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> Features > Culture

Evolution of Chinese characters in art

ZHANG QINGLI | 2021-06-24 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

FILE PHOTOS: The evolution of the Chinese character for dragon (long)

Chinese calligraphy is an art form based on the handwriting of Chinese characters. From the earliest oracle bone script to today’s simplified characters, Chinese writing has been evolving. In a recent interview with CSST, Liu Shaogang, a research fellow from the Chinese Academy of Cultural Heritage, shared his views about Chinese calligraphy and the development of Chinese characters.
CSST: The structure of Chinese characters is of high aesthetic value. Can you introduce the artistic features of Chinese characters in terms of calligraphy?
Liu: Shuowen Jiezi, a Han Dynasty dictionary compiled by Xu Shen (c. 58-147), lists six manners in which characters are formed or used, known as liushu—pictograms (xiangxing), simple ideograms (zhishi, characters difficult to visualize shown by a single abstract symbol), compound ideographs (huiyi,  characters combining two or more pictographic or ideographic characters to suggest a third meaning), semantic-phonetic compounds (xingsheng, characters that contain usually two parts: one represents the pronunciation and another explains the meaning), mutually explanatory characters (zhuanzhu), and phonetic loan characters (jiajie). The first four categories refer to ways to compose Chinese characters; the last two describe ways to use characters. A single Chinese character is a combination of a pictogram, an ideogram, and phonetic elements. This multilayered composition is important for maintaining China’s cultural unity. 
Writing Chinese characters is also a rich art form. Chinese calligraphy has varied with the times, displaying different styles that correspond with different periods in China’s history. For example, it is said that the “natural rhyme” of calligraphy was admired most during the Wei, Jin, Southern and Northern Dynasties (220-589), when people were deeply influenced by Taoist ideas such as being freed from worldly desires and concerns. The Tang Dynasty (618-907) featured economic prosperity, cultural vibrancy, and efficient state governance. Calligraphy from this era had magnificent, luxurious, and solemn artistic features. Different from the Tang, people from the Song Dynasty (960-1279) emphasized freehand brushwork, an unrestrained unconventional style that could express personalities or moods. Influenced by trends that followed and imitated Jin Dynasty (266-420) calligraphy, people from the Yuan (1271-1368) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties attached great attention to the form and appearance of handwriting.  
CSST: Chinese characters evolved over a long history. What were the major changes in script as Chinese characters were developing?
Liu: From the Shang (c. 1600–1046 BCE) and Zhou (c. 1046–256 BCE) dynasties to the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BCE) and the Warring States Period (475–221 BCE), Chinese characters gradually developed from hieroglyphic forms to line drawings. The “ancient clerical script” (guli), which was developed and used in the Qin Dynasty (221–207 BCE), marked the beginning of Chinese characters’ transition from the form of line drawings to brushstrokes. Clerical script matured in the middle of the Western Han era (206 BCE–8 CE), meaning that Chinese characters’ stroke-form entered a new development stage. 
After the Wei, Jin, Southern and Northern Dynasties, the running script and regular script were commonly used in daily life. However, seal scripts and clerical scripts could still be found in calligraphic artworks, and were favored as a form of art with unique aesthetic value.
There is a script style featuring “greater freehand brushwork,” or abbreviated brushwork, known as cursive script (caoshu). In cursive script, the strokes are reduced to abstract abbreviations of curves and dots. This script style is not bound by rules. Without a given context, the characters written in cursive script would be difficult to read. Therefore, cursive script is an abstract art form of Chinese characters. The artistic and aesthetic quality of Chinese characters gives cursive script an important place in the development of Chinese characters.
CSST: In our modern era, numerous historical written materials have been unearthed. What new discoveries and topics did these materials bring to the study of Chinese calligraphy?
Liu: Thanks to the large number of unearthed bamboo slips and silk manuscripts, we have a new understanding of the origins and evolution of clerical script. Before the discovery of ancient wooden texts, most of the characters written in clerical script were found on stone inscriptions from the Han Dynasty. Hence, Kang Youwei (1858–1927) and other scholars doubted accounts that clerical scripts came into being during the Qin Dynasty. The unearthed bamboo texts from the Shuihudi Tomb in Hubei Province, and from Liye Ancient City in Hunan Province, offered early forms of clerical script that were in use before and after the Qin state unified China as a centralized political power. Today, clerical script used during the Qin era, and the period preceding the reign of Emperor Wu of Han (r. 141–87 BCE), is called “ancient clerical script” in academia. Meanwhile, it is widely accepted that “bafen clerical script,” an expressive style characterized by an exaggeration of sweeping strokes that is visually similar to the tail of a wild goose, matured between the reigns of Emperor Wu and Emperor Xuan (r. 74–48 BCE) of the Western Han Dynasty.
Nowadays, Chinese characters are generally categorized according to five major scripts in Chinese calligraphy, the seal script, clerical script, cursive script, running script, and regular script. Oracle bone script, bronze inscriptions, and bamboo texts dating to the Warring States Period are sub-categories of the seal script. However, guwen (Chinese writings preceding the Qin Dynasty) calligraphy has long been neglected. Yet, guwen has historically played an important role in Chinese calligraphy. The traditional ideas of guwen calligraphy, which were based on texts passed down through history, have been changed due to the diversified brushwork found in unearthed bamboo texts from the Warring States Period.
From “Shenwu Fu,” a story written on the wooden slips excavated from Yinwan Village in Jiangsu Province, we found cursive script writings dating to the late Western Han Dynasty. This cursive script is quite similar to zhangcao, an early form of cursive script handed down from generation to generation. Bamboo slips unearthed from Zoumalou in Changsha, Hunan Province, dated to the reign of Emperor Wu of Han, proved that cursive script had been widely used as a new form of calligraphy during the Yuanshuo Era (128–123 BCE). Therefore, traditional accounts about the origin of cursive script should be updated according to new archaeological discoveries.
Since the pre-Qin period more than 2,000 years ago, Chinese characters had experienced the most dramatic changes until stabilizing at the end of the Wei, Jin, Southern and Northern Dynasties. The extant wooden slips and silk manuscripts are all dated from this period. In order to write faster, the Qin people started to improve seal script, which led to the birth of “ancient clerical script.” The “ancient clerical script” finally matured into standard clerical script in the Han Dynasty, which was called “Han clerical script” (hanli). After the reign of Emperor Wu and Emperor Xuan of the Western Han Dynasty, a new form emerged out of clerical script, known as “neo-clerical” script, which became the dominant script. From this neo-clerical script, running script was developed. As people wrote in running script in a more and more dignified and tidy fashion, regular script was created. The wooden texts and silk manuscripts clearly exhibit the evolution of Chinese characters and scripts.