The written Chinese language is based on an ancient art. The characters have evolved over centuries, from pictographs on oracle bones to todays’s computer text.
About 3,000 years ago, people began recording their thoughts in China. They used turtle shells and the bones of animals to express their beliefs and views of the world, inscribing pictures on these items to represent the things they considered important enough to document. The rudimentary writing style they used was the forerunner of today’s written Chinese language.
Early Chinese Writing Styles
For a thousand years a basic picture script survived in various regional forms, the medium changing as bronze and stone replaced bone. When the Qin Dynasty united China in 221 BC, work began on a standardized script that emphasized regularity and simplicity. A set of characters developed for the seals that came into use as evidence of authority and later as personal signatures. For seal carving a square script was most suitable, showing the way towards later styles.
Within this predominantly square script form of the ensuing 500 years, different styles emerged as calligraphers experimented. Many employed heavy downward and light upward brush-strokes, and the rhythm and fluidity of these new techniques introduced calligraphy as a true art form.
In the Western Han Dynasty, which followed the Qin, a cursive form developed that allowed for faster, even more expressive writing. The style was further enhanced when not only the free-flowing characters but also the lines of script became linked by the pen.
China Adopts a Regular Script
Regular or Standard script emerged in the fourth century CE. Perhaps China’s most famous calligrapher was Wang Xizhi (321-379). Wang was adept at all styles but particularly made his mark with Running or Semi-cursive script, an adaptation of the Regular script applied with somewhat more artistic flair than its more structured cousin.
Wang’s most famous work was Lantingji xu, or ‘Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion”, which Tang Emperor Taizong (599 – 649) admired so much that he ordered an exhaustive search for it. The story goes that he had it interred in his tomb on his death.
This era saw more recognition for the artist as well as the art. By the seventh century, Regular script was predominant, due to rigorous enforcement of its standard form by the Tang Dynasty rulers. Chinese culture reached new heights in the Tang, and several calligraphers of the time achieved great fame. In the Chinese meritocracy system based on the teachings of Confucius, calligraphy became one of the measures of education and suitability for higher post.
The Art of Chinese Calligraphy
By the time of the Ming Dynasty calligraphers were bold enough to express themselves even more openly in their writing styles. More individuality came through in the works of this period, and that trend carried over into the Qing.
In the late Qing of the 19th century there was a period of reversion to the ancient styles for artistic effect. Many classics of earlier times were reproduced in by talented calligraphers who ensured the art remained prominent and continued to develop. For example Deng Shiru (1743 – 1805), whose art was influenced by work originating from the Han Dynasty of 2,000 years ago
In the modern post-imperial era, four basic styles of calligraphy have become accepted as the framework for the art form. While the character set itself has been simplified to aid literacy, calligraphy retains its importance in Chinese culture and society. It has taken on contemporary roles too. In its more artistic forms it is widely for promotional purposes. In China it is widely used in advertising, in signage naming buildings. In the West, it has become a fashion statement in tattoos.