Chinese Calligraphy, the art of writing

Grades K-12, Art, Social Studies, History, and Literacy, Lesson or Unit Plan
  • American Abstract Expressionists Robert Motherwell (above) was influenced by Chinese calligraphy.

  • American Abstract Expressionists Franz Kline (above) was influenced by Chinese calligraphy.

By Pearl Lau

Title: Chinese Calligraphy, the art of writing
Author: Pearl Lau
Subject Area: Art, Social Studies, History, and Literacy
Grade Level: K-12. This can be adjusted for any age group depending on the complexity of the characters, or if you want them to write just one character or create a poem using many characters.
Time Required: For one character, one class period of 50 minutes. For a poem, it could be two to four class periods.
Standards: (Common Core for NYS) 6.5a Geographic factors influenced the development of classical civilizations and their political structures. Students will locate the classical civilizations on a map and identify geographic factors that influenced the extent of their boundaries; locate their cities on a map and identify their political structures. Students will compare and contrast the similarities and differences of the Chinese (Qin, Han) and Greco-Roman classical civilizations by examining religion, job specialization, cities, government, language/record keeping system, technology, and social hierarchy. *After each key idea, the corresponding Social Studies Standard(s) and the Unifying Theme(s) appear. 1. Individual Development and Cultural Identity (ID) 2. Development, Movement, and Interaction of Cultures (MOV) 3. Time, Continuity, and Change (TCC) 4. Geography, Humans, and the Environment (GEO) 5. Development and Transformation of Social Structures (SOC) 6. Power, Authority, and Governance (GOV) 7. Civic Ideals and Practices (CIV) 8. Creation, Expansion, and Interaction of Economic Systems (ECO) 9. Science, Technology, and Innovation (TECH) 10. Global Connections and Exchange (EXCH) 13 Social Studies Practices Grades K-4 Grades 5-8 Grades 9-12 Gathering, Interpreting and Using Evidence Develop questions about the world in which we live that can be answered by gathering, interpreting and using evidence. Define and frame questions about events and the world in which we live, and use evidence to answer these questions. Develop and frame questions about events and the world in which we live, form hypotheses as potential answers to these questions, use evidence to answer these questions, and consider and analyze counter-hypotheses. Recognize, analyze and use different forms of evidence used to make meaning in Social Studies (including primary and secondary sources such as art and photographs, artifacts, oral histories, maps, and graphs). Identify, describe, and evaluate evidence about events from diverse sources (including written documents, works of art, photographs, charts and graphs, artifacts, oral histories, and other primary and secondary sources). Identify, describe, and evaluate evidence about events from diverse sources (including written documents, works of art, photographs, charts and graphs, artifacts, oral histories, and other primary and secondary sources).

For the Five Strands of the New York City Blueprint for the Arts;

#3 Making connections. This art project links to Social Studies, and the greater understanding of the rich Chinese heritage in New York. Students will gain an understanding of the Chinese characters they see all over the city.

#4 Community and Cultural Resources. There are several museums where excellent examples of calligraphy can be seen starting with the China Institute, The Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Chinese in America, and the Asia Society.

#5 Careers and Lifelong learning. China continues to be a world power especially economically. Students who develop an understanding of China, its language and its writing will have an advantage in the corporate world. Many American companies have opened offices in Beijing in the past few years IBM and Hearst publishing just to name two.

Keywords/Vocabulary: Calligraphy=beautiful writing (from the Greek; kallos means beautiful, graphein means writing)
Essential Question(s): How did the people in Ancient China discover writing? How did this writing evolve? What is the difference between being pictographic (a pictorial representation) and logographic (from the Greek; logo=word)?
Learning Objectives/Goals/Aims: All Chinese characters are logograms, but several different types can be identified, based on the manner in which they are formed or derived. There are a handful which derive from pictographs (象形 pinyin: xiàngxíng) and a number which are ideographic (指事 zhǐshì) in origin, including compound ideographs (會意 huìyì), but the vast majority originated as phono-semantic compounds (形聲 xíngshēng). The other categories in the traditional system of classification are rebus or phonetic loan characters (假借 jiǎjiè) and “derivative cognates” (轉注 zhuǎn zhù). Modern scholars have proposed various revised systems, rejecting some of the traditional categories.

In older literature, Chinese characters in general may be referred to as ideograms, due to the misconception that characters represented ideas directly, whereas in fact they do so only through association with the spoken word.

Introduction: Scholars generally recognize that there was four times in the world that writing was invented. Egyptian and Maya hieroglyphs, Chinese characters and Sumerian cuneiform, which is what our alphabet derives from. All but the Chinese written language is phonetic. It has been said that you need to know approximately 5,000 Chinese characters to read a simple newspaper. However many of these characters are like compound words. For instance; take the character for “woman”, and take the character for “child”. When you put them together you get the character for “good”, because it is considered a good thing for a woman to have a child. By learning the first two, you can create a third.

The Chinese have been writing for over 3,500 years. We figure this out by looking at Chinese bronzes that are 3,500 years old and they have writing on them. The writing has full grammar and the writing is consistent. By that we can surmise they didn’t wake up that morning and invent making bronze and creating writing, but that they had been writing for quite some time, perhaps on silk or bamboo slips that have rotted away over the years.

Procedure/Pedagogical Technique/Instructional Strategy:  Lower grades; Worksheets should have characters for animals, especially the zodiac. You can add characters such as, hero, flower, parents, children, etc. Any words you think your students would like to learn.

Upper grades; Worksheets will have many more and more complex characters so they can create a ‘Poem”. Poems don’t have to rhyme.

For more Chinese characters, look up websites such as It will translate, give you the characters, and you can click on the speaker to hear it.

Five books=五书
Wǔ běn shū (literally, 5 volumes of books)五本书
Five blessings=五福
Wǔfú línmén 五福临门

Writing was first started on strips of bamboo, this is why it was vertically written. Today in modern China you can also read it from left to right. Zhou En Lai was instrumental in not only simplifying characters and cutting out many of the extra strokes but also introduced the writing to be left to right.

In Chinese there are lots of homophones. “blessings or luck” is the same sound but not the same character as the animal, the bat. If you receive a gift with 5 bats on it they are telling you they wish you to have 5 blessings. The 5 blessings are, longevity, wealth, health, love of virtue, and a peaceful death.

Chinese characters should be able to fit in a square box. You can create a worksheet of boxes and run them off on the copier or have the students use a ruler to create their own. Practice first with a pencil to get the angle and number of strokes correct. Depending on the age of the students, match the age to the number of times they practice it. If they are 8 years old, have them do it 8 times.

After that they can use a black marker, or if you have brushes that come to a point, not the squared off kind, do it with black paint and a brush.

Calligraphers usually hold the brush straight up and down but because we don’t teach writing that way, it might be difficult to get them get that correct. If the brush is held at an angle, the strokes will become too broad. If that were the case, then having them use markers or pens would be better.

Traditionally you start by writing from top to bottom, left to right.

For our art project we can add colored tissue paper.

Session 1; Water down some white glue in a little dish. The consistency should be like thin ketchup. Tear or cut pieces of color tissue paper. If they are more advanced they can create the shapes to coincide with the characters they are writing.
Brush on the watered down glue on white paper. Lay down the tissue and again brush the watery glue on top. Let it dry for the next session. Meanwhile, they can practice their calligraphy.

Session 2; Now that the paper is dry, write your characters on top with black paint and a brush.

Assessment: If you want to provide rubric;

  • 1. Character is not in a squared off space, strokes don’t seem attached enough to be one character.
  • 2. Character is in a squared off space, strokes are not random but cohesive and creating a character, but not centered.
  • 3. Character is squared off, centered and shows a lively use of the brush or marker, not stiff.
  • 4. Character is cohesive, uses strong use of strokes, centered and squared off, use of color tissue paper overlaps.

Did they experiment with several characters? Did they try to hold the brush straight up? Did they remember the character they chose? Did they try to keep it in a square?

Resource Type: Lesson Plan
Caterogy: Grades K-12, Art, Social Studies, History, and Literacy, Lesson or Unit Plan


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