Posts in Evolution of Calligraphy
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.

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 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.