The Shaping of Characters

Just like human characters, the writing of Chinese characters comes in all shapes and sizes. With the first brush stroke on paper, my students decided those dimensions of every character in their piece.

The first vertical line is the plump line and the first horizontal marks the angle of the tilt that every horizontal line that follows, must follow.  The size of the first character determined the relative size of the next and subsequent characters and so on.

Yesterday the students presented samples of their work and though they were excellent at this level, some of them were wandering into dangerous territories.  For example, the first and second character of their project, a Tang dynasty poem, starts with the two characters,  白日, ‘white sun’ (daylight).  The students wrote the following:

The first character has a squat and almost square shape: 白 and the second character has a rectangular shape,日 ; narrower in width.  Few students made that distinction.  Does it matter?  I hear you say.   Yes –because a change in shape may give a different meaning to the word.  Below are two characters: 日 and 曰,one means ‘sun’ or ‘day’ and the other means ‘say’.  Although the poem is famous enough for people to recognise that the second character they wrote is ‘sun’ and not ‘say’ and it is clear in the context that it is so, it is just as well to be mindful of this trap.


The shape of each character forms the character.  It’s a mistake to change the shape even if the intention is to add variation to a piece.  This is often done when there is a repeat of a character (i.e. two or more) in a piece but the fundamental shape of the character is unchanged.

As above, the variation may be made by changing the thickness of the strokes, the length of the strokes, the angle of the horizontals and so on.


About Mary Tang

An urban orchardist everyday, a volunteer regularly, a poet sometimes and a blogger since March 2015. I travel when I can. Food is a constant.
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15 Responses to The Shaping of Characters

  1. Dalo 2013 says:

    Chinese characters have so much character ~ a history of the character itself (fascinating how characters began), the poetic art that artists such as yourself have in creating the written character with such beauty, the culture behind it all. Beautiful and powerful – it would be great to be able to take a class from you :-)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. taphian says:

    that’s really interesting, Mary

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Maemi says:

    Wow, with such a small detail the entire meaning changed :)
    Ms. Mary, can you please tell me which Chinese calligraphy brush is best to use for beginners? And which Calligraphy brush is your (a Chinese Calligrapher’s) personal favorite.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mary Tang says:

      That’s a big question as there are hundreds of makers and every brush is unique because they’re handmade. Broadly you can find soft brushes (white goat hair) or stiff brushes (brown hair from various animals) and it’s personal whether one finds one ‘better’ than the other. I recommend a brush made with a combination of soft and stiff hair. Bear in mind that you only use about a third of the brush to write with when you are considering the size to buy.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. You inspire me to take more care over my own writing

    Liked by 1 person

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