Posts in Scrolls
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.

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. 


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.