Part of the allure of Chinese calligraphy is the considerable stylistic diversity available to the artist. The Chinese writing system contains tens of thousands of individual characters. Thus, by sheer number of characters alone, Chinese presents the artist with an astounding array of possible combinations. Yet, how do we classify all the possible way of executing these graphs?
The Influence of Calligraphy Script Styles on Chinese Society and Culture
For millennia, the structure of Chinese culture society has been deeply affected by the strength of the written word. From the emergence of writing in the Shang Dynasty to the emergence of the bureaucratic Confucian hierarchy of the medieval period and even into the Modern period, literacy has been central to ways of formulating political power in China.
What is the Standard Script Style (Kai Shu / 楷書) in Chinese Calligraphy?
What is today known as the Standard Script, or Kai Shu (楷書), entered the Chinese writing tradition as a well-defined and mature script only in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE). It dispensed with the overt formality of Clerical (隸書/Li Shu) and Seal Scripts (篆書: Zhuan Shu). Likewise, it eschewed the liberation and near-illegibility of the Cursive Scripts. Fully embracing the tools of the Calligrapher, Kai Shu became the favored script for everyday writing, and remains so to this day. Although Seal and Clerical scripts may be chosen as the first to learn, choosing to start with Standard Script will best allow the novice to experiment with greater freedom or formality in later stages.
What is the Seal Script Style (Zhuan Shu / 篆書) in Chinese Calligraphy?
The Seal Script (篆書/Zhuan Shu/Chuan Shu) is the most archaic script of Chinese. Although this type of archaic writing can be subsumed under the general heading of Seal Script, it is in fact many numerous sub-scripts that were each used for different historical purposes. The oldest of these is the Jia Gu Wen (甲骨文/Chia Ku Wen), which was invented and used in the Shang Dynasty for prognostication ritual. This Script, although it is the oldest recorded coherent Chinese writing system, was not discovered in an archaeological context until the beginning of the last century. As a result, it has not had a large impact on the received Calligraphy tradition. Jin Wen (金文/Chin Wen), or Bronze Script, is far more well-known. This is the script that was used for inscribing ceremonial Bronze vessels in the Zhou Dynasty. The development of this script occurred in concert with Shi Gu Wen (石鼓文/Shih Ku Wen), the Stone and Drum Script. Shi Gu Wen was used for monumental stone inscriptions, and both it and Jin Wen were never standardized; the Zhou scribes were much more reliant on local custom and had to create new characters as they had need of them. Jin Wen and Shi Gu Wen are often simply called Da Zhuan (大篆/Da Chuan), or Large Seal Script.
What is the Clerical Script Style (Li Shu / 隸書) in Chinese Calligraphy?
As we’ve already seen, the oldest Seal Scripts are very labourious for the calligrapher. This difficulty did not escape the notice of the earliest authors and scribes of China. Likely beginning in the Warring States period, a script better suited to Brush writing was developed. By the early Han, this script developed into what we now call the Clerical Script (隸書/Li Shu). It takes its name from the fact that it was first used by Clerks as a type of shorthand before being finalized for legal documents and pronouncements in the Small Seal Script. In the Han Dynasty, however, Clerical Script became the official script for the production of most Imperial documents. This growing popularity allowed Clerical Script to be used for works of poetry, literature and, soon, the first truly Calligraphic works that made full use of the possibility of the flexibility of the writing Brush. Indeed, the first technical terms for Calligraphic forms relate to the Clerical Script. To this day, the ‘silk worm’s head and swallow’s tail’ (蠶頭燕尾/Cantou Yanwei/Ts’an-t’ou Yan-wei) forms are hallmarks of the Clerical Script.