This paper presents an overview of psychological research on the Chinese art of calligraphy (Shufa). Using a theoretical framework, we have investigated the scientific nature of calligraphic brush handwriting as well as its treatment effects on behavioural and clinical disorders. The paper begins with an introduction to Chinese calligraphy, Chinese characters, and the character structures. This is followed by an account of a research-based framework of the psychological characteristics of Chinese calligraphy handwriting (CCH). Our basic research includes measures of the writer’s physiological changes associated with the brush-writing act, and the results show that the practitioner experiences relaxation and emotional calmness evident in decelerated respiration, slower heart-rate, decreased blood pressure, and reduced muscular tension. The cognitive effects of the CCH practice included quickened response time and improved performance in discrimination and figure identification, as well as enhanced visual spatial abilities, spatial relations, abstract reasoning, and aspects of memory and attention in the practitioners. Following these findings, our applied and clinical research has resulted in positive effects of the CCH treatment on behavioural changes in individuals with autism, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD); on cognitive improvements in reasoning, judgement, and cognitive facilitation; and on hand steadiness in children with mild retardation; as well as enhanced memory, concentration, spatial orientation, and motor coordination in Alzheimer’s patients. Similarly, we have successfully applied the CCH treatment to patients with psychosomatic diseases of hypertension and diabetes, as well as mental diseases of schizophrenia, depression, and neurosis in terms of the patients’ emotions, concentration, and hospital behaviours. This new system of CCH behavioural treatment has also been applied to users of other writing systems. In summary, the present CCH research has its roots in a Chinese art, has been scientifically investigated, and offers an alternative approach to improved health.
Shufa or Chinese calligraphy is the writing of Chinese characters by hand using a soft-tipped brush; it has been used historically as a means of communication. The study of Chinese calligraphy in the past has focused mainly on how to execute and appreciate it artistically by following the experiences of the great masters. In the last three decades, we have investigated the psychological processes of Chinese brush handwriting from several dimensions of psychology.
Chinese characters and the characters’ structuring
Chinese brush handwriting involves a process of visual spatial structuring of the elements of the characters. They are written within an imaginary, subdivided square in which the execution of its strokes, the shaping, and the spacing and framing of the character occur. The formation of a character involves inscribing and aligning its strokes according to the patterns of the established character (Billeter, 1990).
The calligraphic writing act involves one’s bodily functions as well as one’s cognitive activities. Motor control and manoeuvring of the brush follow the character configurations. There is, therefore, an integration of the mind, body, and character interwoven in a dynamic graphonomic process (Kao, 2000).
The organization of the character entails certain geometric properties, including the topological principles of connectivity, closure, orientation, and symmetry, etc. In writing, these properties cause the writer’s perceptual, cognitive, and bodily conditions to engage in corresponding adjustments and representations (L. Chen, 1982; Kao, 2000).
PSYCHOLOGICAL ASPECTS OF BRUSH CHARACTER WRITING
A research-based general framework has been advanced to highlight the act of brush character writing in any language.
1. The writer’s perceptual, cognitive, and motor activities are feedback regulated and are integrated in a dynamic writing task with the writer’s body interfacing the character in an interactive process. The visual-spatial properties of the character affect the cognitive and motor activities of the writer during writing (Kao, 1973, 1976; Kao, Smith, & Knutson, 1969).
2. The body–character interlocking involves a projection by the writer of the character configurations in close correspondence and parallel to the body’s changing physical orientations. In this interface, someone’s visual-spatial patterns of the character are varied and more prominently featured than others, and would contribute to the differential complexity of the writing tasks (Kao, Shek, & Lee, 1983).
3. The body, as the reference for the writing act, initiates motion according to the geometry of the character and generates the corresponding patterns of the writing movements. Since all scripts share certain geometric properties in their construction, the basic principles of drawing and handwriting for Chinese are common between Chinese and English, e.g., the motor control variability in the writing act. This commonality makes possible the generality of findings from researching Chinese handwriting to alphabetic and other scripts (Kao, l983; Kao & Wong, 1988;Wong & Kao, 1991).
4. Because of the softness of the brush tip, the CCH act involves a 3-D motion, which generates a powerful source of impact on the practitioner’s perceptual, cognitive, and physiological changes during its practice. This impact also varies according to the modes of handwriting control, i.e., tracing, copying, and freehand (Shek, Kao, & Chau, l986).
5. In character formation, the brush is manoeuvred to produce 2-D strokes, varying in size, form, and direction. The task of the writer is to move the brush to track the established stroke patterns from memory or copybooks. This act resembles a driver’s steering of a car by using its front wheels as cursors in tracking the spatial displacement of the vehicle relative to the road (Kao & Smith, l969). The cursors in CCH tracking take the form of the brush tip.