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Shodo History

Table of Contents

  1. What is Shodo?

  2. What is Zen Calligraphy?

  3. What are the Historical Origins of Shodo?

What is Shodo?
Special thanks to student Jenna Cullen for the content of this article.

Shodo, or the art of Japanese calligraphy, is an ancient art separate from any other creative work. It differs in that its main focuses are simplicity, beauty, and, most importantly, a mind-body connection. However, despite its differences from what most individuals would define as art, true calligraphy is achieved by applying the elements of art, specifically line, shape and space.

In producing any piece of Japanese calligraphy, mastering the element of Line is an absolute essential. The shape of the line assists in displaying the desired effect of the artwork. Often the line is drawn with a specific focus such as love, determination, or positivity. These feelings can often dictate the type of line that follows (e.g., whether it is wavy, straight, or curved. The tension of the line can also be created in this fashion.

In conjunction with Line, mastering Shape is also an important aspect in producing any Japanese symbol. Because calligraphy is achieved with dragging, pressing, and sweeping techniques, no outlining or drawing is ever used. In creating art other than symbols, especially in Chinese calligraphy, nature is a prominent theme. Organic shapes such as trees, leaves and flowers are common subjects for Chinese or Japanese artists. Because the culture behind calligraphy is continually focused on the beauty and wonder of nature, inorganic shapes such as geometric figures or human-made objects are seldom painted.

Furthermore, the element of Space is essential in creating a beautiful calligraphy piece. It is crucial that the artist remain aware of the placement of each line, especially in more complicated symbols. Often, the artist is required to visualize where each line will start, stop and meet before he even touches the brush to the paper. Without undivided attention to spacing, the finished symbol will fail to appear as desired, even with the most perfect lines and shapes. Presentation and careful placement is one of the aspects that help in giving Japanese calligraphy its distinct beauty.

In sum, Japanese calligraphy to the common eye may seem uncomplicated or even bland. However, the creation of such a simplistic piece involves the knowledge of several difficult skills, and the mastery of all the elements of art, specifically those described.

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What is Zen Calligraphy?

Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro (1870-1945) believed that true creativity is not the product of consciousness but rather the "phenomenon of life itself." True creation, he stated, must arise from mu-shin, the state of "no mind", in which thought, emotions, and expectations do not matter. Truly skillful Zen calligraphy is not the product of intense  "practice"; rather, it is best achieved as the product of the "no-mind" state, a high level of spirituality, and a heart free of disturbances.

To write Zen calligraphic characters that convey truly deep meaning, one must focus intensely and become one with the meaning of the characters they create. In order to do this, one must free his/her mind and heart of disturbances and focus only on the meaning of the character. Becoming one with what you create, essentially, is the philosophy behind Zen Calligraphy.

The information for this article comes from the book Zen Brushwork: Focusing the Mind With Calligraphy and Painting, by Tanchu Terayama, et al.

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What are the Historical Origins of Shodo?

Shodo has origins in China, where over 3,000 years ago pictographs were carved into tortoise shells and cow bones as part of religious ceremonies. Overtime, people began carving these same pictographs on bronze and other metals. Altogether, the early forms of the characters used commonly in shodo lacked the evenness in size and shape that today's characters have. Still, they clearly serve as the pictorial origins of the shodo characters in common use today.

At the start of the thirteenth century BCE until the fourth century BCE, the wide variety of pictograms in use in China were consolidated into a form of character script called daiten (greater seal script). By the ruling era of the Ch'in Dynasty (221-206 BCE), government officials further standardized the character script; from that point on it became known as shoten (lesser seal script), which is still in common use today on seals for official documents. During the Han Dynasty (206 BCE - CE 220), shoten was further developed into reisho (scribe's script), which was characterized by bold horizontal brushstrokes.

After the development of reisho came sosho (grass script), which preceded kaisho (standard script) and gyosho (running script), the character forms most commonly used today. Kaisho can be thought of as a "block" style of character writing, while gyosho can be thought of as a form of "cursive" or "script".  Sosho, however, is written so simply and symbolically that eyes untrained in deciphering calligraphy can rarely read and understand it.

Because the letter set in use in shodo, a Japanese art, has its origins in China, it is referred to as kanji in Japanese, which literally means "Han letters" (for the Han Dynasty in China). The Japanese refined Chinese sosho characters by simplifying them further to create the hirigana character set. Today, written Japanese is primarily a mixture of kanji and hirigana.

The information for this article comes from the book Zen Brushwork: Focusing the Mind With Calligraphy and Painting, by Tanchu Terayama, et al.

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