Lessons from the Empire of Writing

Cordell D.K. Yee

One of the reasons often advanced for the study of Western civilization is its history of scientific and technical prowess. Advances in science and technology have resulted in the many conveniences of modern life: air travel, automobiles, and smart phones, to name just a few. These are fruits of the Baconian project, which emphasized observation and measurement in the study of nature as part of an endeavor to “establish and extend the power and dominion of the human race itself over the whole universe.”1

Bacon identified three inventions that separated the ancients from the moderns: the magnetic compass, gunpowder, and printing.2 Of interest here is the last, which has been the object of considerable scholarly attention during the past few decades. The advent of printing has been credited with initiating a revolution that resulted in increased literacy, an enlarged market for books and other publications, and an increased flow of news, information, and knowledge. In short, printing helped to lay the foundations for the development of modern democratic polities, so much so that freedom of the press is held to be fundamental to democracy.

It so happens that printing appeared first in China, as well as the other two inventions Bacon cites. China has its own heritage of technical prowess. Paper, which was crucial for the development of printing in the West, was also invented in China. Without paper, the print revolution would have at least been delayed. It is not my purpose, however, to match invention against invention, though at some level it is useful for us in the West to be aware of such a list of inventions—if only to prevent the study of Western civilization from lapsing into an exercise in self-congratulation. My interest initially lies in the response in China to the advent of printing. A print revolution in the Western mode did not occur. Consideration of this nonevent will lead to what lies near the heart of Chinese civilization and to what I think we gain from the study of China.

An Inverted History of Printing

My colleague Eva Brann once remarked that in her reading what held true in China was often an “inversion” of what held true in the West. Such a characterization seems apt for a civilization often regarded in the popular imagination as geographically antipodal to the United States. In the West, the modern was marked by the ascendancy of the mathematical and physical sciences over the humanistic disciplines. In China, the inverse was true, even after the appearance of Bacon’s three modern inventions. Humanistic disciplines held more prestige than the mathematical and technical. The history of printing in China seems to be another one of those inversions: democratization in the West versus its inverse in China.

Some would protest that a print culture similar to that of the West developed in China. There was a book trade. The availability of printed texts increased opportunity for literacy and pursuit of the literati life with its promise of official position, power, and economic security; and there was considerable social mobility. Thus, the Western pattern can be seen in imperial China, so that the Western turns out to have been universal after all.

All the similarities, however, do not hide the halting democratization of China, even given its impressive economic progress over the last few decades. So before turning China into a variation on Western civilization, one should stop to consider the important ways in which textual production in imperial China differed from that in Western societies. Printing was not necessarily an agent of change; it seems to have been an agent of stability.

In Western cultures, print letterforms became divorced from manuscript forms, as letterforms were adapted to movable type. The distinction is embedded in the English language: even typographic letterforms written by hand are referred to as print. The process of printing in imperial China remained closely tied to manuscript production. Production of the printed page began with a manuscript copy, which was placed face down on a woodblock. Portions of the block under uninked portions of the manuscript were carved out, resulting in a mirror image of the manuscript. Manuscript forms of characters were thus also print forms.

The printing process with woodblocks might appear cumbersome. Each page required a new carving. A block, if carved on front and back, could be used for the print runs of two separate leaves. In contrast, after each setting, movable type could be reused over and over. Movable type was invented in China in the eleventh century, about four hundred years before Gutenberg, but for most printers in traditional China it was too costly: type would have to be made for thousands of characters in the Chinese language, not just for a hundred or so as for English.

The process of woodblock printing could have been simplified if it had not been so reliant on a manuscript copy. The forms of Chinese characters had changed earlier when the writing brush replaced stylus and graver as the main writing implement. So, it is not difficult to imagine that the strokes of characters could have been altered to allow them to be carved directly into the wood, obviating the need to hire a copyist to transcribe the text to be printed. Such a transformation in the written language, however, did not occur, despite the economic advantage it might have brought.

Independent of the printing process, the brush was still an important means of making copies of texts, even for publication. Thus, even after the invention of printing, paper, and movable type, imperial China’s age of print seems to have been at bottom an age of manuscript. Much to the frustration of historians seeking economic, technological, and material causes for the movement of history, Chinese history did not move in the way Western history did. At least part of the reason was aesthetic: the brush was and still is more powerful than print.

Print versus Manuscript

For much of China’s history, from around the ninth to the twentieth century, mastery of the art of writing was considered among, if not the highest, intellectual and artistic achievements. Calligraphy, poetry, and painting together comprised the “three perfections.” The three were often united in the same work of art. Such integration was in line with the injunction of the Daodejing to “return to the uncarved block” an image of simplicity, integrity, and polypotency.

The ability to read and write afforded opportunity for economic and social advancement. But the valuation placed on handwriting went well beyond its social and economic benefits. In the modern West, literacy often affords similar benefits, but calligraphy is considered a minor art at best, and handwriting seems to be losing its place in elementary education.

Perhaps even more perplexing to Western sensibilities is that what is arguably the greatest work in the Chinese artistic tradition, Wang Xizhi’s Lanting xu (Preface to the Orchid Pavilion collection, 353), maintains its reputation even though no one has seen it for centuries. This calligraphic work disappeared in the seventh century, reportedly buried with an emperor. Absence of the original has not been regarded as a bar to appraisal or evaluation. This aesthetics of absence is made possible in part by the importance of copying in the tradition. Students preparing for the life of the literate elite spent years copying out classic texts and models of calligraphy. As a result, they knew many texts by heart (an inversion of what Socrates says in the Phaedrus about the threat of writing to memory). This discipline may also help to account for the continued importance of handwritten texts, long after the advent of printing.

Although learning the art of writing seems to involve much rote memorization, practice of the art in China affords opportunity for expressiveness and freedom, qualities not usually associated with manuscript culture in the West, such as in medieval Europe. After all, we in the modern West left behind manuscript culture and whatever we think it stood for centuries ago.

As a way of getting at the power of handwriting in China, I present print and manuscript versions of two poems. The manuscript copies of the poems do not respect line divisions. That is, the ends of the lines on the manuscripts do not necessarily correspond to the ends of lines of verse. The manuscript copies are read vertically from right to left. Traditionally, printed texts do not observe line breaks either, and are read vertically from right to left. As a concession to modern printing practices (and the limitations of my word processing program), the printed texts are presented so as to be read horizontally from left to right. For ease of reading and to make clearer the verse form, line breaks are preserved. Each line of verse is followed by a transcription of the line in Pinyin transliteration—to give some notion of the pronunciation3—a word-for-word gloss, and a rough translation. The printed form of characters follows a manuscript form known as the standard script, in use since the third century. In the manuscript versions the writing is executed in styles that are more cursive.

My discussion of the poems focuses on the departures of the manuscript versions from the print versions. We will look at writing as literature and as linguistic medium, and at the interaction of at least two of the three perfections.

Exhibit 1


Huáng hè loú sòng Mèng Haòrán zhī Guănglíng

At Yellow Crane Tower Seeing Meng Haoran off to Guangling [Yangzhou]


by Li Bo (701–762)

1) 古人西辭黃鶴樓

gŭ rén xī cí huáng hè loú

Old / person (old friend) / west / departs / Yellow / Crane / Tower

My old friend leaves the west from Yellow Crane Tower;

2) 煙花三月下揚州

yān huā sān yuè xià yáng zhōu

Mist (smoke) / flowers / third / month / down / Yang / zhou

Amid mist and flowers in the third month he heads downstream to Yangzhou

3) 孤帆遠影碧空盡

gū fān yuán yǐng bì kōng jìn

Single (lonely) / sail / distant / shadow / blue-green / emptiness / exhaust

His solitary sail is a distant shadow, vanishing into the blue-green void;

4) 唯見長江天際流

weí jiàn cháng jiāng tiān jì liú

Only / see / Long / River (i.e., Yangzi) / sky / horizon / flow

I see only the Yangzi flowing to the sky’s edge.

The poem narrates the departure of the poet’s friend Meng Haoran, who was also a poet. The vocabulary is spare and somewhat general. The main verb of the first line is commonly used for departure or leave-taking. The flowers of the second line are unspecified, and the main verb of the same line is a general verb for descent. The verbs of the last line are common words for seeing and flowing. The only possible exception to the generality and commonality of the language is the verb at the end of the third line, which can refer to something being burned up or by extension, used up.

The English translation tends to be more verbose than the original, filled out by the addition of articles and prepositions. The simplicity of the grammar and the lack of specification in classical Chinese poetry has been credited with imbuing it with universality. Less positively, one might say that the poem is vague. The poet provides enough detail to suggest that the poem takes place during the spring (third month), but other details are left to the imagination of the reader. In the case of manual transcription, the execution of the graphs can complete the poem.

The manuscript version (figure 1) has been executed on a scroll. As its size suggests, the writing is meant for display. It is directed toward an audience and as such is a form of publication.

Li Ruozhong, transcription of a poem by Li Bo, private collection (18¼ × 38 in. [46.4 × 96.5 cm])

The transcription is executed mostly in the cursive style. The characters, however, vary in degree of cursiveness. The least cursive, those approaching their standard forms, appear at the top: 故人 guren (old friend”), 三月 san yue (third month), and 碧空 bi kong (blue-green void). Their placement seems deliberate. Their meanings help to capture the essential action of the poem: it is about the onset of absence—emptiness—in a time of flowering.

Those same characters are also among the largest characters in the transcription, and impart a slight top-heaviness and thus instability to the work. The calligrapher hints at the emotional state of the speaker of the poem, bringing out what is unstated: the unsettledness one feels at the departure of good friends. The union between old friend and nature in the third line is matched by the union of speaker and nature in the fourth. The flowing of the Yangzi River takes the place of the tears that often accompany leave-taking.

The diminution of the figure of the friend as he disappears in the distance corresponds to an increase in the poet’s sense of loss. The transcription emphasizes this movement by reconfiguring the verses to make the center of the poem more prominent. There is a temporal break at the end of the second line, also suggested by the elongation of the last character. The writing forces the reader to stop, as if to allow time for the friend to fade into the distance.

The transition from print-like characters to more cursive forms as one moves down the vertical columns also parallels what happens to the appearance of the friend, who becomes more indistinct in the mist. The apparent diminution of his figure is further emphasized by the calligrapher’s diminution of the character 見 jian, meaning “to see,” the fifth character in and the visual center of the third line of the transcription.

The cursiveness of the script should not be confused with sloppiness. The transcription is not dashed off. It is composed. It is not inert; it enacts the poem.

Exhibit 2


Zhú lǐ guǎn

Lodge in the Bamboo


by Wang Wei (701-761)

1) 獨坐幽篁裡

dú zuò yoū huáng lǐ

alone / sit / dark / bamboo grove / inside

I sit alone in a dark bamboo grove;

2) 彈琴後長嘯

tán qín hòu cháng xiāo

play / lute / after / long / whistle

After playing the lute I whistle a long time.

3) 深林人不知

shēn lín rén bù zhī

deep / forest / people / not / know

In the deep forest people do not know

4) 明月來相照

míng yuè lái xiāng zhào

bright / moon / comes / another / to shine

The bright moon comes to shine on me.

The transcription of Wang Wei’s poem (figure 2) is written on a scroll intended for display, but seems to defy reading. It is executed in an extreme cursive. Many of the characters bear little resemblance to their standard, or printed, forms. It is as if the calligrapher is engaging in an antisocial act by making the poem inaccessible. The inaccessibility of the writing matches that of the poem’s speaker, who has retired into the depths of the bamboo. In this way, the writing enacts the poem.

Jie Xueyang (Da Hai), transcription of a poem by Wang Wei, private collection (12¾ × 37 in. [32.4 × 94 cm])

There are some exceptions to the general unreadability of the transcription. At times, the calligrapher slows down to write more print-like characters: 篁 huang (bamboo grove), in the middle of the first line of the transcription; 琴 qin (lute), at the bottom of the first line; 深 shen (deep), near the top of the second line; 月 yue (moon), at the end of the second line; and 照 zhao (shine), the third large character in the last line. The calligrapher calls attention to these characters to bring out what seem to be contrasts within the poem: between nature and art (bamboo and lute) and between darkness and light (the grove’s depths and the moon’s illumination).

I say “seem to be contrasts” because they do not represent opposites, but complement each other. For one practicing an art seriously, withdrawal from society may be necessary. Immersion in the depths of nature can lead to the making of art. Freedom from distraction allows one to focus on one’s art, to work toward discovering what one wants to produce. Such clarity may come after much unclarity of the sort represented by the transcription.

This complementarity includes the opening image of the poem, in which the poet is solitary, withdrawn. The poem’s final image hints at a communion: an external light shines on the speaker; in the end, a work of art is shown to an audience who can try to illuminate it. The transcription of the poem is one attempt to do so. Despite its illegibility, it invites the viewer to inspect it. In art, reclusiveness and sociality can be complements.4

Chinese Writing for the West

In the examples presented here, a copy of a poem becomes a performance, a reading of the poem—an interpretive act. Copying in China was not simply a matter of mechanical reproduction. Insofar as they help to reenact the poems, the transcriptions discussed may be thought of as action paintings. In this sense, they instantiate the three perfections: ut poiesis pictura, to reverse the Horatian formula, or perhaps more accurately, ut poiesis scriptura.

From an intellectual-artistic point of view, the displacement of manuscript by print is not necessarily a sign of progress. A decision to stay with manuscript production may have been an intelligible and intelligent choice. Questions of artistic value seem to impinge on questions of technology. Some might argue that China made the wrong choice. But the continued emphasis on manuscript production led to the creation of works that have not lost their artistic and intellectual value over time, despite changes in technology and transmission—not a bad outcome.

I can fairly be accused of cherry-picking here—perhaps influenced by the institution at which I work, St. John’s College, where the educational program concentrates on examples of excellence in the Western tradition. I have focused here on examples of traditional Chinese excellence. I do not claim that every manuscript copy of a poem does what my chosen examples do. I merely wish to show that there is another way in which writing can be thoughtful, a way that would have been suppressed by a more comprehensive movement to print.5

The differences pointed out between the printed and manuscript versions of the poems are not necessary differences. It may be possible to achieve some of the calligraphic effects described here through typography. Some American poets such as e.e. cummings have been interested in typography, but in the West typography has traditionally been associated with impersonality. It is meant to be read through, not read into. Recent developments in printing technology have begun to change this approach, partly as the result of one computer developer’s fascination with calligraphy.6 Modern or postmodern printing, depending on how one regards it, appears to be an attempt to achieve what was accomplished in a pre-modern age. Where we in the West may have thought we arrived first, China has been there before us.

Part of the point behind the examples presented here is to show that striving for excellence may manifest in different ways. It is possible to recognize excellence or greatness in another’s work, even if it is arises from an experience diametrically opposed to one’s own. Acknowledging diversity or multiplicity does not necessarily mean that we cannot also recognize excellence. Merit can take many forms.

Beyond their value as leisure activities, the three perfections were indices of excellence. Poetry provided clues to the interior life. Painting indicated how one looked at and ordered the world. Calligraphy was evidence of discipline and memory, a testament to the union of body and mind; it embodied thought, produced “an imprint of the mind” (xin yin). Learning all three arts was a process of self-cultivation. Carried out well, the process resulted in breadth and depth in a tradition. Mastery of all three activities was quite an achievement.

My focus on calligraphy may seem idiosyncratic, if not misguided, because of the difficulty of Chinese writing. True, it is difficult to learn to practice the art well, but not as hard as some authorities say to appreciate it. With glosses such as those used here and a little grammatical instruction, it is possible for those with no prior knowledge of the language or literature to begin to engage with literary texts and works of calligraphy such as those shown here. If our aim in education is to learn “the best which has been thought and said in the world”—and I would stress the last three words, which are often omitted when Matthew Arnold’s formulation is cited—then we should engage with what Chinese tradition has put forth as its best. Thus, no matter what else there might be room for in a Western education, if one is going to study China, one has to devote some effort to its calligraphy, poetry, and painting. Any survey course that neglects to do so is in serious danger of misrepresentation. What we in the West stand to gain from the study of Chinese civilization is not only an understanding of difference, but also perhaps a better understanding of our own past and ourselves by way of contrast. It may be that for the West, our education should focus on the Western tradition. But it should also be recognized that any understanding of the West is incomplete without consideration of non-Western traditions.

As a master once said, “To say that one knows when one knows, and to say that one does not know when one does not know—this is knowing.”7

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