February 15, 2015

Do Chinese and Japanese calligraphers hold the brush differently?

Master Chinese calligrapher Ou Wenwei holds the brush nearly at the top of the shaft.

Master Chinese calligrapher Ou Wenwei holds the brush nearly at the top of the shaft.

Calligraphers will disagree with one another about the correct way to hold the brush, with some even claiming that their method is a “secret” passed down from a lineage of teachers.  My calligraphy teachers were Yao Youxin and Lee Chen Lok.  I am also privileged to be gaining further inspiration by observing Qigong Calligraphy Master Ou Wenwei at work.

There are some common principles that all Chinese, Japanese and Korean calligraphers can agree upon:

  1. Hold the brush firmly, but without tension in your fingers.
  2. Leave emptiness inside the palm. The image is that one should be able  to hold an egg in the space of your hand as you hold the brush. Hold it  firmly enough that the (raw) egg doesn’t fall out, gently enough that  the (still raw) egg doesn’t get crushed.
  3. Keep the wrist relaxed. The wrist should be supple, firm and soft.
  4. Keep the brush upright.  Any deviations from the upright should be  minor. A particular thing to be aware of is not to slant the top of the  brush towards yourself when making a downward stroke. Calligraphy should be written primarily with movements of the arm and  shoulder, not with the smaller movements of the wrist and fingers.

So, are there differences between Japanese and Chinese methods of holding the brush?  It is my observation that the major distinctions are in standardization or variety in teaching.  Japanese teaching is more standardized.  Chinese teaching is more ready to say that there are many different methods of holding the brush, and that different calligraphers have their own styles. Major differences in teaching:

  1. How many fingers? The typical Japanese method is to rest the brush between the middle and index fingers and hold the brush in position with the thumb. The typical Chinese method is to emphasize that all five fingers should touch the shaft of the brush, exerting a balanced force of direct and indirect effects on the strokes. Some Chinese calligraphers will touch the brush with only the fingertips, some will keep the smallest finger behind the brush, holding it on the nail side. Some will keep two fingers in that position. If those two fingers curl away from the brush, then the method is closer to the Japanese brush position. There are many variations and disagreements on exactly what position each finger should take, how far they are from one another, where they are placed on the brush, etc.  It reminds me of the arguments among violin teachers on how to hold the bow.  When I was a child, every violin teacher I had made me change the method of holding the bow, which drove me crazy.
  2. Where to hold the brush? The typical Japanese instruction is to hold the brush slightly below halfway down the shaft, or even lower — almost to a third of the way above the bristles.  Chinese approach is to begin by holding the brush halfway down the shaft, and to slowly learn to raise the hand higher up the shaft. Master calligraphers, regardless of origin or style, tend to hold the brush higher up the shaft, as it makes the brush more sensitive to movement and the calligrapher’s energy.

In discussing these differences, remember that the goal is the same for all calligraphers: to effortlessly channel the energy (qi or ki) of the calligrapher into visual form via the brush.  This requires a solid foundation (usually on one’s feet), supple joints so that the movements and energy are not blocked at any point, awareness and relaxed concentration, and easy and natural breathing.

Keep all of these points in mind when you practice.  Practice and practice and practice and eventually the brush will be like an extension of your own hand.  Regardless of the details of how you are holding it, the movements of the brush will be as if it were your own finger or hand dipped in ink and moving across the paper.

I originally answered this question on Quora <>