Writing has always been central to the Chinese, not only as a means of preservation and dissemination of culture, but also as a marker of a person's intelligence and social status. The Chinese characters for calligraphy derive from the character for " book". Hence, mastery of calligraphy has always been closely linked with the attainment of knowledge, and it was historically a prerequisite for high office and often part of civil service exams.
The use of brushes in Chinese writing originated in the Shang Dynasty (16th-11th century B.C.), great calligraphic masters had appeared and it was accepted that one could glean the character and personality of the artist by the brushstroke and form demonstrated. The importance of calligraphy and its influence on the rest of Chinese painting was such that by the time of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), calligraphic inscriptions---often in the form of poems---had been incorporated as part of the overall painting.
In the history of Chinese calligraphy, there are four basic styles of writing. The first is the archaic Xiao Zhuan (Small-Seal Script), established in the Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C.) and which is meticulous and laborious. The square Li Shu, with its clear brushstrokes, was established in the Han Dynasty and used in official writing. Many of the inscriptions on steles of ancient Chinese classics are done in this style. Cao Shu or Cursive Style, in which brushstrokes are often joined together in one continuous flow, was developed as a quicker and simpler alternative to the more formal scripts. More so than any other style, the flamboyance of Cursive Style is a form of individual expression. Finally, Kai Shu or regular script is a combination of more formal Li Shu and the more expressive Cao Shu, and is the basis of today's standard calligraphic script.
Calligraphy is still highly esteemed, practiced by housewives and politicians alike. Even the old masters will claim they are but students of this fine art.
A Chinese calligrapher's tools, like those of a painter, are comprised of four basic items that are commonly referred to as the "four treasures of the study". They are the brush, ink, ink stone, and paper.
The brush has a wooden or bamboo handle with bristles from the hair of animals such as goat or deer. The bristles are shaped to a fine point. The black ink is derived from a mixture of oil or pine soot and glue, which is then dried into ink sticks. Mixing the ink with just the right amount of water in a nonporous ink stone is very important, as the consistency of the paint can affect the overall balance and harmony.
Chinese artists were painting and writing on silk as early as 400 B.C.
The aesthetic excellence of a piece of calligraphy is often determined by brushstroke, which is in turn judged by a set of abstract qualities that includes balance, vitality, strength, and texture. Much more than mere ink on paper, good calligraphy characters should feel alive and organic. The brushstrokes must be applied with skill, finesse, confidence, and speed.
Of course, no work of art --- including calligraphy --- would be complete without the artist's seal, or chop.