Nothing in the West, no handwriting, no painting, prepares us for the joyous yet imprisoned beauty of "Chinese Calligraphy," now at the Freer Gallery of Art.

These masters were literati, not observers. The markings that they left us -- those set sequences of brush strokes, disciplined yet fluid -- call to mind ballet as much as painting. The calligraphers of China taught their wrists to dance.

Artists in the West invent. These long-dead and long-honored masters of the brush instead were expected to obey and acknowledge. They copied ancient models, worked in ancient styles, followed ancient rules. "All their basic script-forms," the small catalogue informs us, "were fully evolved as early as the fourth century A.D." They were prisoners of precedent -- yet, imprisoned, they were free.

That is the mark of the master. The great Chinese calligraphers represented here -- Wang Hsien-chih (344-388), and Chao Meng-fu (1254-1322), Chu Sui-liang (596-658) and Li Ssu (died 208 B.C.) -- were somehow able to transcend the conventions that they honored.

"The mind of the true Samurai," the Japanese believed, "must not waver with reason." The calligraphers of China, too, were so sure of their actions, so steeped in tradition and so free of doubt, that they could write, and beautifully, without considering the meaning of the texts that they transcribed.

Of all the visual arts -- painting, glazing, bronze casting -- the connoisseurs of China ranked calligraphy the highest. But until very recently, American collectors of Oriental art could not quite accept that. Charles Lang Freer, for instance, purchased few examples. Only last year did Dr. Shen C. Y. Fu, himself a fine calligrapher and the Freer's new curator of Chinese Art, discover the 12 extraordinary scrolls that are the most important works in this extraordinary show.

Together they were purchased for $360,000. Thomas Lawton, the director of the Freer, cannot foresee a time when so many works so fine will be available again.

Of these scrolls the most important, historically, at least, may be the "Epitaph for my Wet-Nurse" by Wang Hsien-chih (344-388). The calligrapher and his father, who are known as the "two Wangs," are "traditionally regarded as the founders of the orthodox school of Chinese calligraphy," writes Dr. Fu. "The two men have exerted greater influence on the history of Chinese calligraphy than any other masters" -- though, ironically, almost nothing of their work has managed to survive.

The funerary rubbing that begins this scroll was taken from a tablet carved in 379, then buried, then unearthed in 1203, and not long after lost. The rubbing is the only surviving version of the master's hand. Chao Meng-fu (1254-1322), "one of the greatest calligraphers from the Yuan period, "owned the famous rubbing and himself inscribed a colophon for the Freer's new scroll. Tung Chi-chang, "the greatest of the Ming dynasty connoisseurs," also owned the scroll and supplied it with a colophon in 1634. In 1750, the Emperor Chien-Lung himself added yet another.

The two largest scrolls displayed were done by Wen Cheng-ming (1470-1559) and Wen Peng, his eldest son. No other pair like this one has managed to survive. The scroll by his son, writes Dr. Fu, "is the most impressive example of his calligraphy now known."

The viewer soon learns to discriminate among various sorts of script: the "oracle-bone script" from the 12th century B.C.; the so-called "standard script, with its blocky, formal characters; and the later "cursive script" in which freedom seems to rule.

A Chinese connoisseur can gaze upon the works of a particular calligrapher and trace the references he summons and the sources of his style. But even if one cannot read a single Chinese character, the personalities of these masters shine eerily through.

"In China," says Dr. Fu, "your education, culture and your personality can be read in your calligraphy." His is splendid. So, too, his show. It will run through November.