A Brief Introduction to Calligraphy

By Michael Quesada July 14, 2018

A Brief Introduction to Calligraphy


Can you imagine living in a world where printing was impossible?  Before people invented the printing press, every copy of a book used to be written by a scribe in a scriptorium.  This includes labels, documents, maps, inscriptions, letters, gravestones and books.  They were originally written, painted, decorated and engraved just by hand.  Tools were used to style the letter forms: stylus on wax or clay, chisel on stone, feed or quill and ink on vellum or parchment or just recently, a flat brush on paper.  A rich history of lettering styles was the result and over the centuries this form led to what we now know as calligraphy.

So what is Calligraphy?

In modern times it is known as the art of beautiful handwriting.  The term “calligraphy” is derived from the Greek words “kallos” which means “beauty”,  and “graphein” which means “to write”.  It isn’t just about beautiful handwriting or ornate lettering techniques.  Calligraphy is also a set of skills and techniques that can show harmony, rhythm and creative fire through positioning or arranging words.

Japanese Calligraphy

What is the History of Calligraphy?

It is impossible to determine who was the first to practice calligraphy as we know it.   and it differs in each continent, country, or place, but it has been used by many for centuries as a form or art or to express a thought, an expression, a story, or something else entirely.  The history of calligraphy is rich yet complex.

People began to practice calligraphy in the 7th century AD with the introduction of Buddhist manuscripts that came from China.  The syllabic script was invented by Kukai, c. 800 which was based on Chinese characters.

Calligraphy is known and used all around the globe.  This includes China, Korea, Japan, India, Tibet and Europe – and it has been commonly used not just as a form of writing but as a craft that needs the accurate use of technique, aim and form.

This definition fits accurately as calligraphy is perceived in every culture as the most beautiful way to tell a message.  However, it is not just about writing; calligraphy is art itself.

Calligraphy in China

The oldest document with legible calligraphy dates back to 200 BC, during the Warring States period.

The most common form of Chinese calligraphy used black ink and brushed.  This form put emphasis on brush strokes.

The Eight Principles of Yong

This outlines how to do strokes in Chinese characters such as horizontal, vertical, left-falling, right-falling, dot, hook, turning, and rising, which are common in Chinese characters and can all be found in the character for “yǒng”, which is the Chinese translation for “forever” or “permanence”.  People say that practicing these principles often as a calligrapher would assure beauty in one’s writing.

Four Treasures of the Study

This is an expression which talks about the ink, brush, paper and ink stone which were used in Chinese and other East Asian calligraphic traditions.  The head of the brush can be made of feather or hair of different species, including wolf, rabbit, deer, chicken, duck, goat, pig and tiger.  The Chinese and Japanese also have a tradition of creating a brush from the hair of a baby, as a souvenir for the child.

Chinese calligraphy has influenced many countries including Japan, Korea, and Thailand, and it continues to influence virtually all of East Asia.

In East Asian countries like Japan, China, Vietnam and Korea, it has deep historical background.  It is said that ideographs and pictograms that were engraved onto the surfaces of jades and even oracle bones were the earliest forms of calligraphy.


Calligraphy in China

Calligraphy in Islam

In the 11th Century, Islam had taken in their own form of calligraphy called Kufic.  Islamic cultures used calligraphy to provide honor to the “Qur’an”.

It is also worth noting that Kufic was incorporated into many aspects including pottery and mosaics in mosques along with Islamic religious texts.

The Arabic alphabet has a total of 28 letters and it was developed from the Nabataean script.  It also uses a writing system which is an alphabet that doesn’t have any vowels.

The Arabic script consists of many different styles that they are over 100.  However, there are six main styles which can easily be distinguished as either being geometric (Kufic and its variations) and cursive (Naskh, Ruq’ah, Thuluth, etc.).

Kufi (or Kufic) - It is more on proportional angles, squareness, and measurements.

Arabic Kufic Calligraphy

Tuluth – Translates as “one third” which means the proportion of the pen similar to another style called Tumaar.  It is known for its cursive letters.

Nasakh - Translates as “copy” and it is considered as one of the earliest scripts that has a comprehensive system of proportion.  It is known for its clarity in terms of writing and reading.

Ta’liq - Translates as “hanging” because of the shape of the letters.  It is a cursive script that was developed by the Persians during the 9th century AD.

Diwani – It is derived from the word “Diwan,” that translates “royal court.”  It is known for its complex lines within the letters, and the close position of the letters within the words.

Riq’a - It is known because of the simple small movements that are required to write in it.

Calligraphy in India

Indian calligraphy, on the other hand, was greatly influenced by Persian and Arabic scripts.  The style in South Asia and East Asia is different.  South Asian style is much thinner, featuring a looping and fluid style.  Calligraphy in India was used as a way to print holy scripts, like the calligraphy in Europe.  It is worth noting that the important role of calligraphy for the people in Nepal was to write mantras. 

Indian Calligraphy

Calligraphy in Tibet

Calligraphy is the center of the Tibetan culture.  The nobles of Tibet had skills in calligraphy.  The letters in the Tibetan alphabet is based on an Indic alphabet during the mid-7th century.  The Tibetan script includes thirty consonants, also known as radicals.  The Tibetan script was created using a red pen instead of using a plain brush. The mantra, on the other hand, is a syllable, word or group of words that are considered able to “create a transformation.”

Its use is widespread throughout spiritual movements that are based on or off-shoots of practices from earlier Eastern traditions and religions.  The mantras are in Sanskrit for the reason of preservation towards the original mantras.



We can see the difference of calligraphy in different countries and it is up to you entirely how you want to decorate your own writing to spice it up and make it look much more aesthetic.  Do you like to use pictograms? Or do an Arabic teardrop-shaped writing? 

In the end, calligraphy is a form of art and it is not the same for everyone.  Just like we all have different perceptions of art, we also do with calligraphy.  What we show or create through calligraphy is a mirror of our thoughts, ideas, and emotions.

So what are you waiting for? Grab a paper, pen, or a brush and start crafting writing!

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A Simple Guide To Chinese Calligraphy

Michael Quesada

Founder of this website; currently living vicariously through himself.

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