a dynamic range of expressions within a single character.

English calligraphy, while it can also be performed with brushes, is more commonly associated with the use of pens like broad-nibbed and pointed-nib pens. These tools provide a different texture and precision, generally focusing on uniform stroke widths and more precise lettering.

Artistic expression

Chinese calligraphy is deeply rooted in Taoist and Confucian philosophies, emphasizing the flow of energy (Qi), balance, and harmony. Each stroke can reveal the calligrapher’s emotions, character, and level of spiritual mastery. English calligraphy, while also artistic, often emphasizes readability and ornamentation of text and is closely associated with the documentation of manuscripts, wedding invitations, and other formal documents.

Cultural significance

In China, calligraphy is considered one of the highest forms of visual art. It’s deeply connected with the literary culture and appreciated on a similar level as painting. Mastering calligraphy is a sign of scholarship and cultural refinement in China, making it a popular hobby. In Western cultures, while calligraphy is respected as an art form and craft, it doesn’t hold the same profound cultural and philosophical significance and is often viewed as a skill or simply as decorative art.


Learning Chinese calligraphy involves understanding the individual characters, their historical development, and mastering the various script styles. The complexity of characters and the importance of stroke order add layers of difficulty. English calligraphy, on the other hand, typically involves mastering different font styles and focuses on the aesthetic arrangement of letters and words.

How to appreciate Chinese calligraphy

Appreciating Chinese calligraphy is a different journey for everyone. Some of us have an almost innate appreciation for the beauty and complexity of each character, while others struggle to

Museums to see Chinese calligraphy in US and China

Any true Chinese calligraphy connoisseur will jump at the opportunity to see some of the master’s works in the flesh. Luckily, you probably don’t need to travel all the way to China to see some incredible Chinese calligraphy! These museums in the United States have extensive displays of Chinese art and calligraphy:

  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York): This museum features an extensive collection of classical Chinese calligraphy, showcasing important historical works and contemporary pieces across multiple galleries.
  • Freer Gallery of Art (Washington D.C.): This gallery hosts exceptional Chinese calligraphy in its Asian art collection, with many ancient manuscripts and artworks highlighting traditional techniques.
  • San Francisco Asian Art Museum: This museum offers a great selection of calligraphy from ancient dynasties to contemporary works.
  • Los Angeles County Museum of Art: This museum exhibits a great variety of calligraphy in Chinese, perfect for appreciating the evolving styles and aesthetic expressions of different dynasties.
  • Art Institute of Chicago: Showcases Chinese calligraphy works alongside other Asian art forms, helpful for comparing it to other styles.

And if and when you get the chance, you should definitely visit some of the best museums for calligraphy in China:

  • The Palace Museum (Beijing): Located in the Forbidden City, this museum offers an extensive collection of imperial-era calligraphy, including works from notable emperors and scholars.
  • Shanghai Museum: This museum has a massive collection of ancient and modern Chinese calligraphy spanning over 5,000 years!
  • National Art Museum of China (Beijing): Features a curated selection of traditional and contemporary Chinese calligraphy, highlighting both established and up-and-coming artists.
  • Nanjing Museum (Jiangsu Province): Offers a comprehensive collection of Chinese calligraphy from multiple dynasties. It often has special exhibitions highlighting calligraphers from different times.
  • Liaoning Provincial Museum (Shenyang Province): Known for its impressive collection of Ming and Qing dynasty calligraphy. This museum offers a glimpse into the art of ancient China.

Chinese calligraphy generators

Especially at first, you’ll want to copy the calligraphy characters from somewhere else before attempting them on your own. But with so many characters and script types available, how do you know where to find the exact character you want? Fortunately, there are plenty of Chinese calligraphy generators that can help you easily create models for your calligraphy.

Some of the best Chinese calligraphy generators are:

  • Supfree Converter: A versatile tool that converts text between different Chinese character scripts, simplifying the switch from Simplified to Traditional and vice versa.
  • Cidianwang: A digital Chinese dictionary and reference tool, helpful for looking up characters, understanding meanings, and improving calligraphy skills.
  • Offers digital tools tailored for Chinese calligraphy practice, including stroke order guides and writing exercises. It’s a very useful resource for learners looking to refine their calligraphy technique and understand proper stroke sequences.

Embrace the beauty of the brush

In such a fast-paced world, it’s always important to take some time to slow down and appreciate art. Even if you’re learning Chinese for politics or marketing, understanding and appreciating Chinese calligraphy can help round out your knowledge and make you a better Chinese speaker. And for more articles about all things Chinese grammar and vocab, check out our Mandarin blog!

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