THE CHINESE ART OF WRITING By Jean Francois Billeter Skira/Rizzoli. 319 pp. $50

OF THE arts of China, calligraphy is surely the most puzzling for Westerners. Even among those who appreciate the esthetic sensibilities of Chinese paintings, few can see in calligraphic scrolls more than scrawls and ink blotches. Why then do connoisseurs in the Orient rank calligraphy as the noblest of the arts? Why are some calligraphic works regarded in China and Japan as priceless national treasures?

Among the great masterpieces of calligraphy is a casual letter written by Wang Xi-zhi (321-379), considered the greatest calligrapher who ever lived, to his aunt. In the West, a letter written by Chaucer, say, would be considered a pricey collector's item and perhaps even a document of great historical significance, but it would not be valued far above Chaucer's actual literary work, and certainly not as the embodiment of the esthetic of an entire culture. The point is precisely that practically nobody cares two hoots about the content of what Wang actually wrote. He is remembered and revered purely for the way he wrote. Very strange.

Or consider another artist of the very first rank, the "mad drunkard" Zhang Xu (658-7480, who could not write unless he was roaring drunk. (Once when really plastered, he dipped his hair into the ink well and used his head as a writing instrument.) He said he understood in a flash the art of writing by witnessing a street quarrel between a porter and the entourage of some royalty over the rights of way. Other great calligraphers had similar experiences of sudden enlightenment, akin to the Zen satori, without which one may never understand writing. Is the Chinese concept of calligraphy as an art alien to the Western mind, or what?

In this beautifully written and produced book Jean Francois Billeter, a professor of Chinese literature at the University of Geneva, has taken on the daunting challenge of conveying to the cultivated Westerner the esthetic sensibilities that animate Chinese calligraphy. To begin with, our language is inadequate, not surprisingly if the very concept under discussion is not in the culture. On the very first page, Billeter complains that the word calligraphy in Western usage suggests a stylized, prettified and painstaking form of writing that one can learn by taking a few adult education classes. In the East, calligraphy, or as Billeter would prefer, the Chinese art of writing, is nothing short of an exceedingly sophisticated art form that at its highest level allows the practitioner to bare his inner self, an art attainable only through spiritual maturity and understanding. It is because of this act of self-revelation, at once delicate and daring, that calligraphy is so prized by the connoisseur.

Billeter explains that this exalted art is only possible because of the unique features of a language that represents concepts and objects by individual signs. Perhaps paradoxically, however, an understanding of Chinese is not essential to the appreciation of calligraphy, just as an understanding of Italian is not essential to the enjoyment of operatic music. Form reigns over content in calligraphy.

Calligraphy is thus the first abstract art and its esthetic motivations prefigure certain elements of modern Western art. In a wonderfully written passage, Billeter shows that Matisse was searching for, but never completely found, the sensibility and understanding of the great Chinese calligraphers. Calligraphy is also the most musical of the visual arts: Billeter tells us that his esthetic experience in viewing a scroll may be comparable to his experience in hearing Mozart's "La` ci darem la mano."

Billeter uses his obvious depth of learning in both Eastern and Western cultures not so much to dazzle us but to relate the discussion to what may be familiar to the Western reader. For instance, while discussing the architectonic style of Ou Yang-xiu (557-641), Billeter quotes from a letter Diderot wrote to Sophie Volland commenting on Michelangelo's use of forms. In another delightful passage, he was reminded by the writing of another Tang dynasty artist of Pierre Bonnard's sense of movement. I find this erudition admirable and charming. The book is not only lavishly illustrated with some of the greatest calligraphic works in history, but also with numerous pertinent examples from Western art.

Billeter is endowed with the eyes of a born critic, the vividly imaginative eyes that can see in the movement of a Chinese character a girl flinging herself on a young man who draws aways in hesitation. Worth the price of admission alone is his masterful analysis of a scroll supposedly by the great Tang dynasty poet Li Bai (701-762). In many ways, calligraphy underlines the essential difference between the esthetic cultures of East and West, a difference that Billeter discusses with deep insight and widsom. In one particularly illuminating remark, he asserts that beauty is essentially a Western concept; the primary concern of the Chinese artist is not beauty but the expression of inner reality.

The scope and ambition of this book is breathtaking. Billeter uses calligraphy as a jumping off point towards a coherent philosphy of the relation of inner self and external world. He explains the intimate relationship between calligraphy and the higher forms of Zen and Tao. Some readers may find the more heavily philosophical passages rather difficult reading but their perseverance will be rewarded.

In the end, what shows through and endows the book with a truly special quality is Billeter's passionate love for his subject.

My one quarrel with this book is that the publisher has seen fit to use the old Wade-Giles transliteration of Chinese when all major Western publications (such as The Washington Post) now use Pinyin. Physicist A. Zee is the author of "Fearful Symmetry, An Old Man's Toy" and, recently, "Swallowing Clouds," a playful journey through Chinese language, culture and cuisine.