Script Styles of Chinese Calligraphy: An Overview of Cao Shu (草書) – the Cursive Script Style


What is the Cursive Script Style (Cao Shu / 草書) in Chinese Calligraphy?

Chinese Cursive is usually referred to as a Style and not a Script. This is due to the lack of discernible rules. The name, meaning ‘rough writing,’ likely refers to the style’s evolution as a quick shorthand for personal notes or drafts never meant as final products, to say nothing of artworks. Following the Han, however, Cursive Styles gained currency as a worthy method of expressing the artist’s innermost feelings. The rapidity and unburdened brushwork certainly has a great appeal to the eye, even if it sacrifices legibility.

The ascendency of Cursive Style was helped in part by emergent Confucian ideas about individual personality. It was though that if a person was good, virtuous and honourable, then his or her speech, posture and even handwriting would be an expression of that inner virtue. Thus, as the unbridled writings of certain people were preserved, and their lives later celebrated, their handwriting became valued as artistic, accidental expressions of virtue. Yan Zhenqing’s (顏真卿) ‘Draft of a Eulogy to my Nephew’ is one such work. Yan was held up as an example of Confucian virtue after his death, and his rough works were preserved and honoured as a result.

How to Identify the Cursive Script Style (Cao Shu / 草書) in Chinese Calligraphy?

Those familiar with Kai Shu and Xing Shu should have little difficulty recognizing Cao Shu. The similarity to Xing Shu is hard to escape. However, while Running Style always keeps a semblance of Stroke Order, and retains character separation, writings in Cursive Style dispense with even the elementary rule that characters should be separated. It is not uncommon for the final stroke of a Cursive character to lead directly into the first stroke of the next character. Many beginners believe that Cursive works should be written from the top of the page to the bottom with no breaks. This is actually quite uncommon, and even the fastest calligrapher will usually pause every few characters.

In sum, if you can see any characters that are clearly linked together, you can be sure that the work in question is in Cursive. Cursive’s abundance of looping, free strokes and clear emphasis on speed over legibility are other good clues.

How to Execute the Cursive Script Style (Cao Shu / 草書) in Chinese Calligraphy?

The best way to learn Cursive Style is to first ensure that you have a good grasp of the proper stroke order of the characters in question. In fact, it is often the case that the remnants of stroke order are the only thing that allows the viewer to decipher the characters. As a result, months of prior study and practice in Kai Shu is the most important facet of beginning to write Cursive.

With this accomplished, the next thing to do is to break all the rules! Writing Cursive is often done with great speed and energy, with little care given to legibility. One might think of Cursive as simply sketching the characters, leaving the bare minimum needed for identification before moving on. It is for these reasons that prior study and practice are so important: if you do not have a firm grasp on your characters, you will be unable to tell which parts should remain for your ‘sketch’.

Once you begin writing Cursive, you’ll likely find writing characters linked together with no breaks will dry your brush out quite quickly. In response, it is usual to overfill a brush when writing Cursive, and to keep writing even when the starts to dry out. This gradual contrast of dark to light will give your piece a strong sense of rhythm.