The Weird World of Chinese Calligraphy: North vs. South

“Auspicious Dragon” by Xie Tian Hai
Southern style calligraphy

I will start this post by saying that I am by no means an expert on Chinese calligraphy. I am not a calligrapher, I do not speak Chinese (in fact the only Chinese I know is the kanji I was taught in Japanese class, and technically that’s still Japanese), and I am certainly not a historian who has studied the many types of different styles of handwriting and calligraphy from around the world and within different geographical regions (hey, if you’re into that it’s actually a real job). I am simply a student who took a few Asian history class and noted that during a certain period of Chinese history (which I will go into detail about later in this post) the calligraphy north of the Yangzi River and South of the Yangzi River in China became extremely distinctive.

History Crash Course: The Splitting of the North and the South (Not the American Civil War)

Most people who see the phrasing “North vs. South” where I’m from will think of the American Civil War back in the 1800s, but I’m not referring to anything remotely close to that. I’m talking about a region on the other side of the world. Although China is roughly the same size as the USA and sits about at the same latitudes and longitudes, it is completely different and has a very different history. That’s what I’m talking about here! And while I won’t bore you with a long lecture, I will give you a crash course.

Please note: all of the events I will be referring to occurred during the Three Kingdoms Period/Age of Disunity in China (220 – 589 AD).

When I say the North vs. the South, what I am actually referring to is the north vs. the south of the Yangzi (or Yangtze) River, which is the longest river in China and stands as the dividing line between two relatively distinct cultures. This can be traced back to the invasion of barbarians (non-Han Chinese people) in the north, which caused many Han Chinese people to flee south (which, FYI, is where they had previously sent convicts and undesirables…).

These barbarian groups (there were several) settled and mixed with the remaining Han Chinese, intermarrying and mixing their cultures. This led to a brand new Chinese culture in the North. They played polo on horseback and enjoyed other “barbarian” activities. Despite the fact that they did in fact adopt customs and cultural elements from these barbarian groups, these northern Chinese people still considered themselves more Chinese than those who had fled south.

The South had maintained their original Han culture and valued literacy above sport. Let’s just say they frowned upon the northerners for adopting the barbarian customs and pastimes. They believed themselves to be the true Chinese.

Suffice to say the North and the South had numerous disagreements about who was more Chinese. They didn’t like each other much. Surprisingly they still hold pretty interesting opinions about each other.

This history and cultural revolution is likely what led to the difference in calligraphy styles.

Calligraphy and Culture

The differences in culture between the North and the South can likely be “blamed” for the vast differences in calligraphy styles.

The above are three samples of calligraphy from China, each of them is a different poem. At first glance they might all simply look like pretty characters, but upon closer inspection there are clear differences that I believe can be contributed to the cultural revolution caused by the barbarian invasion and great migration to the south.

I would first like to note that all of these samples were written using a traditional brush and ink with the only difference being the paper and seal put on the sample.

The first sample is block-y and thick. As one of my professors once said, it looks as if there was a lot of effort put into each character, as if a child consciously typed them out or drew them. This form of Chinese calligraphy is likely not the form that comes to mind when you think of the phrase; it is likely either one of the other two forms presented in the samples I provided that come to mind (and I do believe there is a reason).

I believe that the mixing of barbarian culture with the Han Chinese culture caused the change in their calligraphy. There was likely little need for extravagant, “frilly” writing in the North, and so the art became more simplistic and (obviously) more legible, which would be of more use in a society that had little need for extras. The North often criticized the extravagance of the southerners in writings from the period, so I find this a likely cause for the difference.

The second sample is from close to the Yangzi river – close to the border between the North and the South although closer to the South than the North. It is more flowing, but still has a more structured form to it. This is clearly a mix of the Northern and Southern styles, but clearly more traditional than what the North has seemed to adopt.

This sample is an obvious transition between the first and third pieces. I believe that perhaps it was written by an individual who was raised in the North and the moved South (although it could have happened the other way around, but that was uncommon).

The third and final sample is flowing and “cultured” as if it has come from the tip of the brush with ease and without much thought at all. This is likely due to the preservation of traditional Han Chinese literacy and literate culture in the South (which was greatly valued). The South was really into preserving the literacy and culture that had been traditionally so important in the preceding dynasties, which is what I believe led to the continued practice of such beautiful, flowing calligraphy styles.

It makes for very pretty wall art…

So, a cultural revolution led to block-y vs. flow-y wall art… maybe?

So, those are my thoughts on the weird world of Chinese calligraphy (which really I just touched on). If this tickled your fancy (who even says that?) maybe do some research of your own because I’m certainly not the best person to be introducing you to this amazing (and VERY INTERESTING) world.

There is so much to learn about this, and most of what was stated in this post was pure opinion and speculation (aside from the history which I did actually pull from notes I took in a recent history lecture, so that part should be pretty accurate, fingers crossed).

If you have any comments about this post, questions, or topics you would like to see me post about in the future, please comment on this post below.

For now, it’s time to go.

Signing off.

See you later!

Jana!

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