History of Chinese Calligraphy – The Origins of Calligraphy in Ancient China: The Warring States Period

The Warring States (戰國時代 / Zhan Guo Shi Dai): the Decline of Zhou

As time passed, cracks began to form in the Zhou kingdom. Managing a feudal state the size of China was difficult to manage when it relied largely on the strength of lineage relationships, many of which were incredibly distant. (Map) As these relationships decayed, the lower ranks began to assert greater an greater degrees of autonomy, until it was not the nominal ‘rulers’ who wielded political power, but their subordinates. Eventually, all ties to a central Zhou ruler would be severed and China as we know it was divided up into a considerable number of smaller states that warred more or less continuously for about 200 years, from 475 BCE to 221 BCE.

Although this period of disunion was very chaotic, it was also a time during which the literary culture of China saw its first great flourishing. The wisdom of Confucius, Lao Zi and others attempted in many cases to find the root causes for the decline of the old civilization, and present ways to improve the social fabric and understanding of humanity’s place in the cosmos.

The Decline of Bronze and the Emergence of Painted Chu Silk

Although the Zhou had effectively fallen, the elite culture of ancestor worship never went away. Early Warring States rituals appear to have been essentially identical to the Zhou precedents. However, it was not long before signs of rupture began to appear, especially in the South. While Northern China was the site of many philosophical advances by Confucius and the like, the South acquired a reputation for wildness and unorthodoxy. This is likely due to the continuing practices of Shamanism and Animism. However, perhaps to a greater extent than their Northern neighbours, the Chu elites began to favor brightly coloured lacquer works and, more importantly for the history of writing and painting, painted silks. While bronzes were still present in the burials, they were often far outnumbered by the amount of fine painted silks and lacquerwares that accompanied the dead into the afterlife: it appears that the bronzes were placed more because they were ‘needed’ for ritual propriety than because they were necessarily prized.

Tu (圖/T’u) Diagrams: Magic and Knowledge – The Complementarity of Text and Image

One of the most fascinating types of silk document from the Warring States period is the Tu diagram. These may be described as illustrated manuscripts, spatially organized texts, or indexes. The “Chu Silk Manuscript” is a Tu diagram that depicts the reigning gods of each month accompanied by directions for conducting state and ritual affairs according to the seasons. The text must be rotated to be read correctly, as each God points toward a cardinal position and away from the center of the work. Other Tu diagrams depict astrological and meteorological omens, or devices used on state banners, each with their own accompanying text.

Tu Diagrams show that the Warring States world-view and perspective on writing was changing. For perhaps the first time, practical knowledge was recorded and encoded by means of images and text in order to provide the reader with a guide to the ordered universe. These diagrams show that the Chinese ideas of text and image were, from a very early stage, linked and complementary.