Chinese writing has evolved considerably down through the ages. It was during the Qin dynasty (221-207 B.C.) that the first Chinese emperor imposed the unification and standardization of writing, after conquering a number of kingdoms and creating a vast empire. To ensure control over this large territory, he also imposed a unified currency and standardized weights and measures and even axle distances.
During the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.), calligraphy began to be considered an art form, not just a simple act of writing or a tool for communicating and preserving traditions. In China, calligraphy was long the prerogative of the educated, that is, of the imperial high officials.
There are five main styles of writing which are unique in terms of brushwork, attack, finish and sometimes linkage of characters. Here, the word “style” does not refer to a calligrapher’s individual style.
The dates given for the appearance of the different styles are very approximate. It is interesting to note that they are not mutually exclusive and can coexist together. Except for the Large Seal, all the styles are still in use today.
The same character “wind” in the five styles: seal, clerical, regular, running, cursive.
Seal script – zhuan shu (pron. jwong shoo)
Large or small, this script was designed first and foremost to be engraved. Even though it is the oldest script, it is still being used because it remains very popular. At a certain point in Chinese history, it experienced a renaissance as an act of rebellion against invaders, out of a desire to rediscover the roots of Chinese culture. The very ancient characters of this script are difficult for modern Chinese to read.
Clerical script – li shu (pron. lee shoo)
Also known as chancery script, it was adopted as a way to simplify brushstrokes. Even though the form of this script was established during the Han dynasty, it is still legible today.
Regular script – kai shu (pron. ky shoo)
Emerging at the end of the Han dynasty, in the 3rd century A.D., regular script was the result of another effort to simplify writing, decreed by the last emperor of this dynasty. It is the easiest to read and is very suitable for learning calligraphy. The brushstrokes are clearly drawn.
Running script – xing shu (pron. sing shoo)
Also called semi-cursive script, because it is halfway between regular and cursive. Running script and regular script are the most popular styles today. The strokes in each character are connected and simplified, which makes writing faster. However, the characters remain separate from each other.
Cursive script – cao shu, (pron. tsao shoo)
Literally “grass” or “straw” script, the Chinese also call it “mood writing”; all the strokes for a single character are shortened and linked together; most of the time, the characters run into each other, making them practically illegible for modern Chinese. The other scripts had to follow restrictive rules generally imposed by the imperial authority, although this did not keep artists from excelling. While this style seems surprisingly modern because of the virtuosity and abstract nature of the brushwork, it is not modern at all: it emerged at a time of great social unrest at the beginning of the Han dynasty, around 200 B.C., as a revolt against authority. It was a way for intellectuals to express their desire to depart from the beaten track.