The Nanbanjin Nikki

ザ南蛮人日記

The upward slant in Eastern and Western calligraphy

Having exams tomorrow, I’ll leave you with a quick observation on comparative handwriting. I’ve been practising a simple italic hand (i.e. neo-Chancery) for some time now—I haven’t really started with actual Latin calligraphy, I just wanted to improve my appallingly unreadable squiggles, and a low-key italic is much more appealing for me than Palmer– or Spencer-style cursive (which I find hard to read and kitschy). Now, a frequent piece of advice in this area is to tilt the paper a few degrees “for writing comfort”. I experimented with it and found that, indeed, sloping the baseline a few degrees makes it much easier to keep the letterstrokes in consistent directions. (But there’s an unexpected side effect: I feel conflicted when I’m writing something in the Latin alphabet with a few Japanese or Chinese characters sprinkled in, because East Asian calligraphy instructors strongly admonish you to never tilt the paper in the slightest!)

Then the other day I was reading Ishikawa Kyûyô’s Taction: The Drama of the Stylus in Oriental Calligraphy (preachy at times, but informative), and he draws attention to the upward slant of “horizontal” strokes in cursive and regular (kǎishū) styles. Regular has been the standard style of Chinese characters for some 1800 years now; it developed from cursive, which developed from clerical, which had “horizontals” that were actually horizontal. In regular, as the brush travels from left to right, it climbs up; Kyûyô also points that, when the character has several “horizontals”, they can radiate outward from an imaginary point in the far left, so that the bottom-most can end up truly horizontal.

Illustration on horizontal stroke slant in Japanese handwriting
A note from « Tsudzukeji・kuzushiji bôrupenji renshûchô » “Workbook of joined and abbreviated characters in ballpoint”, a contemporary manual on practical, everyday handwriting. It lectures on the importance of keeping a constant upward angle on all horizontal strokes.
Illustration on Clerical and Regular styles in Chinese caligraphy
An illustration from Wendan Li’s « Chinese Writing & Calligraphy », showing the upward slant introduced between Clerical and Regular.
Illustration on the radial disposition of strokes in regular-style Chinese calligraphy
An illustration from Kyûyô’s « Taction » about the “radiating” effect (I beg your pardon for my poor scan). Here we’re concerned with the top image, which shows the three “horizontal” strokes of 。 Notice that, despite the radial disposition, the default angle (as represented by the middle stroke) is still upwards.
Illustration on famous masters of regulary-style Chinese calligraphy: Wang, Yan, Liu
Another piece from « Chinese Writing & Calligraphy », comparing three preeminent exemplars of regular style—flowing Wáng Xīzhī, flicky Yán Zhēnqīng, and boney Liǔ Gōngquán. Notice all three apply a comparable upward slant to the horizontals. The “radiating” effect is most notable in the horizontals of Wang’s “not” (second from the bottom) and Liu’s “cease” (bottom).

Kyûyô says the tilt is a natural development of trying to write fastly in cursive. Claims of “naturalness” are sometimes hard to believe in calligraphy, but he suggests a test I found convincing: try to draw a very long horizontal line with your finger, “hanging arm”–style, and notice how your elbow moves; now try the same with an upward tilt—it should be possible to do it without moving the elbow at all. Did you make the same connection as I? It’s the same angle as the Western tilt of the paper! I suppose that’s what they call the “natural arm angle”. Faced with an uncomfortable fact from anatomy, Latin and Chinese calligraphy arrived at symmetrically opposite solutions; the one tilts the paper so that the lines can be horizontal, while the other tilts the lines so that the paper can be horizontal (which is a necessity in Chinese writing, given the nature of the gesture for brush-drawing the strong, vertical “pillar” strokes). The more you know〜☆