Posts tagged chinese calligraphy
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!

Chinese Scroll Terminology

Unsure what to call the big space above the artwork on a Chinese hanging scroll? Not sure of the terminology of the two poles at the top and bottom? When we first started commissioning calligraphy at Bestroke, we also encountered some problems arising from our lack of specialized vocabulary.

So today we've put together a visual that details some of the terminology of Chinese scrolls. Each section of the scroll has its own Chinese name, some even symbolize particular elements, such as heaven and earth, take a look:

chinese calligraphy art scroll terminology.jpg
Why is Chinese art and calligraphy mounted on scrolls?

In ancient civilizations all over the world, scrolls were one of the first formats used for recording large amounts of text. Before the invention of paper, papyrus was used to create long scrolls, which could be written and painted on, rolled up and stored.

In a world before the invention of the book, scrolls had many advantages over their competition - stone and clay tablets - such as portability, the speed with which ink text could be written on them and being light-weight. 

scrolls.jpg

However, since the invention of the book form we know and use to this day, the use of scrolls as a medium for the recording and distribution of information began to decline. This was in part due to the benefits codex-style books had over scrolls. Scrolls were long and had to be unraveled in order to be read. Books, in comparison, were separated by page, so indexing and page marking could begin. Having books opened at a certain page also meant books were much easier to copy. With the spread of Christianity, the ability to quickly and easily duplicate religious texts was very attractive to the Church, and this was the driving force behind the adoption of books in the west. 

Nowadays, the scroll as a medium has been almost completely replaced by books and more recently, digital media. With the exception of the Jewish Torah Scrolls (which are used today in the religion as they were thousands of years ago), it is in East Asian art and calligraphy where the use of scrolls can be found most easily.

So why are scrolls still so prevalent in Chinese art? 

The hanging scroll (立轴 lì zhóu) is a format that is commonly used to this day to present Chinese national ink painting and calligraphy. It originated from silk banners that hung vertically on walls, which date back to the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE). By the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 CE) the hanging scrolls' aesthetic and technical conventions had been established. 

Creating a hanging scroll is seen as an art in itself. Aside from the different established sizes; brocade silk borders, hanging threads and rollers are all essential components.

Scrolls on display at the Shanghai Museum

Scrolls on display at the Shanghai Museum

During the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 CE), book printing began in China and the technology went through various phases of development, such as folded-leaf pamphlets, back binding and stitched binding. However, scrolls as a medium for presenting art and calligraphy persisted.

Whilst books successfully replaced scrolls as a means to record and distribute information in China, the hanging scrolls as a medium for presenting and preserving art and calligraphy persists to this day precisely because of the tradition, craft, and conventions that grew up around the practice of scroll mounting over the past two thousand years.