East Asian Calligraphy/Introduction

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What is "East Asian Orthography"? Isn't it just those symbols you see in Chinatown or Koreatown, or in anime or manga? Really, East Asian writing is a lot more complex than that, and it is important to know what you're dealing with before you learn how to write an East Asian language.

By East Asian writing, we are really talking about the set of writing used by the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean languages. But these languages use very different writing systems.

Chinese, for example, uses Chinese characters or logographs, where each symbol represents a word or a word root (called "morphemes"), with one (or several) defined meanings and pronunciations. If English were written this way, for example, we would have individual symbols for simple words like "the", "at", "sun", "moon", etc. and a series of symbols for more complex words like "understand" and "approve", with one symbol for each part of the word. (For example, "understand" may be composed of two symbols, one for "under" and one for "stand".)

Contrary to popular belief, Chinese characters do not in any way represent ideas or philosophies directly. It represents a language, and nothing more.

Japanese, on the other hand, uses the kana system, composed of two syllabaries, hiragana and katakana. "Syllabaries" are systems where one symbol represents a syllable. For example, "ka" is a syllable, and hence in Japanese it is written with a single hiragana letter or a single katakana letter. Same with, say, "ki", which is written with another hiragana letter or a katakana letter. Hiragana developed out of stylized cursive Chinese characters, and katakana developed out of parts taken from Chinese characters. Chinese characters, known in Japanese as kanji, are also used in the Japanese language to write both Chinese loanwords and native Japanese words.

Korean uses hangul, which is an alphabet just like the English one, with one letter for each discrete sound. Although Korean letters were originally invented as abstract, geometrical shapes, their stroke forms are nevertheless usually written just like those used in Chinese characters. In addition, Korean letters are arranged into square blocks by syllable, again, making Korean writing look similar to Chinese. Chinese characters, known in Korean as hanja, are also used to an extent in South Korea. In North Korea, hanja have been completely abolished.

Hence, East Asian orthography is really a set of three very different writing systems: Chinese characters, with one symbol for each word root; Japanese kana, with one symbol for each syllable; and Korean hangul, with one symbol for each discrete sound.

Despite their functional differences, however, East Asian writing systems stem from a common ancient Chinese root. By and large, they are written with the same strokes, use the same stroke order, and achieve the same general aesthetic effect. Moreover, Chinese characters are widely used in all three languages, and a thorough study of any one of the three languages would certainly entail a thorough study of Chinese characters.

This textbook will, therefore, attempt to cover topics of East Asian orthography that are common to all three systems, namely, the aesthetic aspects of East Asian writing. With these aesthetic considerations in mind, it will be possible for you avoid common pitfalls of beginners, whose writing (be it in Chinese characters, Japanese kana, or Korean hangul) often end up looking misshapen and askew.

On the other hand, this course will not focus on the functional aspects of the three different systems, which are, of course, all very different. That is the job of the individual language textbooks.