[Aesthetics] Fonts of mystery: the calligraphy of Kukai

Kukai04Of all the works of calligraphy I have ever seen in Japan, my favorite is the late style of Kukai [空海] (774–835), the founder of Shingon Buddhism. He had experimented with many different styles throughout the course of his life, and methinks he reached the height of his artistic powers when, at the age of 52, he wrote Masuda-ike Himei Narabinijo [益田池碑銘并序], the original of which is now stored in Koyasan Reihoukan Museum [高野山霊宝館]. The calligraphy of this piece was said to be engraved on a commemorative tomb for the creation of a (now extinct) reservoir in Nara called Masuda-ike.

The calligraphic style he used in this piece is called Zattai-sho [雑体書]. Zattai-sho emerged during the Six Dynasties (222–589) – a period in Chinese history in which the intelligentsia was (uncharacteristically) obsessed with all things metaphysical, esoteric and occult. It was the hippie period of Chinese history during which it was considered cool to be counterculture, to drop out of the system and overall defy social conventions. As you can see in these screencaptures from NHK BS Premium’s 3-part documentary series entitled Kukai Shihou to Jinsei [空海 至宝と人生] (2011), it was a decorative style which, in the hands of Kukai, became something of an artistic cross-over between Taoist magical sigils and his own creative interpretations of Chinese letters.

Top left: 'ki' or 'air'. Bottom left: 'go' or 'five'. Right: 'hoshi' or 'star'

Top left: ‘ki’ or ‘air’. Bottom left: ‘go’ or ‘five’. Right: ‘hoshi’ or ‘star’ (Source: documentary series by NHK BS Premium entitled ‘空海 至宝と人生’)

For instance, the word ‘ki’ [気] which means ‘air’ or ‘aether’ became three lines of waves. The word ‘hoshi’ which means ‘star’ became three star-like circles connected through a human-like body. The word ‘go’ which means ‘five’ became, as the documentary series explained, two tadpoles. (Although the series did not go into details to explain why two tadpoles, a search on Google reveals that a hieroglyphic representing a tadpole was used to denote the value of 100,000 in Egyptian numerals.)




I also particularly like Kukai’s calligraphy on Shingon Shichisouso [真言七祖像], which is a series of portraits of the heads of the Vajrayana tradition which he inherited from his master Huiguo (746 – 805) in China. It is now stored in Toji Temple in Tokyo. As you can see below, the strokes resemble flags flying in the wind, or ink dissolving in water, or incense smoke rising up in the air. This calligraphic style is called Hihakutai [飛白体].


If you like Kukai’s calligraphy, I would also recommend following a contemporary artist named Kouhei Okamoto [岡本光平] (1948 – present). You can see some samples of his work here.

(On a further side note, should you fancy producing mysterious-looking letters in Japanese on your own and assuming that you are not handy with a brush, consider purchasing a type of computer font called kinbuntai [金文体]. This font is perhaps most familiar in the West through the logo of the anime series Ghost in the Shell, and is known for its characteristic of having a shortened upper half and an elongated bottom half.)

Samples of 'kinbuntai' [金文体] fonts

Samples of ‘kinbuntai’ [金文体] fonts. Left: the logo of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. Right: the logo of Tsukihime.


6 thoughts on “[Aesthetics] Fonts of mystery: the calligraphy of Kukai

  1. Fascinating calligraphic work this is.
    Is it just me or why the word for ‘ki’ or ‘air’ also looks like water waves?

    • @ vv:

      That’s a good question. For some reason, when I looked at Kukai’s callgraphic work for ‘ki’ [気・氣], I was reminded of a passage from a 17th century Chinese text of geography called Shui Long Jing [水龍經] by Jiang Da Hong [蔣大鴻]: ‘Qi/ki/air is the mother of water. Water is the child of qi/ki/air. When qi/ki/air flows, water follows. When water stops, qi/ki/air stagnates. Mother and child are of the same sentiment. They chase each other and follow each other like form and shadow.’ (My rough translation.)

      The original goes like this: 氣;者,水之母;水者,氣之子,氣行則水隨,水止則氣畜。子母同情,水氣相逐,猶影之隨形也。

  2. @vv
    Actually waves for air doesn’t strike me as very odd. Air gets tangible by a wind and wind is visible by means of something flowing in the wind (willow branches or hair), which produces a wavy pattern. (No idea if that is even close through.)
    What intrigues me more is the cross that is originally a five inside of the ki. A five and wavy patterns make air/spirit? Has it something to do with the magical five elements five?

    Also too bad it doesn’t show the kanji for the character on the first picture. It sort of looks a bit like a man with a hat but quite a weird man.

    • @ Luna

      The ‘five inside of ki’ bit is well-spotted! Well done! Even I have missed it and I am so glad that you have pointed it out. It is very intriguing indeed.

      I found this online dictionary for Chinese words detailing the evolution of each word across time and different calligraphic styles. It seems that ‘five’ [五] was indeed written as a shape like ‘X’ as early as when the Chinese language first appeared on oracle bones:


      I suspect that NHK BS Premium may be throwing us a red herring, or at least an incomplete explanation, when they mentioned the ‘two tadpoles’ bit.

      I also looked up ‘ki’ [気・氣] on the aforementioned online dictionary and it turns out that the original way to write this word in oracle bones was indeed just three simple lines!


      • How in the world did they distinct three from air back in the days? XD

        It’s interesting that the now-cross of ten was originally just one vertical stroke. I remember how mas as a little girl first saw and learned the now-five. It looked geniusly proper, because at first sight I thought “Well, it has 5 strokes!!”. I was very very disappointed to realize, that the third stroke over the corner was actually counted as merely one stroke.

        The original ki most certainly looks like a kawa turned around 90 degrees. The original kaway certainly looks a very much lot like a real stream (with some randome stuff floating on the water in the middle.) Ames is looking like clouds and droplets falling out of it as well. Perhaps the ki stripes really were like waving willow branches or the like?

        But looking at the etymology of ki, the cross-five seems to be more of like a Japanese phenomenon? As far as I know, they did simplify a few things from the traditional Chinse. qì in Chinese doesn’t have anything inside right now and the traditional qì isn’t having a real cross at all inside. (Isn’t that rice inside? What does air have to do with rice? Or was air like visualized by rice stems in the wind?)

        Btw. where did you watch this documentary? =D

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