How to Look at Chinese Calligraphy if You Don’t Know What the Character Means

Take a good minute to focus on the artwork. Look from top to bottom and side to side. Try to look at the artwork as is and suspend any judgment. Move your eyes along the ink strokes and observe the artwork as is.

The best way to look at Chinese calligraphy–or any art–is to ask a lot of questions. This encourages you to sit with the art longer and look deeper. (By the way, our attention spans have gotten significantly shorter and to sit with art for a longer time may feel uncomfortable and unnatural.) There will be more questions than answers and that’s the point. And know that there are no wrong answers.

What do you notice? What do you think is going on in this artwork? What can you see that makes you say that? Ask yourself these questions with every observation you make. Consider thinking from a child’s perspective. They are inquisitive and approach everything with a sense of wonder.

Here are some specific questions to consider asking with Chinese calligraphy:

  • Is there movement?
  • Is there speed to the movement?
  • Do you sense pressure in the brushstrokes?
  • Which direction are the strokes going in?
  • Are you noticing thin versus thick strokes?
  • Do you see negative space in the strokes?
  • Is there enough ink on the brush?
  • Can you make guesses about the environment the artist is in?
心 character means ‘heart’ in Chinese.

Does the artwork resemble anything? Chinese characters are derived from pictograms and therefore, can look like objects we’re familiar with. Take guesses on what the possibilities are. This actually works better for fresh and uninhibited eyes since people who can read the language already know what it means. Therefore, it’s harder for native readers to unlearn their knowledge and to see the character from a fresh point of view.

And finally, this 心 character means heart. To me, it looks like there is blood being circulated out of the ventricles. This also helps me see the shape of the character when I associate it with something familiar; and to create a story with the character to help me remember. Hope you can start asking these questions next time you view Chinese calligraphy artwork.

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