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Qin Dynasty 221 - 206 BC

The Qin state, from whom the name China derived, became a superpower after a political reform of 356 BC. By 221 BC a series of wars enabled the Qin rulers to conquer the whole of China and ruled it as one state. The political chaos that lasted for five centuries temporarily halted.

Small seal script.   The early years of the Qin saw many stern measures toward reorganization. Among them was mandatory writing system reform. As part of an attempt to unify culturally diverse feudal states which had preceded it, the Qin standardized the writing forms then in use, thereby creating one of the most enduring of all ancient scripts, the small seal script. Based on many regional variants and contained nearly 12,000 characters on which later scripts were based, this script simplified big seal script by fixing character components placement and reducing stroke number. The writing of small seal script is very regular, with each character the same size and brushstroke the same thickness, regardless of complexity.


Twelve character eaves-tile
ink rubbing on rice paper
Heavenly spirit blesses our dynasty for ever with peace.

Clerical script.   With greatly increased clerical work, literate bondmen were assigned to help, and their hastily folk style was named clerical script, the second scriptural style of Chinese calligraphy. Clerical script simplified seal script by making up new character components and stretching its pictographic winding strokes straight. Individual strokes vary in width, with considerable contrast between the thick and thin parts of a single stroke, and certain characters have stressed strokes, especially the powerful right-falling stroke, the hallmark of clerical script, which runs diagonally towards the lower fight-hand corner. This script was fully developed in Han, and has been remaining in use to the present day.


Han Dynasty 202 BC - 220 AD

In 206 BC the entire Qin royal family was murdered, and soon afterward a new dynasty Han took over. After surviving a usurpation in 25 AD, the Han moved its capital east to Luoyang from Xian, which divided it into two periods - Western and Eastern Han.

“Modern” Chinese writing is thought to have begun with the Han. During this period clerical script which superseded seal script as the normal script for general documents went through a radical reform. By fabricating character elements, or radicals, and by reorganizing characters with the newly developed elements, the last pictographic vestige in small seal script was eliminated - the design of Chinese written language was finalized. A overwhelming majority of clerical characters have continued into modern times. To this day, the Chinese still refer to their characters as “han zi”, or Han characters, an echo of remote glory.


Official documents of Juyan, 102 BC - 30 AD
ink on wood, 23 cm
Wang Xi, the head of the 13th Squad, picked up 300 pounds of grain on January 18th.

Cursive script.   Rashness and stylistic indetermination of developing clerical script invited a hastier style: cursive script, the third style of Chinese calligraphy. In its due course of development, which took a span of seven centuries, this style owned three sub-classes: draft, modern and wild cursive script.

Draft cursive script.   Draft script is a fully cursive script, developed originally as a quick form of clerical script. In this style an individual character remains independent with its flat contour while the strokes run together and are frequently abbreviated. However, only standard, recognized abbreviations are permitted. The speed and the continuous flow with which draft script could be written were widely exploited for their expressive qualities.

Modern cursive script.   Completely leaving out the brushwork of clerical script, this style was developed from draft cursive script for speed. One of specific qualities of this style is that the characters are drawn in a continuous flow without abrupt hitches or breaks. Thus, they are difficult to decipher.

Semi-cursive script.   More convenient and practical than clerical script and more legible than cursive script, this style, the fourth style in Chinese calligraphy and the most popular Chinese script in everyday use today, is characterized by its refinement and lightness, especially in the curved strokes. This script has many different schools devoted to it, and each of them differs in style from others. Tradition has it that Liu Desheng, active around 168 AD, initiated this style, but none of his handwriting survived.


Three Kingdoms 220 - 280

After the downfall of Han in 220 AD, China was split into three kingdoms: Wei, Shu and Wu.

Regular script.   The last and the most typical style of Chinese handwriting, comparable to the Palmer Method of Western penmanship, is called, appropriately, regular style. Combining the ease of semi-cursive and the elegance of clerical style, it is characterized by squareness and precision of from, by simplicity, and by the rapidity with which it can be executed. In the lengthy annals of Chinese calligraphy, regular script occupies an important place, not only because it is beautiful and had famous masters who have succeeded in its difficult disciplines, but also because it is the one a schoolboy first encounters when he learns to write, which then accompanies him throughout his lives.


Jin Dynasty 265 - 420

In 280 Jin, the usurper of Wei in 265, vanquished its last adversary Wu and ruled China as one state. This dynasty, nevertheless, enjoyed only a short period of peace. With an armed rebellion of throne-thirsty princes in 301, another round of fighting began. In 316 horse-riding Huns invaded to seize Jin capital, forcing the Jin to retreat to the south.

Handwriting as an art.   Certain factors were essential for handwriting to become an art form from a mere craft. It had to be appreciated over and above its usefulness for communicating ideas or facts. There had to be a ready standard to judge bad or good examples, with which a new generation would have a starting point. And its practitioners had to be highly regarded. By the Jin, all of these conditions had been fulfilled. When Confucian system of ethics had proved unable to adapt itself to the anarchy of the time, Taoism appealed to the philosophic Chinese mind. Standing aloof from politics, Jin scholars devoted themselves to the arts and saw handwriting a vehicle of their sentiment. Image implications of newly developed regular script were defined and the expression of cursive and semi-cursive script was widely explored. Generally written on letter-sized paper and circulated in the original, the handwriting from this period is characterized by refinement and lightness.

Wang Xizhi (303 - 361)
Preface to the Poems Composed at Orchid Pavilion, 353
Tracing copy on rice paper

On this late spring day, the ninth year of Yonghe (353 AD), we gathered at Orchid Pavilion in Shaoxing to observe Water Festival. High mountains and luxuriant bamboo groves lie in the back; a limpid, swift stream gurgles around. We sat by the water, sharing the wine from a floating goblet while chanting poems, which gave us delight in spite of the absence of musical accompaniment. This is a sunny day with a capful valley breeze. Spreading before the eye is the beauty of nature, and hanging high is the immeasurable universe. This is perfect for an aspired mind.

Though born with different personalities - some give vent to their sentiment in a quiet chat while others repose their aspiration in Bohemianism - people find pleasure in what they pursue and never feel tired of it. Sometimes they pause to recall the days lapsed away. Realizing that what fascinated yesterday is a mere memory today, not to mention that everyone will return to nothingness, an unsuppressible sorrow would well up. Isn't it sad to think of it?

I am often moved by ancients' sentimental lines which lamented the swiftness and uncertainty of life. Since the nature of man remains the same regardless of the change of times, later generations will probably feel the same when they read these poems. This gives comfort.

Chinese calligraphy

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