Chinese Calligraphy

Written by Sally Guo Updated Jun. 21, 2021

Chinese calligraphy has played a very significant role in the history of Chinese art. Functional and artistic considerations all came together to shape the development of various styles in the different stages of their evolution.

In the beginning, writing styles were dominated by social appeal and the development and improvement of writing tools. When standard Chinese scripts were established, calligraphy was no longer confined to the realm as a functional form of writing; instead, it became a way of artistic expression for calligraphers.

Seal Script

Large Seal Script – the Origin of the Chinese Character

According to Chinese mythology, Chinese characters were first created by Cang Jie (dates unknown) under the teaching of Huangdi (the Yellow Emperor) (dates unknown). Archeological finds show that the earliest Chinese characters are known as the “Oracle Bone Script” of the Shang Dynasty.

“Oracle Bone Script” refers to the characters engraved on tortoise shells and animal bones that were unearthed from the Shang remains at Xiaotun Village in Anyang, Henan. Most of these inscriptions are records of divinations and omens.

In the Zhou Dynasty, people inscribed historical texts on large numbers of bronze vessels. The characters are known as “bronze scripts” (inscriptions on bronzes).
”Bronze Scripts” are found on bronze wares of the Western Zhou Dynasty, and Spring Autumn and Warring States periods, which were usually records of important political events or wars. As the characters on bronzes were engraved by awl (or cast), the strokes often appear as long and sharp lines.

In the Spring-Autumn and Warring States periods, different states had developed their own writing manners, thus a great variety of styles were created. These scripts are known as “large seal scripts”.

Small Seal Script – Standardization of Seal Characters

The Warring States period came to an end when Emperor Shihuang (259-210 B.C.) of the Qing conquered all other states and China was then governed by a central authority.

The Emperor ordered his Prime Minister, Li Si (?-208 B.C.) to sort out all different systems of writing that were prevalent in the former 6 states and to standardize the written language and styles according to the rules of the Qing system. This new script is known as “small seal script” which is typified by simplified and systematic forms.

Due to the tremendous workload and government orders, it was quite inconvenient to use seal script in writing, therefore the government scribers developed a more easily written script by further simplifying the seal script. This new script is known as “clerical script” (lishu) in reminiscence to the founder, Cheng Miao (dates unknown), who was a prison warden. (Literally, “li” corresponds to a prison officer or a prison office).

Clerical Script, Wooden, Bamboo, and Stones Slips

The clerical script became the official writing script in the Han dynasty. It was extensively used for engraving monumental stelae, replacing the former seal script. The popular use of Chinese brushes led to the conversion of writing styles. A more suitable and cursive style of the clerical script was then devised and generally used.

As this type of cursive clerical script is mostly found on the excavated wooden and bamboo slips or silk fragments, they are known as “slip writing style” and “silk writing style”.

The Development of Regular Script, Running Script and Cursive Script– Stelae Style of the Northern Dynasties; and Manuscript Style of the Southern Dynasties Wei, Jin, Southern, and Northern Dynasties (220-589)

The present regular script is always square in form with a balanced structure, which was modified from the clerical script of the late Eastern Han period and commonly used in the Wei-Jin period.

During the Northern and Southern dynasties, people in the North adopted regular script in engraving styles, and yet the flat structure and angular strokes of the Han style script could still be traced. This transitional style of script is attributed as the “stelae style”.

In the south, the great calligrapher Wang Xizhi (303-361) of the Eastern Jin dynasty posed his idea that calligraphy should be treated as a means of artistic creation rather than just for functional use.

In later times, manuscripts and writing of those literati calligraphers were often transformed into engravings on wood or stone for making rubbings and copies in order to preserve and make use of the stylistic essence of these masters.

Regular Script and Cursive Script

With the full maturity of the regular script styles in the Tang dynasty, calligraphers succeeded in establishing their own creative styles. Among profound calligraphers of the Tang period, Ouyang Xun (557-641), Yu Shinan (558-638, Chu Suiliang (596-659), Yan Zhenqing (709-785), and Liu Gongquan (778-865) were the most acclaimed.

Principles of regular script gradually became basic rules in learning and practicing calligraphy.

Representative works in cursive script by Zhang Xu (act. Ca. 700-750) and Huaisu (725-799) of the Tang dynasty are written in an extremely expressive manner. Structures of characters and brush manners are modulated and abstracted to show the unrestrained freedom of calligraphy art.

Personal Creative Styles

Calligraphy interpretation of the Song Dynasty often defines it as a “romantic and liberate style”. It means that the Song calligraphers always tried to free themselves and broke the restricted codes of the Tang calligraphic styles to create their own. It’s no surprise to find that the most influential Song calligraphers like Su Shi (1037-1101), Huang Tingjian (1045-1105), and Mi Fu (1051-1107) established their own style with superb creativity.

The “slender-gold style” of Emperor Huizong (1082-1135) also marks another successful pursuit of personal character in the art of calligraphy.

Renewal of Ancient Styles

Masters such as Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322) of the Yuan Dynasty, Wen Zhengming (1470-1559), and Dong Qichang (1555-1636) of the Ming Dynasty dedicated themselves to study the classical Jin-Tang calligraphic styles, in particular those of collectively known as the Two Wangs, Wang Xizhi and his son Wang Xianzhi (344-386).

A rich amount of calligraphy works collection in existence can be found in the Jiangnan regions; calligraphers were able to study the treasures of old masters and accomplished huge artistic achievements. Revisiting tradition was in vogue and soon extended nationwide. Calligraphers learned from the original works as well as the wood-block rubbings (tie), marking the golden period of the so-called “model- calligraphy school”.

Wen Zhengming (1470-1559)
Poems on fallen Flowers in small regular script (section) 1504

Growth of the Stelae School of Calligraphy

From the late Ming to early Qing period, some calligraphers progressively lost interest in learning from wood-block rubbings and turned to the archaic Han stelae styles.

Influenced by the studies of the mid-Qing period, calligraphers began to draw inspirations from the more ancient seal script styles. Writings of seal and clerical scripts were therefore revived and calligraphers further adopted the characteristics of seal and clerical scripts in writing regular and running scripts. This new tendency of calligraphic art is known as the “stelae school of calligraphy “or “bronze and stelae styles”.

Assimilation of the Past for a new Rendition: The Development of Chinese Calligraphy in the 20th Century

The latest archeological finds such as Han bamboo slips, silk writings, and Dunhuang Sutras, the publications of works of various major masters, create a considerable impact on the development of modern Chinese calligraphy. Major influences from the past are constantly assimilated into modern techniques and styles, creating contemporary new visions and creative experiments.

Need Help?

Request a custom itinerary today and get one step closer to your personalized trip

Create Your Trip