In western aesthetics, since Kant, there has been a strong emphasis on originality. In contrast, Chinese aesthetics places more emphasis on mastery or perfection, both through orientation on past models and natural creativity. The Chinese term for such emphasis is known as gongfu.
The Chinese calligraphy can therefore be said to be a form of gongfu, which means that it aims at high perfection through long time physical and spiritual training. In this regard, it is often compared to other Chinese arts that the category gongfu also applies, such as martial arts, sword dance, etc. The concept of gongfu also contains an important message that high and spiritual level of the art can only be achieved after long training.
In Chinese calligraphy, the gongfu is achieved through the diligent copying and writing of famous calligraphic works of great masters in history. However, copying must move beyond imitation if the art of calligraphy is to be truly mastered. Good calligraphers must master brushwork, understand the spatial logic of individual characters, understand the principles of composition, and must be aware of stylistic variations.
Admittedly, ‘copying’ is a clumsy English word for processes that are subtly different in Chinese terminology: mo, to trace, lin, to copy freehand, and fang, to imitate in a freer manner. Indeed, the process of tracing great works, copying them freehand, and imitating them in a freer manner by experimenting script, size, and overall composition paves the way for the personal appropriation of the art.
In ‘copying’ the calligraphic works, one must therefore avoid blind repetition and find a way to make them one’s own. Otherwise, the insistence on achieving perfection through copying would lead to too much orientation on past models and therefore stagnation.