Dancing Ink: The History and Art of Chinese Characters

The written form of Chinese has shaped thought, influenced aesthetics, and unified an empire. Across three millennia, this writing format has been inseparable from ritual and governance, and played a fundamental role in forming China’s empire, culture and identity. Often misconstrued as impenetrable, Chinese characters are now ubiquitous in our visual landscapes. We’ll review the development of scripts and styles and their different visual impressions, and learn about calligraphy, traditionally the highest Chinese art form. We’ll delve into how this venerable writing system has resisted significant change over centuries.

A $50 discount will be applied automatically for adults 55+.

Currently not available for registration.

Schedule clarification: This is a four-week online course. It runs from Monday, January 11 to Friday, February 5. Each week, all week, you can study that week’s material, post and respond to messages, and engage in course activities. You will participate in live videoconferencing sessions each Monday from 1–2:30 p.m. PT.

Learning objectives

By the end of the course, you should be able to do the following:

  • Summarize the categories of Chinese characters and list the basic stroke order of character construction.
  • Discuss the ways the power and authority of religious officials and the ruling class relates to knowledge of and skill in writing.
  • Explain how adoption of a unified written language contributed to the political structure of China and shaped its society.
  • Describe the factors that contributed to the development of different Chinese writing scripts and styles.
  • Discuss the compositional qualities of Chinese calligraphy that allow it to be appreciated as an art form even when the viewer doesn’t understand the meaning.
  • Discuss the reasons why China has retained its logographic writing system rather than adopting an alphabetic system.

Learning methods

Your online learning will include the following methods:

  • Articles and other course material
  • Participation in written discussions with other students
  • Participation in videoconference seminars

For Liberal Arts for 55+ Certificate students: you will write a reflective essay.


Week 1: The origins of writing: Pre-history through unification

We consider the mythological origins of Chinese characters and review the earliest surviving examples from the Shang dynasty (c. 1600 - 1046 BCE). Unification of China by the Qin dynasty (c. 221 - 206 BCE) included standardizing the written language – a decisive moment in the development of the Chinese writing system.

Week 2: The culture of calligraphy: Han and Tang dynasty developments

Han dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE) advancements in social development, technology and language included the invention of paper and the first “modern” Chinese script. Perfection of Regular Script during the Tang dynasty (618 - 907) brought writing to stability and maturity, and provided rules and standards that other styles elaborate.

Week 3: Dialectic of diversity: Cursive styles to innovations in printing

Initially developed to increase writing speed, the abbreviated, dynamic nature of Running (semi-cursive) and Cursive styles fosters creative expression, sometimes at the expense of legibility. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Chinese printing technology reached a milestone during the Song dynasty (960 - 1127) with the invention of movable type.

Week 4: Writing landscape: Literati art and beyond

The art of calligraphy influenced Chinese aesthetic taste and has a fundamental relationship to ink landscape painting. We consider the impacts of modernization and Western influences on Chinese writing and calligraphy, from ballpoint pens to computer fonts, and discover how contemporary artists approach this ancient art form.

Books, materials and resources

You will access reading material using SFU's online course management system, Canvas.

Technical requirements

This course is delivered using SFU's online learning system, Canvas. You can check if your browser is compatible with Canvas here.  

To get the most out of this online course, you should be comfortable doing the following:

  • Using everyday software such as browsers, email and social media
  • Navigating a website by clicking on links and finding pages in a menu
  • Downloading and opening PDF documents
  • Posting, replying and uploading images to a discussion board
  • Participating in videoconferencing sessions

You will be participating in videoconferencing using Zoom Meetings. For this, your computer needs to have a camera, microphone and speakers or headphones. Your computer software should be up to date with the latest available operating system and browser versions.

Accessing your course

  • A few days before the course starts, we will email you more information about the course and how you'll access it. You will also receive an email inviting you to access the Canvas learning platform (click on the link in the invitation to join the course). Once you’ve accessed Canvas, you can begin exploring the platform on your own. The full course will be accessible on its start date.
  • We’ll also host a virtual drop-in time on Zoom Meetings a few days before the course starts. This will give you a chance to check that you can access Zoom Meetings, and that your computer’s camera and microphone and speakers are working properly.

If you're 55+, you may take this course as part of

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