Wang Xizhi (303-361) was an eminent calligrapher where his works are highly influential around the world. In 7th century China, his masterpieces were so esteemed that Emperor Taizong of Tang (626-649) had ordered the surviving original works of Wang to be collected and elaborate copies to be made. Some of these copies arrived on Japanese shores via Japanese envoys in the 8th century. Wang was thereafter revered as a teshi, or peerless calligraphy master. His skilled pieces were deemed the source and became the foundation of Japanese calligraphy. In the early Heian period (794–1185), Kukai, Saicho, and other Buddhist monks travelled to Tang dynasty China to study Chinese calligraphy and its culture. In the 8th and 9th centuries, people in Japan greatly admired Tang calligraphy styles, with Wang’s style being the most outstanding, and strove to learn from them.
In late 9th century Japan, Japanese syllabic characters known as hiragana were created based on the Chinese characters written in sosho-tai, a cursive script, which allowed the Japanese to express their thoughts and feelings more freely. Before that, people in Japan used the phonetic values assigned to Chinese characters to write. The writing styles of hiragana were further refined along with the flourishing of elegant Heian court literature, such as novels and essays. In the 10th and 11th centuries, the three greatest calligraphers of the time—Ono-no-Michikaze, Fujiwara-no-Sukemasa, and Fujiwara-no-Yukinari—established wa-yo, Japanese style calligraphy which featured refined characters, based on Wang Xizhi’s calligraphy style and the current aesthetic consciousness. Chinese characters written in wa-yo were characterized by curvilinear brushstrokes, which better harmonized with hiragana characters. As a result, writing in hiragana mixed with Chinese characters became the standard system of writing.
In medieval Japan, Japanese calligraphy evolved considerably in terms of expression after the system of writing hiragana with Chinese characters became widely used. Around the same time, shodo, the Japanese art of calligraphy, was also firmly established. Various schools of calligraphy were founded; each placed importance on their theories, customs, and techniques which were passed down to successors and disciples. Conversely, a new writing style that placed importance on expressing the writer’s feelings began to flourish in Song China (960–1279). This new calligraphy style was introduced to Japan along with Zen Buddhism which spread across the country, especially among Zen monks. It was used for Chinese style prose and poetry, while the conventional Japanese style of writing was used for writing waka (traditional Japanese poems of thirty-one syllables) and day-to-day documents. Japanese calligraphy was thus developed under the influence of these two contrasting styles.
The Tokugawa shogunate was established in the late 16th century after the end of civil war, marking the start of the Edo period (1603-1868). Social stability in Japan led to great economic and cultural developments. While Japanese calligraphy continued to develop, the official style of writing designated by the Tokugawa shogunate or Oie style was taught in schools for commoners so they could also read and write. The founders of the Oie style calligraphy were Imperial Prince Son’en and his father, Emperor Fushimi, though the origin of the style could be traced to Fujiwara-no-Yukinari, Ono-no-Michikaze, and even Wang Xizhi. The kara-yo style of Chinese calligraphy, introduced from Tang China to Japan via Nagasaki, became popular among intellectuals, including Confucians and literati, and was also later accepted by ordinary citizens as a refined and elegant calligraphy style. The Edo period was a time where a large part of the population enjoyed calligraphy and had practical and artistic benefits from writing.