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The Ancient Art of Chinese Calligraphy

Maya Pillai
Chinese calligraphy is an art that is unique to China. Here, we shall try to gain some insight into the history and types of this important art...
The literal meaning of calligraphy is 'beautiful handwriting'. In olden days, books were handwritten using a quill and ink, on materials such as vellum or parchment. People with beautiful and readable handwriting worked as scribes. There are mainly three main styles of calligraphy―Arabic, Chinese, and Roman.

Chinese Calligraphy

Also known as Oriental calligraphy, scholars opine that this calligraphy is not only a way to write, but is a unique art, and was a part of ancient Chinese culture. It is divided into calligraphy that was developed in ancient China and imperial China.

Calligraphy in Ancient China

In ancient China, incidents were inscribed on the bones of animals or on the shells of tortoises. This form of calligraphy was popular during the Bronze Age, and is popularly known as shell and bone script. It was also known as oracle bone script.
The Chinese alphabets of the ancient Chinese language are known as Jiaguwen. Later, these characters were replaced by Jin wen, the script written on bronze utensils, and Dazhuan, known popularly as the large Seal script or Great Seal script.


Jiaguwen was a popular form of calligraphy used during and around the 14th century BC. During this period, pictures were used to convey thoughts, and the materials used for writing were ink, brushes, and bamboo books.


This script was developed during the Shang dynasty, and became popular during the Zhou dynasty.


The Dazhuan script was used in traditional Chinese writing long before the Qin dynasty. The Qin dynasty used Small Seal script. The scholars avoided using Dazhuan scripts, because they were not precise or specific.

Imperial China

Around 220 BC, Qin Shi Huang conquered the entire Chinese basin. He was the first emperor to standardize the Chinese alphabet. Li Si, the prime minister of Qin Huang, was a famous calligrapher. He developed a set of characters called Xiǎozhuàn, and these characters were standardized by the emperor. The calligraphy style that was popularized in imperial China are Lishu style and Kaishu style.

Lishu Style

Lishu style is also known as the clerical script. Modern Chinese scripts are more or less similar to the clerical script. This script was developed during the Bronze age. Historians believe that this script was used by government scribes during the Qin Huang dynasty.

Kaishu Style

The Kaishu style is popularly known as the traditional script, and is still used today; minor changes were made during the 18th century. The scripts of Kaishu style are regular and precise, hence, it was known as the standard script.
A semi-cursive script, known as Xingshu, and a grass script, known as Caoshu, were developed during the first century AD. These scripts were never used to write standard official documents. These scripts are used in modern times to give a visual effect to any personal document.