Early Chinese Calligraphy

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Shang Oracle Bones
Warring State biānzhōng bells
Variation of Shang/Zhou bronze inscriptions
Clerical Script
Small Seal Script
Cursive Script
Semi-cursive script
Running script
The word dragon in six scripts
Standard Script
Classic calligraphy – Lantingji Xu
Chairman Mao’s calligraphy


Image source: Wikimedia commons

One of the earliest Chinese scripts have been found inscribed on ‘Oracle Bones’ – cattle bones and turtle plastrons. This one is a late Shang artefact from 1,600-1,046 BCE. There is no evidence of any earlier usage, though it is assumed.
Some 4,300 characters have been noted from the 160,000 oracle bones discovered, but only 1,600 (37%) have yet been deciphered.

Image source: Wikimedia commons

The Shang and Zhou created new scripts to inscrbie on their bronzes ronze inscriptions – Zhou used 100 to at most 500 characters.
Pictured is the set of bronze biānzhōng bells that were found in 1978 from the early Warring States Tomb of Marquis Yĭ of Zēng. These bear inscriptions using over 2,800 characters. As memorable today for being on show at Wuhan’s Provincial Museum, the origin of the Covid-19 pandemic.
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is CallgBronzeScriptChanges.jpg
Image source: khanacademy.org

Yin is the female and mysterious side of Chinese philosophy’s two forces, Yin and Yang.
Today Yin is depicted as:

but above are the bronze inscriptions that were used for it across the 1,400 years of the Shang and Zhou dynasties.

Image source: Wikimedia commons

The ‘Clerical’ script emerged during the Warring States period and evolved through the Qin and Han dynasties.
Its rectilinear high legibility for modern readers means it it is still used to add an artistic flavor to headlines, signboards, and advertisements. Its highly rectilinear structure is a feature shared with modern kaishu script.

Image source: courses.lumenlearning.com

The Qin Dynasty prime minister, Li Si (c280-208 BCE), standardised the writing system alongside his regularisation of weights, measures, currencies. He made it a uniform size and shape across the whole country. This lasted for thousands of years.
Li Si is also credited with creating, or at least promulgating, the Small Seal Script (opposite). This provided the basis for the modern Chinese writing system. A primer, the Cangjiepian, aka Three Chapters, was distributed showing 3,300 characters. This script is still in use today for cards, posters, and advertising today.

Image source: Wikimedia commons

The Cursive style evolved during the Han and Jiu dynasties. This sought to speed up writing by
omitting part of a symobol, or merging strokes together, by replacing portions with abbreviated forms (as for example using one stroke to replace four dots), or modifying the stroke styles.
This is Mi Fu’s (1051-1107 CE) written discourse about the cursive style On Calligraphy.

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Semi-cursive script is not as abbreviated as cursive script, most people who can read regular script can read semi-cursive. Writing it was quicker. For a long time after its development in the 1st centuries AD the standard style of handwriting.
These characters show regular script on the left and the semi-cursive equivalent on the right.
Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: khanacademy.org

Running script is another name fr semi-cursive, it was used from the Han to the 4th c CE. It became a popular form of Chinese freehand writing for everyday use.

Image source: khanacademy.org

Above summarises the various scripts showing the development in the character for ‘dragon’, today, in simplified script, it is:

Image source: khanacademy.org

Above is the standard script, it reached its peak in the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) and is the script Mandarin students use today. It is built upon orthogonal brushstrokes (at right angles) to make writing easier. It was this that was adopted in the 7th c for woodblock printing, and again in the 11th c when moveable-type printing commenced.

Image source: khanacademy.org

The Lantingji Xu or Preface to the ‘Poems Collected from the Orchid Pavilion’ described the beauty of the landscape around the Orchid Pavilion and the of Wang Xizhi and his friends. This piece of Chinese calligraphy work is believed to have been written by the well-known calligrapher Wang Xizhi (303 – 361 CE) from the East Jin Dynasty (317 – 420 CE).
The original is lost, but many copies were made of it down through the years. This Tang Dynasty copy was made between 627–650 CE and is considered by experts to be the best of the copies that has survived. It is at the Palace Museum in Beijing.

Image source: chinadaily.com.cn
Mao Zedong is widely recognized as a calligraphy master of the 20th century, whose highly personal style is researched and practiced by calligraphy lovers today. The National Museum of China displayed 120 pieces of his poetry and calligraphy in 2014.

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