Posts tagged China
The evolution of Chinese calligraphy | Part 6 – Unification of China & Small Seal Script

Our previous blog post in this series explored how a tumultuous time in Chinese history,  the warring states period; lead to the formation of the Qin dynasty (秦朝 Qín Cháo). Today we will discuss how this dynasty, despite its short run, had long-lasting impacts on China and its culture. 

The Qin dynasty (221 BCE – 206 BCE) followed the longest dynasty in Chinese history, but ironically, was the shortest; lasting for only fifteen years. The chaos of the warring states period allowed Emporer Qin Shi Huang to unify all of the warring states for the first time in Chinese history and enabled systematical reforms to be implemented throughout this new large territory.  

Among the many reforms enforced, the new political structure took back land from the previous landlords and major projects were embarked upon; such as the beginning of construction of the Great Wall of China. Despite the developments in infrastructure and social structures, historians often consider the Qin dynasty to be a period of time where citizens were living under a tyranny backed by a powerful military. 

An artists depiction of the military might of the Qin dynasty.

An artists depiction of the military might of the Qin dynasty.

As part of the unification of the middle kingdom, currency and measurements were standardized. But most importantly, the written record was forever changed with the formation of small seal script (小篆, xiǎozhuàn). Small seal script was characterised by being more square; notably less rectangular than the writing styles that came before it. Standardisation was important because during the previous dynasties, various written styles had been developing independently of one another; known today as the Scripts of the Six States. 

Comparison of the character for death (死), illustrates how small script (the third character) was the first script to be standardised in stroke form and order.

Comparison of the character for death (死), illustrates how small script (the third character) was the first script to be standardised in stroke form and order.

Comparison of the character for stone/rock (石); small script is the second character.

Comparison of the character for stone/rock (石); small script is the second character.

Comparison of the character for real/true (实); small script is the second character.

Comparison of the character for real/true (实); small script is the second character.

Small seal script was created by the prime minister Li Si. Although Qin Shi Huang was the Emperor, Li Si still had tremendous power and could enforce his desired reforms. Li Si created the 'Three Chapters' (also known as Cangjiepian); which was a collection of 3300 characters indicating their proper form and structure. This collection, a standardised instruction manual for writing in the small seal script, had the goal of decreasing the diversity of characters that had existed from text to text, and thus improving the efficiency of trade and communication. 

We know about 'Three Chapters' from written records from that period of time, of which fragments have survived. But unfortunately, there are no existing complete copies of the 'Three Chapters'; due to it being written on paper, all copies may well have been lost or decomposed in the thousands of years since the Qin Dynasty ended. However, archaeologists have found many key examples of small seal script engravings. And to this day, small seal script remains a style of calligraphy practiced by artists in China and around the world. 

An example of a beautiful piece of small seal script.

An example of a beautiful piece of small seal script.

Next time we will look at how small seal script was replaced with the clerical script during the Han dynasty. Don't forget to check out our store for newly added proverbs and products!

The Do's and Don'ts of Gift Giving in China 

For the uninitiated, gift giving in China can be faux par central. Without the necessary knowledge, your well-intentioned present could end up a fast-track ticket to Losefaceville.  

There are a plethora of social codes and conventions to abide by. Never ask or expect the receiver to open the gift in front of you, always present your gift well-presented, wrapped or in a gift bag, and don’t forget to pass it over with both of your hands! But before we get to the actual giving, what exactly should we buy our Chinese friends, hosts or business associates? 

We’ve put together this list of Do’s and Don’ts to point you in the right direction. The Don’ts appear to fall in to two distinct categories: gifts with inauspicious symbolism and gifts that are phonetic homonyms of other inauspicious words. 

Avoid giving chrysanthemums to Chinese friends

Avoid giving chrysanthemums to Chinese friends

The Don'ts

  • We’ll start with the number one Don’t around - clocks. Clocks (and to some extent other time pieces) symbolize the passing of time, and ultimately our mortality. In China, the gifting of clocks means the sender wishes the receiver an un-timely death. 
  • The number four, 四 (sì), sounds a lot like the character for death, 死 (sǐ), and so gifts of items in groups of four should be avoided if possible. 

In the west, flowers tend to be a fail-safe gift option. But in China there are a few to be avoided: 

  • Plum blossom 梅花 (méihuā) is a homonym for bad luck 霉 (méi). 
  • Chrysanthemums are reserved for mourning of the dead, and should not be given as gifts. 
  • The gladiolus flower 剑兰 (jiànlán) is phonetically identical to a word meaning to ‘meet difficulties’ 见难 (jiànnán) and isn't suitable as a present.
  • Similarly, jasmine 茉莉 (mòlì), whilst a good idea to gift in tea form, should be avoided as a gift of flowers because it’s a homonymous with the a word meaning ‘no profit or prospect of earning’ 没利 (mòlì). 
  • As we’ll see below, fruit is a great gift option, but be careful not to gift pears, as the character for pear 梨 (lí) is a homonyms for the word to separate 离 (lí) and can symbolize the splitting up of your relationship. 
  • And it’s not just pears that have this symbolism. The character for umbrella 伞 (sǎn) symbolizes 'to leave' 散 (sàn).
  • Sharp objects such as knives or scissors also symbolize the severing of ties, evident in this proverb 'to make a clean break' 一刀两断 (yīdāoliǎngduàn) and are a no-no. 
  • Yet more items to avoid are those associated with funerals in China, such as candles and black or white objects (a plain white shirt for example). 
  • Furthermore, Chinese mysticism and folk lore also prohibit the gifting of mirrors, which are said to attract ghosts; dolls, as symbols of the human form are not auspicious, as well as stones or antique objects, which may be possessed by evil spirits. 
  • The final item on our list of items to avoid giving are green hats... This makes the list as a Chinese saying ‘wearing a green hat’ 戴绿帽子(dài lǜmàozǐ) implies that the wearer’s partner has been unfaithful. The phrase originated from the practice of forcing Yuan dynasty prostitutes to wear green hats. 
green hat

The Do’s  

Remember, if it’s a Chinese wedding you’re attending, its traditional to give a lucky red envelope filled with cash. But for other occasions check out some of the ideas we’re put together below. 

  • It's well known that eating is a national sport in China, so do consider gifting high-quality snacks or food items such as nuts, fruit, chocolate, cookies or even milk. But pay attention to the presentation. Choose items with elaborate packaging or gift-bags is a must. 
  • Imported items are very popular in China, so consider choosing items that are imported 进口 (jìnkǒu) when choosing alcohol, cosmetics or electronics. 
  • If you know the receiver drinks alcohol then gifting wine or beer could also be a good choice. 
  • Not a drinker? Tea is a foolproof gift idea. As with other items, consider finding something of good quality, unusual or local to your home country or place of residence. 
  • Finally, we why not consider gifting something that's personalized and enduring. Calligraphy or other art make great gifts because it can be displayed in the home or workplace where the receiver can enjoy it daily.

We hope you’ve learned a little about some of the do's and don'ts when it comes to giving gifts in China. Remember the better you know the receiver the easier it’ll be to choose that perfect gift. 

Chinese calligrahy makes the perfect gift

Chinese calligrahy makes the perfect gift