Scripts Styles of Chinese Calligraphy: What are the Different Scripts Styles of Chinese Calligraphy and how to Identify them?

What is a Script Style in Chinese Calligraphy?

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?

Although there are more characters than anyone could reasonably hope to learn, Chinese writing styles and conventions have simplified the mechanics of writing characters to the point that even a relative novice should be able to correctly copy a given character. Nevertheless, over time, the conventions of writing have changed considerably. The masterful and imaginative use of these various scripts and styles has formed a central theme in the conduct and appraisal of calligraphy ever since its inception.

A script, then, is essentially a historical concept that implies a certain treatment of character composition according to line and stroke order. It is important to distinguish, however, between a script and a style. Scripts are not dependent on the calligrapher’s own stylistic variations of single graphs. A script is usually defined by a certain number of more-or-less strict orthographic conventions. Although these may vary in specific historical contexts, a well-defined script is the baseline from which individual styles are created.

What are Archaic Script Styles in Chinese Calligraphy?

The Chinese writing tradition persisted for hundreds of years in advance of its use in anything the modern observer would comfortably classify as a ‘document’. Inscriptions on bones and bronze vessels and implements predate the emergence of writing on paper, silk or bamboo. Although these ancient texts can be used today in creating a verifiable historical record, some the earliest surviving writings are in a format that not would suggest portability, inscribed as they are on massive ritual objects that are as easily classified as monuments as they are texts.

Predicated as they are on the need for inscription, brush work, or the exposure or adoption of its mechanics, is secondary to the form of characters. For the observer, this means that Archaic scripts are bold and perhaps the easiest to view as direct representations of ideas or objects. Archaic inscription scripts also lack the dot as a character element. The process of inscription with edged implements did not allow the easy creation of such small elements. Finally, an emphasis on vertical symmetry is clearly present in the earliest scripts.

The Introduction of the Brush for Script Styles in Chinese Calligraphy

With the coming of the dynastic epoch and the unification of China as an empire, Chinese script underwent its own unification. The increasing use of writing not just for monumental or ritual purposes but for recording the quotidian events and exchanges of a vast and complex state required that writing not only become more standardized, but that this standardization should provide for the easy use of the brush and ink. Words were freed from the mechanics of inscription. The Brush rose as the primary writing tool, and the scripts changed to reflect this change.

Clerical Script, and later Standard Script, introduced a standard stroke order that persists to this day. Stressing both legibility and ease of production, Standard Script has maintained pre-eminence as the most commonly used script. Clerical Script, on the other hand, retains a somewhat archaic connotation, bridging the gap between the Archaic Scripts and an identifiable modern Standard Script.

In both of these scripts, the use of the Brush is clearly seen. Moreover, each stroke is well-defined.

Personal Script Styles in Chinese Calligraphy

Quite soon after the Chinese writing system became standardized for the use of brush and ink, people began to make individual simplifications to characters. Chinese characters often have so many strokes that writing quickly can be exceedingly difficult. Thus, when jotting down notes, drafts or in other personal contexts, individuals began to shorten the characters by simplifying and eliminating strokes. These personal styles would later become integral to the calligraphic tradition in the so-called Running and Cursive styles. These styles can be recognized by their departure from standards of stroke separation and, in some cases, order. These informal styles are inevitably personal enough that they cannot properly be called scripts. Yet, they are perhaps the most expressive of the mechanics of brush and ink on paper.