Scripts Styles of Chinese Calligraphy: An Overview of Zhuan Shu (篆書) – the Seal Script Style

What is the Seal Script Style (Zhuan Shu / 篆書) in Chinese Calligraphy?

The Seal Script (篆書/Zhuan Shu/Chuan Shu) is the most archaic script of Chinese. Although this type of archaic writing can be subsumed under the general heading of Seal Script, it is in fact many numerous sub-scripts that were each used for different historical purposes. The oldest of these is the Jia Gu Wen (甲骨文/Chia Ku Wen), which was invented and used in the Shang Dynasty for prognostication ritual. This Script, although it is the oldest recorded coherent Chinese writing system, was not discovered in an archaeological context until the beginning of the last century. As a result, it has not had a large impact on the received Calligraphy tradition. Jin Wen (金文/Chin Wen), or Bronze Script, is far more well-known. This is the script that was used for inscribing ceremonial Bronze vessels in the Zhou Dynasty. The development of this script occurred in concert with Shi Gu Wen (石鼓文/Shih Ku Wen), the Stone and Drum Script. Shi Gu Wen was used for monumental stone inscriptions, and both it and Jin Wen were never standardized; the Zhou scribes were much more reliant on local custom and had to create new characters as they had need of them. Jin Wen and Shi Gu Wen are often simply called Da Zhuan (大篆/Da Chuan), or Large Seal Script.

The Seal Script most used for Calligraphy is based on the first standardized Chinese script: Qin Zhuan (秦篆/Ch’in Chuan) or Qin Seal Script. The name of this script is taken from the Qin Dynasty that ushered in the dynastic epoch of a unified Middle Kingdom. The First Emperor commissioned a standardization of the official writing system. The result is what we now usually refer to as Xiao Zhuan (小篆/Hsiao Chuan), or Small Seal Script. This script rapidly fell out of favour for daily writing, as it was and remains very time-consuming to accomplish. Still, this Script is often used in the arts to create a sense of antiquity or intense control.

How to Identify the Seal Script Style (Zhuan Shu / 篆書) in Chinese Calligraphy?

It is very easy to identify the Seal Scripts. Of all the available scripts, it is the most tightly controlled and regular. Line thicknesses do not vary at all. Indeed, there are only two types of Stroke: Straight and Curved. Where other Scripts have hooks, turns and other abrupt movements, the Seal Scripts are much more rounded and static. Indeed, this is the only Script that provides for fully enclosed circles. Characters in the Seal Script also accentuate a symmetry not found in other Scripts.

Each Character in the Seal Script is of the same size. However, unlike Kai Shu, the assumed shape of the characters is not a square cell, but a tall rectangle with roughly 3:5 width to height ratio. This extension of the characters is most often achieved by keeping the top of the character dense and allowing the lower section to trail down, creating an even greater sense of height and graceful poise.

How to Execute the Seal Script Style (Zhuan Shu / 篆書) in Chinese Calligraphy?

The most important things to remember in writing Seal Script is that the strokes must all be of a uniform thickness and have rounded ends with completely Concealed Tips. Achieving uniform thickness is very difficult to achieve, to be sure, but sticking to a Center Tip and avoiding any expressive Press and Pull will help you to tightly monitor your thickness. Moving as slowly as possible, without allowing the Ink to bleed, is also advisable. Significant practice will be needed in order to execute the wire-like strokes of the Seal Script.

When it comes to the Strokes themselves, remember that you can only do straight or curving lines. Also, strive for symmetry. You can see some comparisons of Seal Script and Regular Script here: note that a single curving line often takes the place of two or more strokes in Kai Shu. When it comes to circular or fully enclosed elements, there are no strict rules on where to start or end. The main thing to focus on is that, when closing the circle, the line remains smooth so that it is impossible to tell where the circle begins and ends.

It is also important to note that when the character is a compound, and thus not symmetrical, one element will often be compressed toward the top so that the other is left to trail and create a sense of height. Pay close attention to your radicals and determine which should be compressed.

In sum, Zhuan Shu is a very labour intensive script, that must be executed deliberately, and with great planning. It also demands extraordinary consistency both while executing individual strokes and when moving from character to character. More than any other script, errors are to be avoided at all cost.