Posts tagged three kingdoms
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.