History of Chinese Calligraphy – The Origins of Calligraphy in Ancient China: The Unification of China and a Common Script in Qin Dynasty

The Qin Dynasty (秦朝/Qin Chao, Ch’in Ch’ao)

In 221 BCE, the state of Qin finally conquered the remaining states that had made up the Warring States and proclaimed the formation of a new dynasty under a centralized government. This essentially began the Imperial period of Chinese history, with the first Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di (秦始皇帝/Ch’in Shih Huang Di) effectively controlling the entirety of China.

Unlike the Warring States or the Zhou that came before, the state was maintained not by a feudal system of lords, but by a more direct, and in many cases repressive, hierarchical system that fed directly back to the Imperial throne. China was for the first time unified under a single ruler who maintained direct control over almost every facet of society.

Inscriptions on Qin Stelae

One of the Emperor’s first official acts was the erection of stelae at important points throughout the China. A stele is essentially and inscribed stone monument. The Qin stelae were inscribed with politico-religious proclamations designed to cement the Emperor and the clan of Qin as the rightful rulers of all China. Although the Qin Emperor could clearly not be present in every corner of the Empire, claims of his legitimacy could be fixed permanently throughout his realm. Indeed, the written word had such force in early China that the simple acts of inscribing and installing these stelae were in and of themselves a cogent claim of legitimacy. Almost all Qin Stelae have been lost over time, and are available only as rubbings made in later dynasties.

Standardization of Script and the Emergence of the Xiao Zhuan Calligraphy Script

In the Zhou and Warring States, textual variation was very common. Scribes in the various regions adopted different graphs for the same word, separated as they were by vast distances and, often, strict political border. The first Emperor knew that a single writing system would be needed if his unified empire was to be maintained. Imperial edicts and laws would need to be legible to officials in all corners of China. The result is what we now call Xiao Zhuan (小篆/Hsiao Chuan), or small seal script. For the first time, the entirety of China was provided with a single set of characters from which all written works were to be written.

Political Control Through Words

Of course, this tendency toward far greater standardization in the characters themselves was not without its dark side. The Warring States was a period of incredible philosophical and religious diversity, known for its Hundred Schools and the emergence of Taoism, Confucianism and Legalism. The emergence of technologies needed for the creation and maintenance of a considerable literary corpus allowed an incredible diversity of ideas to flourish within the independent states. The first Emperor believed that these texts could easily challenge the legitimacy of his reign. His own political, ritual, metaphysical and philosophical framework, based on Legalism could not be challenged. In order to quash dissent, Qin Shi Huang Di decreed that all written works not on a prescribed list be summarily burnt. It is only due to the concealment of many works, either by political dissidents or those lying in graves, as was the common practice, that archaeologists have been able to piece together the vast complexity of the literary tradition before the Imperial period.