Script Styles of Chinese Calligraphy: An Overview of Li Shu (隸書) – the Clerical Script Style

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.

How to Identify the Clerical Script Style (Li Shu / 隸書) in Chinese Calligraphy?

Compared with Seal Script, it is clear to see not only how much easier the Clerical Script is to write, but also how it makes more full use of the flexible brush in expressing lines. The Clerical Script makes use of well-defined dots where the Seal Script is resigned to using lines only. The painstakingly even curves of Seal Script also developed into the turns that we know from Kai Shu, and clear Stroke Order began to make its appearance. The Strokes themselves present the Calligrapher with the possibility for varying thickness and the sense of movement this creates. On the whole, the form of characters was changed from tall and extended to shorter and more stable. While Kai Shu would eventually stabilize the basic form of characters as being placed in a roughly square cell, the basic form of a Clerical Script character is a slightly compressed rectangle.

How to Execute the Clerical Script Style (Li Shu / 隸書) in Chinese Calligraphy?

As stated, Clerical Script is perhaps the most horizontally extended of the Scripts. As a result, special attention should be given to your horizontal lines. There are two basic Horizontal Stroke variants present in this script. The first is much like that executed for Zhuan Shu: it has concealed tips at both ends and a consistent thickness throughout. Most Clerical horizontals will be executed in this manner. Likewise, all verticals are executed in the manner of the Small Seal Script.

The second horizontal variant, as discussed, has the ‘silkworm’s head and swallow’s tail’: it has a slight down-turned left end and a slight up-turned right end. It also has a slight compression in the middle and the beginnings of Bone Structure. It maintains a Concealed Tip at the left, but the flaring ‘swallow’s tail’ can be executed with a smooth press downward and upward lift, as shown. It should be noted that the curve of the line is created more by the lift and press of the brush , and only by very slight curving movement of the Brush, except when concealing the tip at the beginning.

Downward Right Strokes usually start thin and end thicker. The bottom end can be executed in one of two ways, as shown: either a concealed tip, with the stroke barely suggesting a meeting with a horizontal axis, or an exposed tip with a very slight upward left pull.

The Downward Right Stroke can also have a ‘swallow’s tail’. However, only one such decorative stroke is permitted in each character: it is improper to execute both the dominant horizontal and downward right stroke with such a flare.

Clerical Script, unlike Seal Script, makes use of angular Turn Strokes. Remember to slow down the Brush as you approach the Turn, and brings the brush slightly up or down into the corner. Do not press in the corner as you would in the Standard Script.

Of all the Strokes, Dots have the most variants. Practicing from models is the best way to get to grips with all of them. Remember that Dots, although small, are very expressive of brush and character movement, they must be executed very carefully and confidently.