History of Chinese Calligraphy – The Origins of Calligraphy in Ancient China: Bone Script During Shang Dynasty


What is the Shang Dynasty ?

Where did Chinese writing come from? It appears that the first characters were not written with brush and ink, but rather inscribed on bones. It was in the Shang Dynasty (商朝, c. 1600-1050 BCE) that characters first appeared as a fully developed linguistic system. Although there have been clear examples of meaningful marks on artifacts from slightly before the Shang, these did not often appear in sequence, and are thought to be clan markings denoting ownership of elite goods.

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History of Chinese Calligraphy – The Origins of Calligraphy in Ancient China: Bronze Inscriptions in Zhou Dynasty


The Zhou State: Feudalism and Tribute

It is not clear exactly what brought about the decline of the Shang (商) civilization. What is clear is that in approximately 1050 BCE, the Shang was defeated and replaced by the incumbent Zhou (周/Chou) state. By way of comparison with Western history, this was slightly after the end of the Egyptian New Kingdom, and slightly before the assumed birth date of the Biblical King David.

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History of Chinese Calligraphy – The Origins of Calligraphy in Ancient China: The Warring States Period (戰國時代/Zhan guo Shi Dai)


The Warring States (戰國時代 / Zhan Guo Shi Dai): the Decline of Zhou

As time passed, cracks began to form in the Zhou kingdom. Managing a feudal state the size of China was difficult to manage when it relied largely on the strength of lineage relationships, many of which were incredibly distant. (Map) As these relationships decayed, the lower ranks began to assert greater an greater degrees of autonomy, until it was not the nominal ‘rulers’ who wielded political power, but their subordinates. Eventually, all ties to a central Zhou ruler would be severed and China as we know it was divided up into a considerable number of smaller states that warred more or less continuously for about 200 years, from 475 BCE to 221 BCE.

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History of Chinese Calligraphy – The Origins of Calligraphy in Ancient China: The Unification of China and a Common Script in Qin Dynasty (秦朝/Qin Chao, Ch’in ch’ao)


The Qin Dynasty (秦朝/Qin Chao, Ch’in Ch’ao)

In 221 BCE, the state of Qin  finally conquered the remaining states that had made up the Warring States and proclaimed the formation of a new dynasty under a centralized government. This essentially began the Imperial period of Chinese history, with the first Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di (秦始皇帝/Ch’in Shih Huang Di) effectively controlling the entirety of China.

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History of Chinese Calligraphy – The Golden Age of Chinese Calligraphy: Han Dynasty (漢朝/Han Chao/Han Ch’ao) and the Age of Text


The Formation of a Literati Class During Han Dynasty as an Ascendant for the Tradition of Chinese Calligraphy

After only a decade and a half, the Qin Dynasty fell apart. However the Han nation, under the direction of Liu Bang, quickly defeated the 18 Kingdoms to reunify China. The name for the Han Dynasty thus comes from the name of the ancient prinipality of of Han, in modern-day Si Chuan and Southern Shaanxi. Unlike the fall of the Zhou, the 18 Kingdoms period was only a few years long, and the Imperial model was rapidly reasserted. (Han dynasty map)  Central to the success of the Imperial model was the dedication of a class of scribes, officials and courtiers referred to collectively as the ‘literati’. These men (they were usually men) of letters provided the centralized government and social institutions with legitimacy by carrying out and contributing to the political discourse of their times.

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