The dance of calligraphy (and noodles) in Xi’an

It was in Xi’an that I finally realized that calligraphy is an art of motion.

I’d been struggling with calligraphy, trying to recognize it as an art form.  Last year HOB and I intensely scrutinized the world’s most famous collection of calligraphy in the National Palace Museum of Taipei.  I certainly made progress, recognizing the formal qualities of balance and proportion that make up great works of art.

In China calligraphy is considered the greatest art form, the most perfect of The Three Perfections: painting, poetry and calligraphy.  Until we visited the calligraphy district of Xi’an, I was thinking of calligraphy as a static visual art.


In the Shuyuan Xiang area of Xi’an, vendors sell calligraphy supplies and rubbings of carved stelae.  We were there to find a calligrapher—our two youngest nieces have both American and Chinese names and we wanted to hire an artist to write their Chinese names as a present for my sister-in-law.

We wandered around unsure of how to find this service, until we found an artist in an outdoor booth who was clearly writing for hire. We gave him our nieces’ names and negotiated a price.


The artist weighed down a strip of paper with two long stones, dipped his brush in ink and began writing without hesitation.  Ah, so elegant!  So confident!


The artist completed two paintings in just a few minutes.


Our nieces’ names are at the center in large script, with the name of the artist, the date and the location (Xi’an) in smaller script along the side.  The artist finished the work with two red stamps: one of his calligraphy school and another his signature.


From now on, whenever I see calligraphy, I will think of it as gesture, as fluid movement, as dancing with ink.


After our visit with the calligrapher, HOB and I experienced another wonder of Xi’an: Biang Biang noodles.  Biang Biang noodles are fun to eat—-wide noodles swimming in a spicy sauce with greens.  And it’s even more fun to say Biang Biang noodles.  (I wonder if Zsa Zsa Gabor or Yo Yo Ma ever ate them?)  But you know what must be no fun?  Writing Biang Biang noodles.  Seriously people: take a look at all the strokes in that character!  And the calligrapher has to write it twice!

Once you think about it, the character for Biang Biang looks a lot like the noodles, don’t you agree?


How we got to Xi’an: train from Pingyao.
Where we slept: Xing Long No.37 Hostel. Price: €16 for a double. Recommended: yes.


  1. Wendy · · Reply

    I wonder if you’ve seen the ‘calligraphic paintings’ in the Modern Wing at the Art Institute. By leading Chinese artist and calligrapher Wang Dongling, the five 7-foot, colorful Plexiglas translucent panels are hanging in the middle of the main hall. They exemplify the ‘dancing with ink’ you have written about here. I just love how perfectly they complement the space (and was a tad disappointed to hear they are a temporary exhibition).

    Liked by 3 people

    1. HOB and I were at the Art Institute a couple of weeks ago to see the Chinese Bronzes show with a friend. We were in the Modern Wing briefly and I vaguely recall seeing those panels. Thanks for letting me know they are temporary so I’m make sure to take a closer look on our next visit.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Was a calligrapher once the equivalent of a public writer as in France…by the elegance of his work I imagine that he was more specialised…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wish I knew—my ignorance of Chinese culture is spectacular.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. enjoyed the topic of your article

    Liked by 2 people

  4. When I was trying to learn to read and write Chinese, my teacher would often say that the shape of the characters remind you of the object. I didn’t see that. It’s probably why I’ve forgotten all that I learnt.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m impressed that you tried to learn because writing Chinese is quite intimidating. I can’t imagine memorizing all those characters! How many languages do you know?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m afraid that with lack of practice I have completely forgotten how to read Chinese. I only really know three languages, which is par for the course for Indians.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. I only know one language, as par for the course of most Americans. Indians are far ahead of us, I’m afraid….

        Liked by 2 people

  5. You are right about East Asian calligraphy…a very serious art form when done with brush work. I stroke and one cannot “fix” the mistake. There are Western calligraphic pure art but it’s taking our Western alphabet words and making shapes out of letters. Very different approach vs. whole word concepts with artful, suggestive strokes.

    It’s easier to learn Western calligraphy since it can be highly rigid and “even” in execution, nearly perfect in degree angles. I took several Western calligraphy courses.

    Eastern calligraphy is like writing poetry with brush strokes.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes! And the best Chinese paintings contain poetry written out in fine calligraphy.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I love Chinese calligraphy even if I cannot read it. What a wonderful gift for your nieces, but how do you know if he actually wrote their names?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I had my sister-in-law write down their Chinese names before I left (they are on the binder sitting on the table where the artist is working). I double checked and they looked the same—otherwise you’re right that I wouldn’t have known if they were correct.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I so, so enjoyed this post, from the calligraphic excursus to the modular noodles — great fun!

    When we lived in Hong Kong my mother had lessons in Chinese art (aged eight or nine I was assigned a Chinese painting teacher who taught me how to paint portraits like Cezanne, but that’s another story).

    I have to say she was rather good, from horses to flowers and beyond. She even had her own name done as calligraphic blocks, the nearest equivalent to Dorothy Lovegrove being something like Doh-see Low-goh: by the way, I learnt it’s a fallacy that Chinese can’t pronounce ‘L’, they just say it in a less, um, pronounced way.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Do you still have any of your mom’s paintings from that time? And her name in blocks would have been in Cantonese, yes?

      I like to think about how ridiculous I sound trying to speak Chinese to native speakers—so much more than one letter—I can’t pronounce anything!

      Dorothy Lovegrove sounds like a romance novel writer’s name. Quite romantic!


      1. Sadly no, my sisters have all her paintings (but that’s another story, and a very long one too). But yes, it would have been in Cantonese, though I never got to speak it, even at a basic level.

        Yes, she did have a wonderful name. 🙂 I was told she was named after a character in a Walter Scott novel, but I’ve never been able to find one that corresponded.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. This is so cool! I knew nothing about calligraphy. I’ll pay more attention.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I only know about the boring kind that comes on wedding invitations…


  9. I love the idea of the Three Perfections. How interesting that all three things are widely neglected here in the states. But so often we prefer efficiency to beauty. Great post!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I see you’ve been writing some poetry, so at least you are not neglecting one of the three perfections.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I love to learn about calligraphy handwriting and it is beautiful

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think your handwriting must be much nicer than mine!


Leave a Reply to Jean Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: