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History of Chinese Calligraphy

The Chinese language does not have an alphabet. Instead of letters, pictographs are used to represent each word. Chinese language has a history of over 4000 years. This is a long time to develop Chinese calligraphy which indeed did. Many different styles and techniques of calligraphy were developed during this time. Each period has its own calligraphy style and in each style, the same word is represented in different forms.

The most common styles that are still used today are Chuan Shu, Li Shu and Tsao Shu, Kai Shu and Hsing Shu. Did you notice something when you read the names of the five different styles? Each style name ends with the word Shu. In Chinese, “shu” means “writing”.

Chuan Shu

Chuan Shu is the oldest style among the five styles listed above. Its first use dates back to 1900 B.C. It was the dominant style that time, until the early Qin Dynasty (221-207 B.C.). The earliest examples of this style belong to the Shang Dynasty period (1700-1207 B.C.) Chinese calligraphy did not really develop during the Zhou Dynasty (1027-476 B.C.) which is between the Shang and Qin Dynasties. The reason for the lack of development during Zhou Dynasty is because China has split into many territories which were ruled for a short period of time by each ruler. In other words, there was turmoil at that time and this was the reason for the lack of unity which in the long term resulted as lack of development during this period. However, the use of Chuan Shu was very common even though the expressions would differ from one kingdom to another.
Chuan Shu has been and still continue to be used in China, especially in the engraving of seals.

Li Shu and Tsao Shu

China was unified in 221 B.C. by the emperor of Qin. During his time, China was more stable than before. In the beginning of the emperor’s rule, Chuan Shu was the style that was dominantly used. However, the difficulty of learning the style became a problem to deal with because record keeping was highly important for the emperor, and it was not possible to catch up with the rapidly increasing record-keeping by using Chuan Shu. This gave rise to the Li Shu and Tsau Shu styles. Compared to Chuan Shu, they were easier to learn and write.
Both Li Shu and Tsau Shu became the styles used in official documents. After a while, Li Shu became the official style of the dynasty as it was easier to read and write than the Tsau Shu. Back then, bamboo slats were used to write on. With the invention of brushes, more ordinary people started to write using brushes. Until then, Chuan Shu was used only for ceremonial purposes. Even though Li Shu became the official style of the Qin Dynasty, Chuan Shu was still being used for sacrificial or ceremonial purposes.

Kai Shu and Hsing Shu

Qin Dynasty was followed by the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – A.D. 220). This period was a stable period which allowed calligraphy to develop even more because calligraphy was not limited to ceremonial or official use. Until the rise of Kai Shu and Hsing Shu, Li Shu remained the dominant and favorite style.
During the Han Dynasty, paper was invented which lead writing to be even more popular. More ordinary people were encouraged to write. The calligraphy was developed into an art form. The scholars during this period were enthusiastic about the alternative scripts offered.
After Han Dynasty, China has entered another instable period. Wei Dynasty (A.D. 220- 265) and Jin Dynasty (A.D.265-420) unified China for a while, China still was split into many territories. During this time, Wang Xi Zhi, a calligrapher, who was specialized in Kai Shu, made Hsing Shu style popular. It’s this time that calligraphy became an art form in addition to be used in record keeping and daily life of ordinary people.

Calligraphy During the Tang Dynasty

The Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907) is one of the magnificent time in Chinese history. During this period, great importance was given to art which lead the development of calligraphy. Kai Shu style became the most favorited style among the scholars. All major calligraphy styles were developed by the end of Tang Dynasty. The scholars became experts in all styles. Hsing Shu was still the people’s style.

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