Digital Version TWOC Events

The Secrets of Chinese-Arabic Calligraphy

Writing that can be read in two languages at once, the first Chinese "pinyin," and the world's most beautiful words


The Secrets of Chinese-Arabic Calligraphy

Writing that can be read in two languages at once, the first Chinese "pinyin," and the world's most beautiful words


Despite being a nation which has often been viewed as insular, China’s history has always been filled with cultural exchanges, including voyages around the world,  imperial dynasties of different ethnic groups, and the constant threat of invasion. When Islam came to China during the Tang Dynasty, with it came a form of writing never before seen in the Middle Kingdom. Chinese-Arabic calligraphy blossomed over the next hundred years, including new styles of calligraphy, the first “pinyin” system, and some of the most beautiful calligraphy the world has ever seen. Despite 700 years of history, Chinese-Arabic calligraphy remains under-researched and obscure. Today, TWOC reveals a few of the secrets of this ancient tradition.

osamaid script

Names of God by Osamaid, 2010. Taking sini style to an extreme, this scroll is written in Arabic but the words mimic the shapes of Chinese characters. (X)

The history of Arabic calligraphy is closely tied to Islamic calligraphy, since most of the greatest works are religiously inspired. Popular subjects of calligraphy include praise of God and the prophet Mohammad, as well as verses from the Koran. As such, use of Arabic spread across China alongside Islam, fostered in mosques and schools.

The Chinese style of writing Arabic script is called sini. While  today sini doesn’t have to be written in China, it had its origins in 14th century (Ming Dynasty) China. Sini is characterized by tapered brush strokes, thick and thin shapes, and words that mimic the flow of writing Chinese characters.

Most Arabic written in China today is in a sini scriptIt’s easily spotted in mosques, historically Muslim homes, and outside of Halal restaurants. The spread of sini corresponds roughly to the lands controlled by the Ming Dynasty. While the Yuan Dynasty included much of present-day Xinjiang and central Asia, the subsequent Ming Dynasty’s rule was concentrated closer to the East coast. Consequently, Chinese-Islamic art began to evolve separately from Central Asian-influence for the first time, giving it its uniquely Chinese feel.

Although sini is Chinese in origin, it’s still an Arabic script. Cultural mixing during Islam’s early years in China also produced a unique and very different form of writing: xiao’erjing. Xiao’erjing (小儿经, children’s script) developed from the need for a standardized way to write Chinese sounds for those who couldn’t read characters. It was known as “children’s script” because it was first used to teach children to read the Koran. In many ways, xiao’erjing is the original pinyin, phonetically translating Chinese sounds into an alphabetic script. Like Arabic, it’s written from right to left, and initial and final sounds are written alongside one another, much like in modern pinyin. Xiao’erjing is unusual in that it always includes vowels, while most languages that use Arabic script omit or imply vowel sounds.

Xiao’erjing isn’t a recent invention. The oldest example found is dated to 1340 C.E, from a stone tablet in the courtyard of a Xi’an mosque. Amazingly, xiao’erjing has remained in constant, if limited, use for 700 years. Today, it’s used by the Hui, Dongxiang, and Salar ethnic groups, found across Ningxia, Gansu, Inner Mongolia, Qinghai, and Shaanxi provinces. Xiao’erjing is used to write Chinese language Korans, as well as provide annotations in standard Arabic Korans. While academic interest in xiao’erjing is on the rise, the script itself is nearing extinction, since China heavily promotes the use of pinyin in schools.

A xiao'erjing translation of a portion of the Declaration of Universal Rights. Click for translation (X)

A xiao’erjing translation of the opening to the Declaration of Universal Rights. Click for translation (X)

god is great

Ma Yi Ping’s bilingual calligraphy (X)

The decline of xiao’erjing aside, the art of Chinese-Arabic calligraphy has experienced a strong revival in the last 20 years. Emerging artists take the writing in bold new directions, marrying old styles with modern creativity. One artist from Jordan, who styles himself as Osamaid, extensively studied both Chinese and Arabic calligraphic traditions to produce works that mimic the shapes and style of Chinese characters, even though they’re written in stylized Arabic script.

Still other calligraphers like Imam Ma Yi Ping (马益平) take calligraphy in totally new directions. Imam of the Grand Mosque of Xi’an, Ma’s most famous works are actually bilingual calligraphy  – stylized words that can be read both in Chinese and Arabic. The image on the left  reads 真主至大(zhēnzhǔ zhì dà) top to bottom, meaning “God is the greatest.” Turn the paper 90 degrees counterclockwise, and Arabic readers can see Bis-Allah-Alrahman-Alraheem, with the same meaning. His life and works were recently featured on an Al-Jazerra documentary series on Chinese Muslims, called “Road to Hajj.”

From ancient days of central Asian trade, to today’s vibrant cultural exchange, Arabic-Chinese calligraphy is sure to have a place in the China’s future, and will doubtless dazzle viewers for years to come.

Master image courtesy of Calligraphy Asia. Calligraphy by Ma Yi Ping (X)