Posts tagged chinese
The evolution of Chinese calligraphy | Part 7 – Clerical script 

In today's blog post, we're exploring clerical script (隶书 lìshū); a script with uncertain beginnings, which came to become the standard script of its time and subsequently, an evolutionary predecessor to modern Chinese scripts. Historians have long debated the origins of the clerical script, and as with most historical records, it is difficult to find clear and concise answers.  

Many debates focus on who invented clerical script or when the earliest usage of the clerical script was. In fact, the clerical script was informally formed during the late Qin dynasty. The name has led some historians to suggest that is was used primarily by government clerks, and developed to meet the needs of government bureaucracy. But the character 隶 (lì) also means slave or servant, and so there are claims that the script was used in relation to recorded information about slaves, or even that it was used by prisoners in forced clerical work for the government.

This beautiful piece of calligraphy, written in clerical script, is a great example of how eligible clerical script is for those who can read modern day Chinese.

This beautiful piece of calligraphy, written in clerical script, is a great example of how eligible clerical script is for those who can read modern day Chinese.

As we discussed in the previous blog post; the small seal script became the written standard for the newly-united middle kingdom under the Qin dynasty; and during the following Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) it continued to be used formally. 

It seems that clerical script started from humble beginnings and was primarily used in an informal manner; whilst bronze script and small seal script were the official scripts of China during their respective time periods. Records indicate that similar to evolution in biology, the evolution of clerical script was a slow, gradual process. Multiple scripts existed at the same time and coevolved similar features; such as being more linear and uniform in structure.

The Clerical informal usage during the Qin and Han dynasty popularized the script among common folk and it eventually was adopted by the mainstream during the late Han dynasty, when it was the popularized method for writing and recording information. By the late Han, small seal script was reserved for the most formal of uses, such as the titles of written works and the carving of stelae (large stone tables).

An artists depiction of the key leaders and characters during the Three kingdoms.

An artists depiction of the key leaders and characters during the Three kingdoms.

It is also interesting to note how changes in script styles also coincide with changing political powers. Clerical script usage really came into its own during the historical time period that enjoys modern day popularity, known as “The Three Kingdoms” (三国 220-280 BCE). 

As you would expect, the more recent the script is, the more closely it resembles modern day Chinese. Small seal script was the first to standardize Chinese and make it more linear and regular. This regularity is also visible in the clerical script, but its taken much further. The clerical script has a strong emphasis on horizontal strokes, and there is a lot of variance of the thickness of the strokes, due to the way that the brush is held against the paper. For this reason, clerical script is the most 'calligraphic' and the most legible ancient script; as well as the one that most closely resembles modern-day Chinese. Nowadays, the clerical script is still frequently observed in modern-day artwork, advertising and other media.  

In the images below you can compare the clerical script characters on the left, with their standard script counterparts.

雨 (yǔ) rain

雨 (yǔ) rain

右 (yòu) right

右 (yòu) right

Next time we will discuss the evolution of the standard script. Don't forget to check out our aunthentic scrolls at our store.

Ancient Chinese wisdom for self-improvement

Today we’re going to be taking a look at a proverb with depth - 静以修身 (jìng yǐ xiūshēn).

This four character proverb is usually translated as ‘a light heart lives long’. However, this is an English translation that feels pretty different from the meanings of the Chinese characters in the proverb. Before we have a look at its original meaning, a quick note on the phrase’s origin. 

Zhu Ge Liang (AD 181-234) was a military leader, scholar and inventor (credited with inventing, among many other things, the Chinese steamed bun 馒头 mántou!), as well as politician and prime minister of Shu Han during the Three Kingdoms period. The proverb first appeared in a letter Zhu Ge Liang wrote to his son filled with advice on growth, morals and learning. 

The growth Zhu Ge Liang speaks of is actually 修身 (xiūshēn), which means to ‘cultivate one’s moral character’, and so already has a much more layered and richer meaning than the mere ‘longevity’ pointed to in the English translation. 

In a previous post we mentioned that 以 (yǐ) can translate as ‘by means of’, for example, A by means of B. However, in this proverb the order of the words in play is reversed, and so the 以 (yǐ) will translate as ‘in order to’; B in order to A. 

Artwork by Weng Zhen Xin

Artwork by Weng Zhen Xin

So, how do we cultivate our moral character exactly? Zhu Ge Liang claims that it's through 静 (jìng) – ‘stillness, calmness, quietness’. And so we can translate the proverb rather rigidly as ‘cultivate one’s moral character through stillness.’ But this 静 (jìng) also features in one of the Chinese words for meditation (静坐 jìngzuò) and so the character's meaning in the proverb may be what today's meditators would refer to as ‘presence’ or ‘mindfulness’. Which gives us a modern interpretation of the proverb as ‘self-improvement through presence’ or ‘mindfulness for personal growth.’ 

However you choose to translate this proverb, it's a brilliant example of the value ancient wisdom can bring to our modern, fast-paced lives, and the underlying truth that calmness, quietness and stillness are vital if we are to improve ourselves, is clear.

The evolution of Chinese calligraphy | Part 1 - Introduction

China proudly cites a continuous cultural history that stretches back around 5000 years. 'Continuous' here, referring to the cultural items and evidence that have appeared continually throughout, and allow it to lay claim to, that long and rich history; clothing, music and calligraphy.  

Calligraphy is intimately linked to the evolution of Chinese and the dissemination of Chinese culture. From its inception, Chinese calligraphy has been a marriage between artistic expression and the recording of information. Throughout its history, the action of writing calligraphy has been viewed as an art form in and of itself. As with any cultural product, calligraphy is also a mirror of the culture that produced it. 

In this mini-series on the evolution of Chinese calligraphy, we're going to be briefly exploring the following seven major stages of its development and using them to understand some more about Chinese culture and history. 

Examples of various calligraphy scripts and styles

Examples of various calligraphy scripts and styles

  • Oracle bone script (甲骨文 jiǎgǔwén), 1400-1200 BCE 

  • Bronze script (金文 jīnwén), 1100-256 BCE 

  • Large seal script (大篆 dàzhuàn), 1100-256 BCE 

  • Small seal script (小篆 xiǎozhuàn), 221-207 BCE 

  • Clerical script (隶书 lìshū), 207 BCE - 220 AD 

  • Standard script (楷书 kǎishū), 207 BCE - 220 AD 

  • Simplified script (简体字 jiǎntǐzì), 1949 AD 

We're really looking forward to the journey and hope our readers will enjoy learning more about fascinating language.  

The next part of this series will cover some of the earliest examples of written language – the oracle bone script. 

Bestroke Blog - Welcome!

In our Bestroke Blog, we’ll be exploring everything Chinese calligraphy - from the development of the various scripts throughout its long history to in-depth analysis of specific proverbs. Throughout the blog, we’ll be using Chinese calligraphy as a method for understanding more about Chinese language, culture and thinking.

The inclusion of Chinese characters in the text sections of the blog will be written in simplified Chinese (unless otherwise stated), and we aim to provide each instance with the Chinese pinyin (the method of romanization of Chinese), so that the Chinese learners among our readers will be able to pronounce the characters more easily. 

We really hope you'll enjoy learning more about Chinese calligraphy with us! If there is anything in particlar you'd like to see us blog about, tweet us at @Bestrokechina