Calligraphy: Words Become Art All Around The World


Calligraphy can be considered a formative art that uses writing as its medium. While typical writing is used as a set of signs designed to replace spoken words, calligraphy tries to be something more. Many of the first characters in history were primitive pictorial representations without a fixed form (Tomohiko,1967). Overtime, these characters became progressively pared down from their original objects and were instead connected with geometrical arrangements (Tomohiko,1967). Calligraphy, then, can be considered in many ways to be a departure from abstraction towards a visual expression of meaning. The calligrapher becomes free in their arrangements to create art that merges writing, visuals, and the personality of the calligrapher. Calligraphic scripts have undergone many alterations throughout history, which have led to new calligraphic styles and accompanying names all over the world.


The tools and techniques used by calligraphers have varied greatly over massive spans of geography and history. Paper was selected for its gloss; a balance was required so that the ink does not unintentionally spread around the page (Negahban, 1989). To write on paper, Japanese calligraphers would use hair writing brushes. The hair allows the ink to be spread in different ways depending on the speed and pressure applied by the calligrapher (Tomohiko, 1967). Persian calligraphers, however, have traditionally used pens cut from reeds. The nib is cut differently depending on the intended style of writing (Negahban, 1989).


Learning the art of calligraphy typically followed a master and student relationship. Masters would provide their students with writing specimens to copy and eventually develop further into a style of their own creation (Tomohiko, 1967). Like many other cultures, Islamic masters would begin the study of calligraphy at a young age and continue throughout their lifetime (Ernst, 1992). In addition to placing an importance on the formal aspects of their script, Islamic calligraphers also sought intellectual mastery, purification of the heart, and intense love (Ernst, 1992). They believed that a calligrapher required moderation and balance in the soul, otherwise the expression of the divine beauty with pen and ink would become flawed (Ernst, 1992).

The Western World

 The West, influence by its artists, pursued the chimera of “divine proportion,” the mathematical relationship believed to be the key to beauty. (Druet, 1988)

The history of European typographical design begins with the Phoenicians and Greeks. These seafaring and colonizing cultures invented the early alphabets that could carry precise and legible messages over long distances (Druet, 1988). Thus, the priority of Western scripts arose from a need for speed of execution and simplicity of design. It wasn’t until the development of the Latin script, appearing about 600 B.C. in Rome, that the merging of words and art truly began in the West (Druet, 1988). The original square capitals used in Latin eventually evolved to an early form of cursive script, followed by a rounded uncial script in the second and third centuries (Memidex, 2012). The Book of Kells, a massive Gospel codex created by Celtic monks in the eighth century, serves as an example of how Latin calligraphy can merge with illustrations to produce a dense visual masterpiece (Lewis, 1980).

As universities arose in Europe during the twelfth century, so to did the need for a small font size that could aid a diminishing supply of parchment paper (Druet, 1988). The creation of the Gothic style, with its angular and narrow dimensions, became the solution (Druet, 1988). The invention of spectacles in the fifteenth century also helped to support the trend for writing to become smaller (Druet, 1988). However, the humanist scholars of the fifteenth-century Italy considered Gothic script to be too blurred from and distance and too straining close up (Druet, 1988). The Italian Renaissance consequently looked to classical antiquity for inspiration. These calligraphers revived the simplicity and clarity that was found in ancient monumental lettering, which is characteristic of printing today (Druet, 1988).

Around 1450, the German printer Johannes Gensfleisch, known as Gutenberg, created the first printing press (Druet, 1988). His forty-two-line Bible was printed in Gothic lettering, which was the world’s first typeface (Druet, 1988). Afterwards, Gutenberg created nearly three hundred different typefaces so he could reproduce different scripts as accurately as possible (Druet, 1988). Gutenberg’s printing press spread throughout parts of Europe and so did new typography and typefaces. Consequently, calligraphers in the west became, in many respects, typography designers who developed typefaces and prints to meet the needs of readers, governments, poets, publishers, advertisers, and art admirers.


 The Islamic tradition considers calligraphy a powerful visual form for conveying aesthetics and cultural messages. (Siddiq, 2005)

Bengal, a historical region in the northeast region of the Indian Subcontinent, has been the source of numerous calligraphy artifacts since the late Middle Ages. Prior to this pre-Islamic period in Bengal, most artists and craftsmen did not use their skills to exhibit calligraphy (Siddiq, 2005). Rather, after the advent of Islam in Bengal, around the seventh century, many Muslim rulers ordered for large architectural projects to be completed with calligraphic inscriptions (Siddiq, 2005). Visually powerful inscriptions would often play a central role in architectural decoration (Siddiq, 2005). Calligraphers had to adopt new methods and practices continuously produce appealing effects for such projects.

Religious glorification is a major part of most monumental calligraphy in Bengal. Mosques would regularly be decorated with divine names and adjectives. When Islam suddenly spread into the Bengal and the east, many newly converted Muslims had difficulties imaging the formless God of the Islamic faith (Siddiq, 2005). The written form of ‘Allah’ in Arabic, however, provided these individuals with a valuable mental image that could be used for contemplating about God.


The calligrapher is an envoy of mystery, and the undereducated will never be able to master or comprehend it. Wang Xizhi, The Chinese Saint of Calligraphy (Zheng, 1994)

For thousands of years, calligraphy has remained a popular cultural form in China. It has undergone a long evolution and developed a variety of styles. Chinese calligraphy is known for showing excellent unity between form and content (Zheng,1994) It has also held a mystic status.

Famous Chinese calligraphers were said to have acquired their artful skills in their dreams or from God (Zheng, 1994). Calligraphy became a domain reserved only by those few qualified intellectuals of leisure, intelligence, and luck (Zheng, 2005). It became equated with Confucian elegance. The privileged in society could display their elegance by hanging calligraphy in their home, an indication of their distance from vulgarity (Zheng, 2005). These hangings would usually consist of poetry or philosophical instructions that advocate how to adhere to a high standard of behavior and decency (Zheng, 2005). The majority of Chinese society could only admire the aesthetics of the calligraphy around them. However in the nineteen-fifties and early sixties, fountain pens and ballpoint pens became increasingly common writing tools, replacing writing brushes (Zheng, 1994). Not long after, calligraphy was only seriously practiced by a small group of scholars and professional artists (Zheng, 2005).


 Writing calligraphy is really hard work: one can write the same thing several times over and produce only one or two characters that are pleasing to oneself. Mi Fu (1051-1107), one of the most celebrated calligraphers of the Sung Dynasty (Tomohiko,1967)

Japanese calligraphy does not date back as far as Chinese calligraphy, but its role in Japanese culture is no less significant. At a stage in time when Japanese society required a method of writing, they in fact were already in the possession of Chinese characters brought over from their China’s continent (Tomohiko,1967). Thus, the ancient Japanese already had a script available to them to use to write their own language. The Japanese learned the writing of Chinese from the Chinese scribes who settled in Japan (Tomohiko,1967). Japanese words would have been translated into Chinese characters before it could be written (Tomohiko,1967). However, the Japanese language contains nuances that are difficult to adequately convey through translation. This formidable barrier brought challenges. With no available alternative, Japanese nuances were transcribed phonetically using Chinese characters (Tomohiko,1967). This process produced the first edition of the Kana language.

Up until the twelfth century, Chinese writing was used only by upper class men, while the less educated men and women wrote in Kana (Tomohiko,1967). It became superstition that any woman found writing in Chinese would find misfortune (Tomohiko,1967). Over time these two written forms evolved into different forms, with many styles of calligraphy being assigned to both. A new style began to evolve in the ninth century that boldly simplified formations to the extent that all connection with the original Chinese characters was lost (Tomohiko,1967). Eventually, this simplified version of Kana became so convenient that it became popular with all Japanese classes and sexes.

Many calligraphers were hired to write sets of Kana as a model for practice. The transfer of responsibility for Kana to men brought huge motivation for calligraphers to pursue the perfection of Kana. Thus the Japanese Kana had a Golden age from the tenth to thirteenth century. Many different Kana variations have appeared since that time, but all of these styles share some resemblance to the style originating in the eleventh century.



Druet, R. (1988). Calligraphy and typography in Europe. UNESCO Courier. Retrieved October 22nd 2012 from

Ernst, Carl. (1992). The Spirit of Islamic Calligraphy: Bābā Shāh Iṣfahānī’s Ādāb al-mashq. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 112(2), 279-286.

Lewis, Suzanne. (1980). Sacred Calligraphy: The Chi Rho Page In The Book. Traditio, 36, 139-159.

Memidex (2012). Wordnet. Retrieved October 22nd, 2012 from

Negahban, Ezat. (1989). Persian Calligraphy. Expedition, 31(1).

Siddiq, Mohammad. (2005). Calligraphy and Islamic Culture: Reflections on Some New Epigraphical Discoveries in Gaurand Pandua, Two Early Capitals of Muslim Bengal. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 68(1), 21-58.

Tomohiko, Horie. (1967). Japanese Calligraphy. Japanese Quarterly, 14(1).

Zheng, Da. (1994). Chinese Calligraphy and the Cultural Revolution. The Journal of Popular Culture,28(2), 185-201.

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3 Responses to Calligraphy: Words Become Art All Around The World

  1. awhetter says:

    Reading the section in your paper about Bengal and the strong tradition of calligraphy there is interesting since, in the 19c, Bengal was the site of perhaps the greatest influx of printing presses and production of printed materials in India. In my paper on the Early Print Culture in South Asia, I didn’t broach the subject of the Bengali Renaissance directly, or talk about how the introduction of print in the 19c is connected with the Bengali Renaissance of the late 19c and early 20c, but I think will revisit this! Of course it makes sense that the areas with the strongest manuscript cultures would be the first to adopt print.

    Thank you for an interesting read.

  2. murray12 says:

    Thanks awhetter,

    It’s nice to hear that there is some overlap between our topics. Print –> calligraphy –> printing press. Early on when Islam first came to Bengal, when all of the massive building projects were under way, buildings would’ve appeared dull or unfinished without bold eye-catching inscriptions. They have been fans of powerful, inspiring print for a long time.

  3. kstooshnov says:

    One of my co-workers in Japan, the vice principal of a junior high school, was writing names on certificates, and told me how Japanese calligraphy evolved from Chinese characters. The first stage was hiragana, more rounded and flowing brushstrokes, and this Wikipedia entry shows the derivation on the right hand chart. Katakana, the other kana script, has thrusting sharp edges, and almost look like they were hiragana done in a hurry. Perhaps more manly, business-like shorthand, now used exclusively for words imported into the Japanese language, as opposed to the “women’s writing” found in hiragana. And yes, already into the 21st century, and Japan is still very much a place where, as Ian Fleming (1964) wrote, “men come first.”


    Fleming, I. (1964). You only live twice. London: Jonathan Cape.

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