Script Styles of Chinese Calligraphy: An Overview of Kai Shu (楷書) – the Standard Script Style


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.

How to Identify the Standard Script Style (Kai Shu / 楷書) in Chinese Calligraphy?

The suitability of the Standard Script for the budding Calligrapher is largely a result of its well-defined rules and clear use of individual strokes. Compared with the Clerical Script, Standard Script is much more square and upright. It also contains all of the different Strokes that we have discussed. Indeed, the rules for Stroke Order that we have already provided are likewise based on the Standard Script. More subtle hallmarks of Standard script include a relative lightness of the line width and slightly left-slanted horizontals that are spaced farther apart than in the Clerical script.

How to Execute the Standard Script Style (Kai Shu / 楷書) in Chinese Calligraphy?

When it comes to writing a good Standard Script, the first thing to remember is to very carefully regulate the thickness of lines through precise control of your Press and Pull techniques. With such strong and thin lines, it is important to exhibit control of your Press and Pull even as you avoid over-emphasizing width variation. In Kai Shu, each stroke is well defined and separate. As such, working on your Concealed Tip technique is very important for executing a good Standard Script. Overall, this is a script that rewards a serious consideration of stroke order and focused practice on individual strokes. It is highly recommended that a beginner make use of existing examples by copying.

Historical Variations by Calligraphy Masters of the Standard Script Style (Kai Shu / 楷書) in Chinese Calligraphy

The execution of Standard Script would of course be rather empty is there were no diversity possible within its execution. Three of the major sub-styles within Kai Shu are named after the Masters who popularized them. We refer to them as the Wang, Yan and Liu styles. The first, named after Wang Xizhi (王羲之, Wang Hsi Chih, 303-361 CE), is typified by its extraordinary ease and grace. You will notice a particular rounding of the horizontals coupled with a masterful concealed Tip. Overall, the line strength is remarkably consistent, from each dot to the longest lines. The Yan Style is somewhat stronger and more severe than is Wang’s. Named after Yan Zhenqing (顏真卿, Yan Chen Ch’ing, 709-785 CE), this style maintains solid lines that are slightly more angular and pointed than the Wang Style. The curve of the horizontals is mostly absent, and each line is clearly controlled and defined. The Liu Style, after Liu Gongquan (柳公權, Liu Kung Ch’üan, 778-665 CE), is the lightest of all. The thin strokes show a great appreciation for Bone Structure and create a remarkable openness. As you can see, the possibility of variation even within Kai Shu is considerable. Trying to copy the Standard Scripts of these three masters will allow you to find whether you will tend to favour strong, solid lines or open, slender characters. An accomplished calligrapher will be able to emulate any style.