The Yin and Yang of Chinese Calligraphy

“This is teaching me patience—something I need to have,” says Charlotte Grussing ’19.

On just about any college campus these days, you’ll see people rushing around, thumbs on smartphones, texting each other on the run. But in one Dartmouth classroom, the clock seems to have been turned back a few thousand years. Wen Xing, the Robert 1932 and Barbara Black Professor in Southeast Asian Studies, and director of The Dartmouth Institute for Calligraphy and Manuscript Culture in China, is showing students how to draw one Chinese character at a time, slowly and meticulously, using a brush and ink, in a language that predates not only cellphones but paper, as well.

“Calligraphy is not only an art form, it’s a kind of meditation,” says Xing. “These days we do a lot of work on machines, and we have forgotten or hidden our talents, our need for creative art and mental health. That’s why I think so many people are in this class.”

After 18 students take their seats, he starts with an illustrated lecture about how the first emperor of China consolidated the diverse writing styles of separate states into one system. Then he moves on to the central theme of the calligraphy lesson: “hiding the tip.”

The expression (also the title of the textbook he has written) refers to the way brush strokes should be made in accordance with Chinese preference. To “hide” the brush tip, Xing explains, the calligrapher completes a line without coming to a point, moving the brush tip backwards at the last moment, just enough to round off the stroke.

“In Chinese culture, we like people to be modest,” he says. “We don’t want everyone to stand out, so when we see brush strokes that come to a point, in most styles, we don’t like them, even though they are pretty.”

Xing says hiding the tip is also a way to hold and store energy within one’s body—energy that he says flows from the universe into the calligrapher, moving through the arm to the handheld brush.

“As you hide the tip, you keep and hold and control your internal energy. Internal energy is the breath of life, so when you hide the tip, the script looks more powerful,” Xing says.

Students practice hiding the tip—which isn’t easy—by dipping their brushes into ink on saucers or plates, then making lines in the margins of Chinese newspapers. (Until they become proficient, they do not use expensive rice paper.) Xing walks around the room, occasionally demonstrating the technique.

A student practices Chinese calligraphy. (Photo by Eli Burakian ’00)

For Charlotte Grussing ’19, meeting such exacting standards with brush and ink is a far cry from the free-flowing watercolor paintings she usually makes.

“In my art, my disorganized, messy brain shows itself in an artistic manner, but not in calligraphy—not at the beginning, anyway. This is teaching me patience—something I need to have,” says Grussing.

Hailey Nicholson ’19 says there is always a long waiting list for Xing’s calligraphy courses. “It’s a very competitive class to get into, especially if you are not a Chinese major. I’ve been doing English lettering on my own, and I thought this class would be an interesting way to get more training,” she says.

In a shorter seminar, Xing teaches “fractal calligraphy,” an artform he has developed at Dartmouth by feeding calligraphy into a computer program that renders it as a series of repeating images called fractals. In its purest form, a fractal cannot be fully seen by the human eye—only by a computer—because the iterations are infinite. But Xing and some of his most advanced students do make prints on paper, some of which were exhibited last spring in Dartmouth’s Russo Gallery.

One of the artists in the exhibit, Addison Lee ’17, says learning calligraphy helped her appreciate a Chinese view of the world in which the energy of opposing forces, yin and yang, is released when black ink meets blank paper. “To do calligraphy well, you have to take that energy in, let yourself relax, and avoid trying too hard to be perfect,” she says.

“The tip of the brush is so soft you cannot force it to do anything. You can only guide it,” Xing adds.

In addition to teaching on campus, Xing led an 11-week foreign study program, starting in Beijing, and offered a course called “Writing Across China.” 

“I have an office and a studio in Shanghai in the Imperial Library, so I bring my students there, where they can do calligraphy and painting with traditional brush and ink as they listen to music on traditional instruments,” says Xing.

In China, Xing says, he immerses himself in manuscripts that date back thousands of years.  

“My hands become warm when I read ancient masterpieces,” he says, “because I can feel the energy. When I am in a museum, the space disappears. That’s why traditional Chinese artists live a longer life. Because time disappears, as well.”

Watch as Xing works with his students on their calligraphy: