Chinese 书法 (shū fǎ), calligraphy, is the ancient art of Chinese handwriting. No publication on Chinese culture could ever omit mention of Chinese characters and calligraphy. For foreigners, 汉字 (hàn zì), Chinese characters, are hard to master, and calligraphy is even more difficult.
Calligraphy in France refers to writing with a quill pen, but it has a different connotation in Chinese. 书 (shū) means 写字 (xiě zì), writing, and its original complex form 书 refers to holding a brush with which to write on rice paper. But for me, in 书法 the character 法 (fǎ) is more significant, because it signifies rules and laws. In other words, Chinese calligraphy means to write in a certain way following specific rules. I would like to introduce in this article some vocabulary related to this art form of China.
China’s earliest written records are 甲骨文 (jiǎ gǔ wén), inscriptions on animal bones and tortoise shells, discovered from the 14th to 11th century BC. They are closely related to 占卜(zhān bǔ), divination. In ancient times the Chinese used tortoise shells or cow shoulder blades to make predictions by heating them over a fire. A 巫师 (wū shī), shaman, would interpret the resultant cracks in the bones as foretelling future events. At that time, writing was regarded as sacred – solely for communication with the gods and as speaking for them, similar to the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt.
For a period in ancient China, only 士 (shì), scholars and officials, could write. Ordinary people were illiterate. The ability to write thus implied authority. The word 士 is still used, for example in higher education, such as in 学士 (xué shì), bachelor’s degree, 硕士 (shuò shì), master’s degree, and 博士 (bó shì), doctorate.
In China, families of intellectuals or with intellectual forebears are called 书香门第 (shū xiāng mén dì). 书香 (shū xiāng) originates from the practice of placing the herb Cymbopogon distans between book pages to repel pests. The faint scent permeating the pages made books fragrant. Intellectuals in China have also been called 文人雅士 (wén rén yǎ shì), literati or men of letters with refined taste. As their main tasks are reading and learning, they are also called 读书人 (dú shū rén), people who read a lot, or 学者 (xué zhě), scholars.