Tattoo Encyclopedia: “Shu Fa”

The most abstract form of art in Chinese Culture


“Shu Fa” is held to be most revealing of the artists’ personality. Unlike most art except for tattooing, all calligraphy strokes are permanent, demanding careful planning and the utmost confidence in execution. These two skills are required for a true calligraphy master. While one has to conform to predefined character structures the expressions found within calligraphy can be hugely varied and creative. To utilize ones’ imagination within the vigorously controlled acceptable forms of character scripts is a widely appreciated cultural virtue.

By controlling the concentration of ink, the thickness and absorption rate of the paper as well as the flexibility of the brush, the artist is free to produce an infinite variety of styles and forms. To the artist calligraphy is a mental exercise that coordinates the mind and the body. There is an undeniable life within calligraphy art, one that is unique to each creator. This level of individual interpretation for each single character is what separates genuine calligraphy writing from all pre-made font types. This level of possible unique variation is more widely appreciated than say various script types in alphabet based language writing.

Calligraphy is known throughout China as the art of brush writing. Chinese calligraphy or ‘Shu Fa’ is an art unique to Asian cultures. Within Chinese art history the practice of calligraphy has always been held in equal significance or importance as painting. Shu ‘calligraphy’ and Hua ‘painting’ are the two basic disciplines of the Chinese literati.

Chinese calligraphy, like the script itself, began with hieroglyphs. Over centuries of evolution it has developed innumerable styles and schools. Calligraphy now constitutes a quintessential part of Chinese cultural heritage. Forms of Chinese calligraphic script are typically separated into five separate types. The first is Zhuan or the ‘seal character’. The second is the official or clerical script known as ‘Li’. The third type is the regular script called ‘Kai’. Fourthly there is the ‘running-hand’ known as ‘Xing’. The fifth type is the cursive ‘Cao’. Those training in calligraphy will often work on developing their skills in a specific style before moving on to the next.


the Zhuan calligraphy script (also known as the seal character) was the earliest form of Chinese writing. This script derived it’s name as it was frequently used on seals throughout the government administration. The obvious derivation of the English translation of the ‘seal character’ also became known as the ‘curly script’ because of the flow or movement of the writing styles’ strokes.

In 221 BCE Emperor Qin Shi Huang was the first to unify all the disparate regions of China underneath one central administration. Emperor Qin ordered his then Prime Minister, Li Si, to collect and classify the wide array of dissimilar Chinese writing systems from across the country. This was the first nation-wide attempt at unifying the Chinese written language. Li was able to both simplify and unify the earliest form of the Xiao-Zhuan (small seal) script.


the Lishu or ‘official script’ came in the wake of the changes made to the Zhuan unified writing. And both of these aforementioned changes came within the same short-lived Qin Dynasty (from 221 – 207 BCE). This was down to the fact that despite the introduction of a unified script the writing itself was still too complicated for a number of scribes.

These scribes worked within the various government offices and had to copy an growing number of official documents. Cheng Miao was a prison warden who made a further simplifications to the Xiao-Zhuan style. By altering the curly strokes into straight or angular lines Cheng Miao subsequently reformed this unified script of calligraphy into a much less complicated style.


by this time the Lishu was widely used and its prevalence led to the adoption of Kai-Shu. Kai-Shu is otherwise known as the regular Chinese calligraphy script. The oldest recorded use of this calligraphy type dates back to the Wei era (220-265 BCE). The Kai-Shu script developed under the Jin dynasty dating from around 265 to 420 BCE. This regular script paved the way for the now conventional Chinese writing system of the square, non-cursive style characters.

These characters are composed from a combination of eight variations of brush strokes; horizontal, vertical, hook, rising, left-falling (which is in both short and long) and finally the right-falling strokes. Any student of calligraphy aspiring to achieve a master title will necessarily have to begin by learning to write an excellent hand in Kai-Shu script.


using the Lishu as its base, a separate type of writing known as Cao-Shu (grass writing or cursive hand) evolved. The grass-script is defined by rapid hand movements and is utilized primarily for making quick, albeit rough, copies. This cursive form of calligraphy is defined by the fluid characters that are executed swiftly with the lines of the strokes actually running together. The characters are often joined together at various points with the last stroke of preceding character  merging into the initial stroke of the following.

This form of cursive calligraphy also has great variations in size, even within the same piece of writing. Generally these striking variations are down to the whim of the calligrapher. Zhang Xu lived in the 8’th century and is one of the most notable masters of grass-script.

In the Tang Dynasty his writing was noted for the complete abandon in conventional shape and form his calligraphy conveyed. It is said that he would not start writing calligraphy until he was completely inebriated. Xu said that he did this in order to allow the calligraphy brush to “gallop” across the paper – curling, twisting or meandering in one unbroken stroke and thus creating a uniquely original style.


the archetypal example of the Xing-Shu script, as all Chinese calligraphers agree, is the inscription on Lanting Pavilion done by Wang Xi-Zhi. Xi-Zhi lived between 321 and 379 CE. In order to master Chinese calligraphic script – strict regimented practice is absolutely necessary.

Wang Xi-Zhi, who is widely held to have exerted a profound influence on both contemporary and modern calligraphers, is said to have turned all the water in the pond outside his childhood home black due to the sheer amount of brush washing required after his extensive calligraphy practice.

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