The other day we had dinner at Five Guys. My wife pointed out a muscle guy who had a tattoo on his right tricep. He had two Kanji characters tattooed in Kaisho.
“Do you know what it says?”, she asked. I said I recognized the first one, but I was having trouble with the second.
“How come?”, she asked to which I replied because it was Chinese.
“How do you know if its Chinese or Japanese?”, I said I didn’t know. And it’s true. Sometimes I see a calligraphy and I immediately know if its Japanese or Chinese. But I’ve never stop to think how come I can differentiate them.
I know this may sound weird, but I know because I feel it.
That’s not a very good answer, and certainly not one that can help people learn to tell them apart. So I gave it some thought.
In here I am going to try my best attempt to explain the differences between Japanese and Chinese calligraphy.
I do Japanese Calligraphy. I’m drawn to it because of my Aikido, a Japanese martial art, training. The first real calligraphy I saw was brushed by Toyoda Sensei, who was Japanese. I didn’t really choose Japanese over Chinese. It was the case that I was exposed to Japanese calligraphy first.
Second a little history…
Japanese Calligraphy has its roots in Chinese Calligraphy. Chinese Characters were introduced to Japan during the 6th century. Because the Chinese and Japanese language are very different, the Japanese had to adapt these characters to their already developed spoken language. Introducing Chinese Characters to the Japanese language helped with the issue that Japan has a lot of homophones in their language, which made it extremely difficult to decipher the context of their language in written form. However, it also complicated the way Kanji is read. Unlike in China, Kanji in Japan can have multiple pronunciations.
With the introduction of Kanji to the Japanese language, Japan also developed two other writing systems: the hiragana and the katakana. These two systems were developed from Kanji. However, these two systems, combined known as kana, are purely phonetical and do not carry a meaning.
The combination of Kanji and Kana is the main difference between Chinese and Japanese calligraphy.
There is also aesthetics. Not all Japanese calligraphy include kana. In fact, I favor Kanji-only calligraphy. But I have come to appreciate kana calligraphy and do practice it from time to time. Even calligraphy that consists of only Kanji can have a Japanese “look”, differentiating itself from Chinese.
During the Kamakura period Japan started to develop their own aesthetics in many things, including art and calligraphy. It was during this period that true Japanese styled calligraphy started to emerge. When I say this calligraphy looks Japanese, is because its style resembles Japanese aesthetics.
Still today in Japan calligraphers often study old Chinese texts in order to learn calligraphy. Wang Xizhi (303-361) is the most influential Chinese calligrapher in Japan.
In my Intro to Japanese Calligraphy Online Course I teach what is known as the EI JI HAPPO or the 8 Basic Techniques of EI. EI is the character for “eternity”. EI contains basically every stroke needed to brush any Kanji. This is why EI is the first Kanji you learn how to brush; if you can brush EI, you can brush any Kanji. This system can be traced back to Wang Xizhi and his teacher Lady Wei.
Another way to tell if a calligraphy is Japanese or Chinese is by analyzing the complexity of the characters. The Japanese have opted to simplify a lot of Kanji characters over the years. If a character looks really complex, it is most definite the Chinese version, since, again, the Japanese prefer a simpler version. These variations can be subtle in most cases by simplifying the amount of strokes in the characters while maintaining the essence and overall look. In other cases, the characters may change quite drastically.
We can’t discuss the subject of Japanese calligraphy without getting into the influence of Zen Buddhism.
But I’m going to leave that for another day, since that is another article all of its own.
But for now know, truly the main difference between the two is that Japanese calligraphy may include kana.