Chinese Characters as Concept and the International Language of Visual Art


Session Title:

  • Cultural Heritage and Preservation

Presentation Title:

  • Chinese Characters as Concept and the International Language of Visual Art




  • Abstract
    This paper addresses the reality that a number of artists of China and the Chinese diaspora use Chinese characters in their work. Some of the characters are legible and some are not, but all are wrought with deep layers of meaning. The fact that the characters originated as pictures makes them even more relevant for the visual arts as an international language.

    Aesthetics of Brush Writing
    The ancient art of calligraphy, Chinese characters written with brush and ink, was and is considered an art form of the highest quality, even elevated above the art of painting. The traditional training for a professional calligrapher begins at a very young age and requires a great deal of self-discipline and repetitive practice. A work of calligraphy is revered for its abstract visual beauty, regardless of the meaning of the words. The most renowned of ancient calligraphers in China was Wang Xizhi, who lived in the 4th century. He is known for his method of manipulating the pressure of the brush to create strokes of varying width and density. This results in an illusion of depth in what is usually considered a two dimensional art form.

    The expressive character of Chinese brush writing, or calligraphy, when compared to painting, includes differences in ink thickness and opacity, and the weight of the hand on the brush. Varying amounts of water can be added to the ink to make gradations of black and grey, and the brush, which is held vertical, perpendicular to the paper, is pushed and pulled by the hand to vary the thickness of the stroke. There are also certain technical terms, like “flying white” to indicate a dryness of the stroke that leaves the white of the paper showing through.
    The Chinese written language began to develop as much as 3500 years ago, and began as pictures incised on oracle bones and later cast into bronze vessels. Modern Chinese characters are direct descendents of the ancient pictographs. Since each character represents a visual concept, the written form of Chinese can be read throughout the many distant dialects of modern China. This universal written language is an important unifying factor in much of China.

    It is no wonder that this visual communication system is utilized by a number of contemporary artists of China and the Chinese diaspora. It is used conceptually as an indicator of understanding or misunderstanding, communication or mis-communication, depending on the method of employment in the work of art.