The Rules of Calligraphy

Posted on August 23, 2016

My calligraphy teacher made me memorize and recite the rules of calligraphy as they have been formulated in the Four Strength Method of Chen Xiang (陈翔四力法). The rules are rather cryptic though so I spent some time trying to coming up with a reasonable translation and some explanations. Note that I’ve translated the spirit rather than the letter of these rules. The rules appeared in print in 快速掌握汉字间架结构的方法 (语言文字报, 2014-11-10), and can be found in Chen Xiang’s books as well (see below).

The Rules

教学定律 Rules of Teaching
一细看四点定位 Examine the position of the 4 points
二牢记逆向观察 Look where you’re going
三比较用口丁十 Compare using 口, 丁 and 十
四分析先诊后改 Analyse, examine, then correct
观察定律 Rules of Study
大四点缩小四点 From the big 4 points to the small 4 points
每个笔画有四点 Every stroke has 4 points
粗笔画对细笔画 Thick strokes and thin strokes
长画短画看变化 Long strokes and short strokes
书写定律 Rules of Writing
上伸下延大胆写 Extend above and below
左扩右张要明显 Extend left and right
横竖笔画右上斜 Incline to the upper right
内紧外松显四点 Inside tight, outside loose, the 4 points clearly visible
组合定律 Rules of Composition
写短是为了让长 Short strokes emphasize long strokes
笔画结构分主次 Divide into primary and secondary strokes
上下左右灵动移 Differentiate between top-bottom or left-right
协调美观为第一 Harmony is key

Aside: the Introduction to the Four Strengths Method book actually mentions 12 rules; these rules here correspond to rules 8, 9, 11 and 12. However, these particular 4 rules are the ones emphasized in the Regular Script, Clerical Script and Semi-Cursive Script copybooks.


Rules of Teaching. The “four points” mentioned a number of times in these rules are the top-most, bottom-most, left-most and right-most points in every character (“the big 4 points”), character component and stroke (“small 4 points”). It is one of the key points of Chen Xiang’s calligraphy that there must always be a single such top-most, bottom-post, left-most and right-most point. As a consequence, characters are either diamond shaped or triangle shaped (when two of the 4 points happen to be close together)–and not square! For example, watch 视频: 1《陈翔四力法》书法速成法《百家姓》系列讲座—-李 (or any of the other videos in that series) where Chen Xiang illustrates this over and over again.

“Look where you’re going” refers to the fact that when writing calligraphy, you should be very aware of the end-point of your stroke (收笔). Finally, “compare using 口, 丁 and 十” means compare character outline (“口”) and see where strokes meet (“丁”) and intersect (“十”).

Rules of Study. The rules of study emphasize ones again that we should look at the 4 points not just of the character itself, but also of the character components and even of each stroke. We should also watch carefully where strokes are thick and thin, and which strokes are long and which are short.

Rules of Writing. Extend above and below, left and right refer to the fact that we should make sure that the 4 points are clearly visible (this is emphasized once more in the last rule). Incline to the upper right means that horizontal strokes should slant upwards and that if we have multiple adjacent vertical strokes, each next vertical stroke should start a little higher than the previous (“册” is a good example where both occur).

Rules of Composition. Only one stroke in a character or character component should be main stroke, and hence the longest (or tallest); thus, divide strokes into primary strokes and secondary strokes. Similarly, for characters with a left-right split (for example, “般”) or a top-bottom split, one part (left or right/top or bottom) should be primary and more prominent.

The Four Strength Method

More information about the Four Strengths methods can be found in the following books; I’ve provided both links to and; note however that these books are all in Chinese, notwithstanding the English titles; moreover, those English titles are not necessarily accurate; I’ve taken the liberty of providing my own English translations of the titles here.

Introduction to the Four Strengths Method (陈翔四力法书法速成宝典). This is the most in-depth discussion of the Four Strength Method. Although it does contain a few characters and chengyu in regular and semi-cursive script, this is not suitable as a copybook, especially for beginners.
Four Strength Method: Regular Script Copybook (陈翔四力法零基础楷书速成一本通).
Four Strengths Method: Regular Script Copybook 2 (陈翔四力法丛书:毛笔楷书速成教程). This copybook provides further characters, as well as a series of 4-character “calligraphic works” containing chengyu.
Four Strengths Method: Clerical Script Copybook (陈翔四力法“零基础隶书速成”一本通)
Four Strength Method: Semi-Cursive Script Copybook (天下第一行书速成诀窍)

Further reading

It seems every calligrapher proposes their own set of “Rules of Calligraphy”; for an overview (in English!) of some of the ancient traditional and some more modern sets of rules, see chapter 4 of Dongjie Xu’s PhD thesis, Harmonious Screen Interface Design Principles from Chinese Calligraphy.