History of Shodo

Shodo and shuji are both Japanese words that mean “calligraphy.” We will use the term shodo in this discussion.

Shodo is the art of writing beautifully, using all three of the Japanese alphabets. It is a spiritual practice, a mental discipline, and a physical exercise. Shodo plays a very important role in Japan, where its characters are regarded as having a sort of spiritual power.

Shodo originated in China and developed all of its basic forms by the end of the Han dynasty in 220 AD. It was then introduced into Japan during the 6th century AD. In Japan, Chinese characters were gradually modified for the Japanese language and came to be known as kanji, non-phonetic symbols used to represent entire words. In addition, the Japanese developed two phonetic alphabets, known as hiragana and katakana, which are similar to the Latin alphabet used in Western countries in that their individual characters are used to represent sounds rather than entire words.

Kana style is an ancient way of writing that was originated by women during the 8th century AD in Japan and was later adopted by men as well. It is highly cursive and employs hiragana, katakana, kanji and an obsolete form of writing known as hentaigana, or variant kana.

Historically, kanji characters have been written in five major styles, all of which continue to be practiced by Japanese calligraphers:

  • Tensho, or seal script, the oldest style, was developed before the invention of paper, ink and the brush. “Seal” refers to the practice of carving characters into wood, bone or stone in order to make seals for stamping impressions onto other materials.
  • Reisho, or the scribe’s script, was developed next. Like tensho, this style did not lend itself to rapid writing.
  • Kaisho, or block script, is considered the standard style today.
  • Gyosho, or flowing script, is perhaps the most common style used in handwriting today.
  • Sosho, or cursive script, also known as “grass writing,” was developed from reisho for speed in writing.

As a student progresses in the practice of shodo, he or she is said to pass through four stages:

  • itten shuchu, “one point collected in the center, or perfect concentration”
  • ichi ji keizoku, “one action continued, or sticking to one thing”
  • kansho shimbi, “appreciation of beauty”
  • ningen keisei, “formation of human character.”

There are four “Treasures” employed in the practice of shodo. They are often made with simple materials, but they can be crafted with great care. Ink stones, in particular, can be very expensive.

  • Suzuri, or ink stone. These are made from hard slate and shaped into functional designs.
  • Sumi, or ink stick. These are usually made from pine soot or lampblack. They are mixed with a glue binder and dried.
  • Kami, or paper. This is made from natural fibers, like mulberry, rag or pulp. Many colors and textures are available.
  • Fude, or brush. These are made from many different kinds of animal or human hair and come in many different sizes.

When you start to learn shodo, in addition to the four Treasures, you should get a piece of wool felt to go under your paper; a bunchin, or paperweight, to hold the paper down; a brush rest to lay your brush on; and a small water container to dip your brush in. With this equipment, you will be ready to begin practicing shodo.

Shodo class details and contact information