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The Use of White Space in Chinese Calligraphy

Melia Smith

         While Chinese calligraphy can be described as the art of lines, white space plays a huge role in the overall effect of a piece. Each line combines with another to create a character, and each character peacefully floats on a sea of white, the energy and emotion imbued by the calligrapher through the tip of the brush creating small ripples or larger waves throughout.

        In paintings of the Western world, negative space acts as a trigger for the eyes to move around a piece, bouncing around the visual plane from one point of focus to the next. It draws attention to the main subject, while at the same time providing a resting place for the eyes. A painting must have negative space to reduce its overall entropy, and thus the painter must plan carefully to balance negative space in a manner that will create the most interesting composition, while at the same time reducing distraction. A good painting has the ability to keep a viewer intrigued, continuously looking so as not to miss a single detail.

        In a similar manner, the white space in a calligraphy piece draws attention to the contrasting black characters and keeps the eyes focused there, thus amplifying the emotions and meaning that make up a piece. The contrast between black and white also allows the viewer to separate the whole piece from its individual components, in this case each line that makes up a given character, in order to appreciate the subtle changes in pressure, movement, and emotion that occur during the execution of a stroke.

        Daoism has a strong influence on traditional Chinese art, with many aspects of calligraphy reflecting Daoist principles. From an English translation of the Dao De Jing, ”Presence and absence produce each other,” and from empty space, “the myriad things are made, yet not separated” (Muller). Empty space acts as the foundation on which all things exist; the two exist in harmony, as one cannot exist without the other. One must appreciate the emptiness to truly appreciate the corporeal.


Figure 1: Zhang, Huang. Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate, from the Compendium of Diagrams, 1621, The University of Chicago Library, Chicago.

The mention of harmony brings to mind another concept in the Chinese philosophy, concept of Yin and Yang. The two oppose each other, the black, yin, representing negative space, and the white, yang, representing positive space. However, despite their opposition, the forces of yin and yang coexist peacefully. Together known as the Great Ultimate, the two combine to form a whole, thus balancing each other out in perfect harmony (Li 176). Applying this to calligraphy, one can think of white space as the yin and the content of a piece as the yang. The calligrapher composes a piece while thinking about the balance of yin and yang — the amount and shape of white space that will best bring out the black ink, as well as the size and position of the characters that will best emphasize the existence of the surrounding space — which together allows it to come alive. The contrast of the two fills the piece with an innate sense of vitality, aiding in the flow of energy, known as Qi, throughout the composition.

Figure 2: Huang, Tingjian (黃庭堅). Poem on the Hall of Pines and Wind (松風閣詩), 1102, National Palace Museum, Taipei.

The poem in figure 2, written by Huang Tianjing (黃庭堅) in the Song Dynasty, provides a good example in which to analyze white space. The equal amount of white space separating each line of characters creates columns of text and columns of negative space. In addition, there is less space separating each row, the characters flowing down one after the other. Since this is a poem, this arrangement emphasizes each individual line of the poem, allowing the reader to see the underlying structure of the poem and focus on its meaning. After reading one line of text, the white space guides the eyes to jump to the next, and so on until the entire poem has been read. Also notice the lighter red seals in the background, which blend into the white space, yet still pop out to identify a work due to the difference in color.


Figure3: Chen Liang, Grace, and the TENG Company. Unity (合). 2021.

The work shown in figure 3, titled Unity (合), fits perfectly with the theme of demonstrating unity between white space and black ink. The artist created this work in the midst of a musical ensemble to create a fusion between music and calligraphy (The TENG Company). The nature of the musical piece inspired her to brush, 生生不息, meaning endlessness. This aligns with Daoist philosophy, representing the continuous cycle of birth, growth, and reincarnation, the endless battle between emptiness and non-emptiness. The composition of this piece attracts the eyes, as the characters curve down the paper, creating a unique sense of rhythm and flow of Qi. The black ink of the characters stands out on top of the large quantity of white space, with the remaining blank space drawing the eye back toward the phrase in a fluid motion consistent with the curvature of the piece. Upon first look, the eyes naturally rest in the gap between the main content and the artist’s signature. This white space then draws the eyes up the curve to the first character, then back down the curve, allowing each character to be seen before returning to the starting position to rest again. The artist’s signature on the left fills the void that the curvature would have caused, thus balancing the piece as a whole. Upon the white space also exists faint splashes of ink, also helping to create harmony and emotion.

White space exists as the foundation of creation, providing the ink a base on which to come to life. Following from Daoist philosophy and the principle of yin and yang, the composition of a work’s focus and its underlying white space together balance each other out to create harmony within the piece as a whole. Rather than solely regarding the individual strokes or characters, one should also pay attention to how these two elements interact and stimulate the movement of Qi to draw the eyes around a piece.


Figure 4

The following is the application of the concept of white space in my own calligraphy work as shown in Figure 4.

I wanted to do my final piece in Japanese since I am part Japanese and also because I wanted to see if I could apply the Chinese calligraphy skills I have learned in class to Japanese. For content, I chose a haiku by Kobayashi Issa, whose poetry I am particularly fond of, which reads:

世の中を (yo no naka wo) 浅き心や (asaki kokoro ya) 浅黄蝶 (asagi chô)

This translates roughly to “with a light heart in this world… light blue butterfly.” In Japanese culture, there is a belief that spirits of the dead take the form of a butterfly when on their journey to eternal life. It’s by no means a happy poem, as Issa wrote it after all three of his children passed away, but for some reason I just liked it so much after reading it that I wanted to do a calligraphy piece based on it. The character 浅 also means shallow/superficial, so I like to interpret it a bit differently, as to me it discusses wishing to be a butterfly, flitting through the air without a care, as a pure creature escaping the superficialness of this world.

Japanese calligraphy tends to have more rounded, interconnected characters so I tried to make my characters look softer and connected some of them together as they flow down the paper. I also thought a lot about composition, as this had more characters than I was used to writing and I wanted to include a painting alongside them as well. I had to think about how to balance all of the elements, including white space, so that it wouldn’t look too busy. Overall, completing this final piece took a lot of patience as I practiced over the course of a week until I was confident enough to do it on my final paper. However, it also helped me learn to embrace the imperfections. Had I done this earlier in the semester, I definitely would have redone it multiple times more as there are some aspects that could be better, which would have caused me a lot of stress. This time, I approached it with a calmer mindset and recognized that instead of over concentrating and trying to make it perfect, I should just put the brush on the paper and let my arm do the rest, accepting the imperfections as part of the character of the whole piece.

Works Cited

Li, Wendan. “Chinese Writing and Calligraphy.” University of Hawai'i Press, 2009. pp. 175-180. Project MUSE, http://muse.jhu.edu/book/836.

Muller, Charles A. “Daode Jing.” Daode Jing 道德經, July 1991, section 2 http://www.acmuller.net/con-dao/daodejing.html.

The TENG Company, “The TENG Ensemble Unveils Heaven, Earth, Mankind and Unity (天地人合) - An Extended Play and Music Video Suite Release that Bridges Fusion Music and Chinese Calligraphy.” Tne TENG Company, Sep 2021, http://www.thetengcompany.com/media/press-releases/the-teng-ensemble-unveils-heaven-earth-mankind-and-unity-an-extended-play-and-music-video-suite-release-that-bridges-fusion-music-and-chinese-calligraphy

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