Language and Stories

Why is language important to a civilization? How can art reflect the significance of writing and communication in a culture? Chinese art works reveal how the Chinese language and Chinese literature developed, and how word and image are deeply related in Chinese culture. Today, some variety of the Chinese language is spoken by 1.2 billion people, approximately sixteen percent of the world’s population. Putonghua is the most widely spoken Chinese dialect. The written form of standard Chinese is based on a system of logograms, Chinese characters that represent a word or phrase. The earliest Chinese written records available are inscriptions on oracle bones and bronze vessels, which can be traced to 1250 BCE. Over time, Chinese scripts evolved to include seal, clerical, cursive, and running script. Chinese literature thrived in the imperial court and included the telling and retelling of stories, folktales, and poetry, as well as scrolls and paintings that combined images and calligraphy. The unique literati culture of China culminated in the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). It was at this time the combination of poetry, painting, and calligraphy (known as “three perfections”) became the means for emotional or political expression by gentleman artists who were well-educated and often held a position in the imperial/elite circle. For writing calligraphy, the traditional tools, the Four Treasures of a Gentleman’s Study, or “wenfang sibao,” (文房四寶) include ink stone, brush, inkstick, and paper.

Key Points

  • Chinese includes a variety of different dialects and scripts.
  • Chinese script is different from alphabetic languages because it is based on logograms and pictographs.
  • Calligraphy, which has aesthetic and communication values, is an important art form in Chinese culture.
  • Unique to Chinese culture, the art forms of painting, calligraphy, and poetry, known as “three perfections,” often appeared in a single piece of artwork.