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Chinese calligraphy styles

The origin of the Chinese characters dates back to more than three thousand years, to the dynasty of the Shang (or Yin). We know the writing from this time by divinatory inscriptions engraved on bones and shells of tortoise: it is the Jia Gu Wen. More than five thousand signs were indexed but the meaning of a lot of them still remains uncertain or totally unknown. They are nevertheless the direct ancestors of the current Chinese characters. Discovered the last century, they are not a style of traditional Chinese calligraphy, but certain painters themselves like also to use them.

 Dragon in Jaiguwen

On the other hand, the writing that we found on the bronzes (jinwen) of the following dynasty, the Zhou, never disappeared. This style of calligraphy is called “Seal script” (zhuanshu). We distinguishe the big seal script (dazhuan) and the small seal script (xiaozhuan). The big seal script groups together different writings (of which certain characters Jia Gu Wen that had been preserved) used before the empire build by the First Emperor in 221 before our J.-C (like the calligraphic style chujian). From this time, the politics of unification also involved the writing. A single style is preserved that will be called the small seal script.

Dragon in Jinwen
Dragon in small seal script

Following the establishment of the empire a new style of calligraphy appears: the Official Script or Scribal Script (lishu). Much easier than Seal Script characters, it can be write more quickly and so is much appreciated by the administration. The characters are very similar to the current Chinese writing and all Chinese are able to read it which is not always the case for the Seal Script, and even less for Jia Gu Wen.

Dragon in Lishu

Under the Han, in the third century AD appears a new style, more elegant, called Regular Script (Kaishu). Obedient to strict rules it is characterized by a more gentle and great stability. This is the “normal” style, that young Chinese are learning to write.

Dragon in Regular Script (kaishu)

Also under the Han, a slight deformation of style gives birth to a new style of calligraphy-style: Cursive Script (xingshu). As its name indicates, this is a cursive version of the Regular style of writing that allows faster while remaining easily readable. It is a calligraphic style in its own right.

Dragon in Cursive Script (xingshu)

The style of grass (caoshu) is highly branched. It distinguished itself by being written without lifting the brush from the paper at all, very free (it often exceeds the imaginary square), and hardly legible. The alternatives are widely available.

Dragon in the style of grass

The six styles are references in the field of Chinese calligraphy. But many artists have passed their own style that reflects their personality. The works of the old masters makes us able to study a range of infinite variations.