How to get started on Chinese Calligraphy 4: STYLES

By Fei Gao on May 13, 2023

The transition of “Love”

One of the factors that makes Chinese calligraphy such a rich and deep tradition is its long evolutionary history. The earliest Chinese written system that has been discovered dates back to the late 2nd millennium BC, and has transitioned through 8 major scripts throughout the next few thousands of years. The GIF above shows all 8 major scripts for the character “love” (愛) , with an additional glyph in the beginning (which will be covered in more detail below), and a computer typed version plus an emoji to wrap it up at the end. Another exciting fact, is that 6 out of these 8 scripts are still regularly practiced by modern day Chinese calligraphers, and are used on products in everyday life such as stamps, signages or logos. Now let us go through each of the scripts in a bit more detail.

  1. Dongba Symbols (東巴文)
Left: Dongba Symbol for “Love”; Right: more Dongba Symbols (Image source)

Dongba Symbols is a system of glyphs used by the Nakhi people in southwestern China. Though they didn’t originate as early as many of the other scripts (the earliest discovered glyphs date back to the 7th century), the font design is considered by scholars to be the most primitive of all scripts, hence its placement in the transition GIF.

2. Oracle Bone Script (甲骨文)

Left: Oracle script for “Love”; Right: more examples of the Oracle script (Image source)

Consider the Oracle Bone Script the ancestor of all Chinese scripts and characters. Dating back to the late 2nd millennium BC, it acquired its name as most of the scripts were engraved on animal bones and turtle shells, and used for divination purposes.

3. Chinese Bronze Inscriptions (金文)

Left: Bronze Inscription for “Love”; Right: Bronze Inscriptions on a brass ware (Image source)

Originating in the Shang Dynasty (2nd millennium BC), the Bronze Inscriptions reached its heyday during the Zhou Dynasty (11th — 3rd century BC). They are mostly found on bronze ware, such as bells and cauldrons; and the content mostly contain activities of the aristocrats.

4. Large Seal Script (大篆)

Left: Large Seal Script for “Love”; Right: more examples of the Large Seal Script (Image source)

The Large Seal Script was invented halfway through the Zhou Dynasty (~ 7th century BC). Starting with this script, the font begins its transition away from hieroglyphs with the introduction of more rule-based designs. Sometimes the Large Seal Script also broadly refers to all scripts prior to the Small Seal Script, which we’ll cover in the next section. This script and all the remaining scripts in this posts are still regularly practiced by modern Chinese calligraphers.

5. Small Seal Script (小篆)

Left: Small Seal Script for “Love”; Right: more examples of the Small Seal Script (Image source)

Small Seal Script came about as a policy by Qin Shi Huang (the first emperor of a unified China and the Qin Dynasty) to standardize the written system across the empire. Style wise, in comparison to Large Seal Script, Small Seal Script has thinner and straighter strokes, and the characters are much more similarly sized, resulting in more organized layouts in works and documents.

6. Clerical Script (隸書)

Left: Clerical Script for “Love”; Right: more examples of the Clerical Script (Image source)

The Clerical Script emerged during the Qin Dynasty (221 — 206 BC), and became popular during the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD). In comparison to the smoother and rounder strokes in Seal Scripts, Clerical Script has more angular strokes, in order to make it easier and faster to write on bamboo and wood slips.

7. Grass Script (草書)

Left: Grass Script for “Love”; Right: more examples of Grass Script (Image source)

There are a few different types of Grass Scripts. One came about during the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), as a shorthand to writing Clerical Script to increase speed and efficiency. This first type (章草), similar to Clerical Script, keeps each character as its own unit, and the connecting of strokes only happens within a character. When the Regular Script emerged, there’s a second type that serves as a shorthand for it(今草), with more connecting strokes in between characters. And later on during the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907 AD), the script became more of an art form instead of a communication tool, hence the creation of the third and most wild type of all (狂草).

8. Semi-Cursive Script(行書)

Left: Semi-Cursive for “Love”; Right: more examples of Semi-Cursive characters (Image source)

The Semi-Cursive Script was also created during the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD). Semi-Cursive, Grass and the Regular Script all appeared roughly around the same time, and have evolved together and influenced each other, instead of a more linear transition like the earlier scripts. The photo on the right above is one of the most renown masterpieces of the Semi-Cursive Script (蘭亭序), written by calligrapher Wang Xizhi during the Jin Dynasty.

9. Regular Script (楷書)

Left: Regular Script for “Love”; Right: more examples of the Regular Script (Image source)

Lastly, the Regular Script was also created during the Han Dynasty, and was derived from the Clerical Script. It is the most commonly used script in modern days. In the previous post, when we learned the 8 principles of Yong, we were practicing the basic strokes in Regular Script.

As mentioned earlier, the Seal Scripts, Clerical Script, Grass Script, Semi-Cursive Script and the Regular Script are all still commonly practiced by modern day calligraphers. We will go through practical learning information for each of these over the next two posts. Which one are you most excited to try your hands on? Let me know in the comments below :)

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