(Clearwisdom.net) There is a story in history about Zhang Guolao, one of the eight deities in the Tao school. He thought that going forward was moving backward, so he rode a donkey backward. Mankind feels that science is developing, and that society is moving forward. In fact, this is not necessarily so. Let's discuss this issue from the perspective of the evolution of calligraphy.

Calligraphy has a long history in China. It is one of the three treasured national traditions. It is an abstract visual art through the presentation of writing Chinese characters. Regarding writing, calligraphers have a saying, "People in the Jin Dynasty emphasized the rhythm; people in the Tang Dynasty emphasized the methods." (The Jin Dynasty, 265-420 A.D., is about 350 years earlier than the Tang Dynasty, 617-907 A.D.) The term "calligraphy" first appeared in the Tang Dynasty, an era in which the "methods" of writing were valued. Prior to the Tang Dynasty, calligraphy was just called writing, the art of writing, or the Tao of writing. In Japan it is still called the Tao of writing, and in Korea it is called the art of writing. In the Wei (220-265 A.D.), Jin, and South and North Dynasties (420-589 A.D.), the theories of the Tao from Laozi (1) and Zhuangzi (2) were quite popular. People talked about the Tao often. At that time, calligraphy was called the Tao of writing. The Sage of Calligraphy of the Eastern Jin Dynasty, Wang Xizhi (303-361 A.D.), cherished the Tao as well.

The phrase "the Tao of writing" ("calligraphy") has profound meaning. The Tao of writing is to view a work as an integrated whole. It is to be appreciated from the perspectives of its entirety, realm, and implied taste. Back then, people understood that the art of writing implied conformity to the Tao. Practitioners of the art of writing pursued the realm of the Tao. As Wang Xizhi said, "The qi of writing has to reach the Tao, just as the integration of Yin and Yang." By the Tang Dynasty, writing reached its maturity. Its strokes were rich, its structure became complicated, and emphasis was placed on strokes, structure, and layout. Curriculum for teaching calligraphy began to appear as well. Since the Tao of writing was considered too vague to teach, only the concrete methods of writing could be spelled out. Hence, the "Tao of writing" declined day by day, and the "methods of writing" gained day by day. Later, these writing methods became the formal term "calligraphy."

The Tao of writing has turned into writing methods. On the surface, it is a change in art form. But deeper down it represents a setback in people's understanding. Emphasis has changed from the work's entirety to specifics, from the ideal to "reality," from the inner meaning to form, and from a spiritual pursuit to an academic pursuit. As a result, "Day by day, while the academy advances, the Tao retreats."


(1) Laozi (570-470 B.C.): The founder of Taoism; he wrote Tao De Jing.

(2) Zhuangzi - Literally means "Master Zhuang." A famous philosopher in China who lived around the 4th century B.C. during the Zhan'guo Period, around the time of the Hundred School of Thought, the philosophical summit of Chinese thinking.