Chinese writing is a system primarily intelligible to the eyes rather than to the ears. Each written character can be comprehended without knowing the pronunciation. Chinese thus acts as a unifying force in a country where for millennia people have spoken many different dialects, dialects not understood by their countrymen. On the other hand, it is a system that requires learning by rote thousands of characters, a factor that has contributed to China’s long-term problem with illiteracy.
Chinese writing differs from that of other civilizations in that it did not develop from a pictographic to a phonetic script (see glossary). Instead, early pictographs were replaced by a system in which most symbols represented sounds (ideophonemes), but some symbols represented things or ideas (ideographs); in general, characters included elements (phonetics) that indicated the approximate sound. The basic units that make up Chinese characters are dots, lines, and hooks, all of which are called “strokes.” Strokes move only from a central starting place clockwise to a point between northeast to southwest.
Typological and Structural Development
The Shang Dynasty
The earliest evidence of Chinese writing appeared in the Shang (ca. 1500-1050 B.C.) capital of Anyang, in the Hsiao-t’un district, Honan province, north-central China. Called “shell-bone script” (chia-kuwen), the remains are chiefly pyro-mantic records incised on tortoise shells, including both carapace and plastron (Fig. 1), as well as on animal bones, mostly the shoulder blades of oxen (Fig. 2). Bronze, pottery, horn, jade, and stone objects also bear terse inscribed dedication epigraphs and clan emblems.
The vocabulary is estimated to have comprised about 3000 to 4000 words, of which 1000 to 2000 graphs can be interpreted. Many characters represent nouns, but pronouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, and prepositions are also found. Sentences are usually concise, almost telegraphic, with texts averaging between 10 and 15 charters but rarely over 50. The size of each character in the same column or passage may vary: the more numerous the strokes, the larger the size and vice versa. Most inscriptions appear to have been written directly with the engraving knife, but some were first applied in ink and then incised. The arrangement of the symbols was not standardized, but an order reading vertically downward and from right to left—later Sinic convention—was fairly common.
The Chou Dynasty
Archaeological remains of writing dating to the Chou dynasty (ca. 1050-256 B.C.) are chiefly texts, cast or occasionally cast intaglio on bronze ritual vessels commemorating royal endowment(s) or political, economic, and military events (Fig. 3). The vocabulary in “bronze script” (chin-wen) totaled around 4000 words. Some Shang words had been dropped and new ones added, partially because Shang writing was oracular and Chou bureaucratic. Since the inscriptions on Shang bronze objects are mostly emblems and kinship terms, it is difficult to make meaningful comparisons between the bronze scripts of Shang and Chou. The general impression that Chou script is fuller and less angular than its Shang counterpart derives from the differences in the objects on which the texts were applied. Shang scribing was done with a jade or bronze engraving knife on hard shell and bone, while Chou writers used pointed rods on relatively soft clay molds, into which the bronze was cast. Since more expressive lines could be produced on clay, some pictographic elements of Chou script more closely resemble real objects than do those of Shang. This observation led some scholars to speculate incorrectly that Chou writing followed a pre-Shang, more pictographic tradition. In Chou writing, reading vertically from right to left became the norm, a pattern from which deviation was rare.
During the eight hundred years of the Chou dynasty, the writing system underwent considerable changes. Around the turn of the 9th century B.C., bronze script grew increasingly less pictographic and more abstract; the framework became more attenuated. Size was more uniform, spacing and layout more even and balanced. Overall gracefulness had become the main concern of scribes. Texts in early Chou bronze script ranged from 10 to 100 words, but by the mid-9th century some reached around 200 and even exceeded 300 words (Fig. 4).
By the end of Western Chou, the trend toward “depicturization” grew stronger, and in the Eastern Chou period, “tempering” the graphic framework became common. Proportions of characters were purposely and drastically distorted. Some strokes were elongated or curved, some were shortened. Extra lines or dots were added or omitted. Most of the original pictographic elements, which restricted the nature of the signs, disappeared, giving way to abstract patterns enhanced by free and rhythmical lines.
In the Eastern Chou period (770256 B.C.), the heartland near Sian was lost to invading nomads and the capital moved east to Loyang in Honan province. The resulting administrative decentralization led powerful feudal lords to establish small independent states, and the weakened monarchy caused few monumental inscriptions to be made. To justify their authority, feudal lords commissioned vessels with lengthy inscriptions, detailing elaborate family pedigrees. As writing became secularized and more widespread, graphic style developed in two opposite directions. 5 Rubbing of inscription from a Ch’i Hou yu vessel, 6th century B.C., found in Loyang, Honan province, in 1957. The Duke of Ch’i commissioned it for his second daughter’s marriage. (From the Cultural Relics Bureau, Beijing)
Elaborate and ornate writing was a style in tune with Eastern Chou’s predilection for intricate, florid designs on bronze vessels (Fig. 5). The convoluted script instantly became and has remained the choice of seal-makers throughout Chinese history—thus the name “seal script” (chuan-shu). Another type of ornate script incorporating birds into the characters was popular in southeastern coastal China (Fig. 6).
Plain and utilitarian writing, although it served for equally important occasions, minimized the convoluted curves, as in the inscriptions on treaty records (Fig. 7). Lines were straightened to make writing less time-consuming, a development that was important for the future. Many examples of simplified seal script on bamboo slips, pottery, and silk attest to its popularity in the 5th and 4th centuries B.C.
Toward the end of Chou, political divisiveness among the warring states led to a flourishing of regional styles in arts and crafts, writing among them. New archaeological data still do not, however, provide sufficient evidence to support the contention of some scholars that there was a typological difference between the graphs of eastern and western China.
Ch’in Through Han Dynasties and Following
Recent excavations have recovered large amounts of written material, most notably that on bamboo slips. Although the paper, silk, and hemp then in use have rarely survived, enough is known to allow us to reconstruct the development of writing in this period.
In 221 B.C. the ruler of the Ch’in state established the Ch’in Dynasty, China’s first empire. In order to control his vast territory more efficiently, the emperor Shih-huang issued a national unification policy which regulated not only transportation (e.g., the sizes of wheels and the widths of roads) and measurement, but also the media of communication—writing. To speed up “paperwork,” official announcements, such as proclamations engraved on stone stelae, were written in the less time-consuming, simplified version of seal script, commonly called “lesser seal script” (hsiao-chuan; Fig. 8) to differentiate it from the earlier, more elaborate “greater seal script” (ta-chuari). The lesser seal script, although it had fewer curves and swirls, was still too complicated for a fast-moving information network, so it had to be further simplified. Therefore, in non-political or less formal inscriptions, such as those on measurement cups and bamboo slips, the graphs were abbreviated by substituting flaring or straight lines for the curves, and by blinking several strokes into one or two swift line(s). Before the end of the Ch’ing period, lesser seal script evolved into polyangular graphs widely used by clerks; thus it was called “clerical script” (li-shu; Fig. 9).
The expansion of the Han empire (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) called for further simplification in the script, as witnessed by the development of three new types: cursive (ts’ao-shu), standard (k’ai-shu), and running (hsing-shu). In this period, “hybrid” graphs composed of mixtures of script types became common, as did several types appearing in one phrase or paragraph. These mixtures reflect the transitional phase of a developing writing system to meet the demands of an ever-expanding bureaucracy.
Cursive script could be written more quickly than its predecessors, because several strokes were linked in a single movement, so it became a script intended for informal shorthand. By the 2nd century A.D., it had evolved into a well-articulated, rhythmical style of writing; it was perfected by 4th-century literati and by the 8th or 9th century had become the channel for artistic self-expression (Fig. 10).
Emerging in the 3rd century A.D., standard script had less flaring signs and more abbreviated components than clerical, although they were similar in preciaion. In standard, the brush pauses and turns quickly. The earliest datable example is on the Ku-lang stele inscribed in A.. 272 (Fig. 11). Standard script came to maturity in the Sui to T’ang period, eventually replacing clerical script. It has since changed little and remains the accepted style in China.
Running script also derived from clerical in the Han dynasty. As in cursive, the components of each character are linked together and partly simplified, so it is less rigid and can be used more artistically. Since no strokes are eliminated or substituted it is easily legible, and it quickly became the favorite type of 3rd- and 4th-century calligraphers (Fig. 12).
By the Han period (see chronology), the vocabulary had increased to about 10,000 words, and by the Six Dynasties, 15,000. A Sung encyclopedia included 31,319 words and its Ch’ing counterpart, 47,021. The apparently great increase was partially due to the fact that the compilers included all archaic, obsolete, and vernacular words. Only 3000 to 5000 words were actually needed for sophisticated reading and writing.
Following the protracted turmoil of the Warring States period, the Ch’in book burning in 213 B.C., and the subsequent Ch’in-Han wars, thorough studies on graph formation, if any, were lost. Around A.D. 100 Hsu Shen reconstructed the structural rules in the dictionary of etymology Analyzing Graphs (Shuo-wen chieh-tzu). Among his six laws, “imitating form” (pictographs), “indicating things” and “discerning meaning” (ideographs), and “form sound” (ideo-phonetic graphs) are important, while “turning notation” (derivatives) and “provision borrowing” (loanwords) apply infrequently. Of the 9355 characters known from this time, 70 percent were ideophonetic graphs while 15 percent were pictographs and ideographs (the remaining 15 percent comprises loan words and derivations). Direct comparison with the vocabulary of the Shang period cannot be made because of a lack of early phonological records, but paleography specialist Li Hsiao-ting has estimated that of 1226 characters, 55 percent were pictographs and ideographs, and 27 percent ideophonetic (Keightley 1978:68). If so, from 1200 B.C. to A.D. 100 ideophonetic graphs increased twofold at the expense of pictographs and ideographs, a seemingly logical growth. By the late 17th century, 90 percent of the characters were ideophonetic. The introduction of Western science and technology required new words, which caused another expansion in the percentage of ideo-phonetic graphs. To render “ammonia,” for example, the Chinese created the graph an, which is a composite of the air radical and an-sounding graphs; for uranium they used yu, the composite of the metal radical and yu-sounding graphs. Recognition of the fact that Chinese writing is primarily ideo-phonetic was hindered because, during the course of evolution, some sound graphs became only approximate, and some ideo-phonetic composites retained old sound graphs while the pronunication changed completely.
Development of an Aesthetic Medium
Writing systems in many parts of the world are a mixture of communication medium, through the signs, and a means of artistic expression, through calligraphy. The development of Chinese graphs into an art form, however, took a unique path. Although artisans and craftsmen ingeniously engraved letters and wove intricate patterns into the graphs for deliberate aesthetic effect, they were not regarded as true calligraphers in the orthodox Chinese tradition. Their work was held to be creative, but ornamental rather than intellectual. Calligraphy done by literati with an ink brush is a different type of art, a cerebral pursuit that has its own aesthetic standard.
The development of writing from a content-signifying mechanism for communication to an emotional vehicle for aesthetic creation by the literati took approximately 1500 years (ca. 1200 B.C.-A.D. 300). In the beginning writing was used to transmit “dialogues” between Shang royal personages and their ancestral spirits. By these elaborate communications, which often involved animal and occasionally human sacrifices, members of the Shang elite hoped to invoke from their forefathers the blessings, advice, and approval deemed essential in upholding the theocracy In the Chou dynasty, political structures had become more institutionalized. Writing, although it was still used to commemorate deceased ancestors, was more a means to document secular interactions between the king and feudal powers, as well as exchanges among the feudal lords themselves; it had become an enhancement to rule. Thus, while Shang writing actively sought supernatural benefaction, Chou writing passively narrated worldly activities. In both cases, however, the point of writing was, to a certain degree, archival in that it preserved information crucial to the validation and maintenance of political power. In the Ch’in through Han periods, writing acquired a new dimension. In order to control a vast territory, the centralized government relied heavily on officials competent in processing, circulating, and executing imperial orders, as well as conducting regional affairs. Writing was such an important administrative skill that the Han court required all government functionaries, especially those in law enforcement, to learn it. T’ang Lan has pointed out that in the first century A.D., Han civil servants were required to know several different types of current writing. Moreover, any civil servant with poor or illegible handwriting would be officially charged with misconduct. From then until the end of the Ch’ing dynasty, good penmanship was the implicit requirement in passing the civil service examination, and became an indispensable asset in upward social mobility.
Gradually, interest in the artistic potential of handwriting began to emerge near the end of the Han dynasty, but the direction it took cannot be well documented because most of the works of pioneering calligraphers are no longer extant. Since comments on the achievements of Han calligraphers usually appear in the Sung dynasty or later, we should reserve judgment about the extent to which writing was then viewed and pursued as art, even though many remains of Han writing are of high quality. While future discoveries and research may reveal more about the development of Han calligraphic art, it is clear that by the end of the dynasty, when all types of writing were known and social and political sanctions on good penmanship existed, there was fertile ground in which calligraphic art could root.
During the Six Dynasties period (A.D. 220-589) writing was transformed into the art form adopted by the literati as an intellectual and emotional outlet. Calligraphic art became the embodiment of the ethereal mind: a “quasi-graphological mirror of one’s personal character and level of education” (Lederose 1972:2). The Six Dynasties period was a politically turbulent
a, as the new Taoist movement made its mark on the well-established Han Confucian bureaucratic tradition. Intellectuals turned away from politics and mundane responsibilities to indulge in wine-drinking and hallucinogenic drugs. They engaged in debates on philosophical issues, cultivating aesthetic sensibilities, and expressing individuality. The intellectualization and individualization of calligraphic art is but one manifestation of the romantic elitism then in vogue. It was during this period that great masters of calligraphy began to appear.
Chinese calligraphy occupied such an extraordinary position in the history of Chinese art partly because of its unusual graphic structure. Many Chinese characters or their constituent entities were originally pictographic, and even ideophonetic characters still retained the sound-indicating elements among their pictographic features. In the process of development, most of the illustrative elements were morphologically neutralized and lost their pictorial attributes. However, the abstractionism in script in fact ran parallel with that in painting, which unlike Western painting was never concerned with perspective and chiaroscuro. Therefore, the borderline between calligraphy and painting is fluid and indistinct.
Since Chinese characters are organically more complex than alphabetical script (which is completely divorced from the original pictographs and formed with fewer elements), Chinese calligraphy is enriched with structural diversity. Each character is a micro-design. In grouping a passage or a paragraph of characters together, their relation to each other can be manipulated to create an overall composition. These visual advantages, plus the effects wrought by the flexible hair writing brush (Fig. 14) and the varying tones and different degrees of moisture of the black ink, endow Chinese calligraphy with the ability to interpret lines and shapes imaginatively. The shared abstract quality in delineation as well as the employment of identical methods and material in both calligraphy and painting link these two categories of art so closely together that they share both methodology and aesthetical background.
After the different script types had emerged toward the end of Han, the Chinese writing system was complete; no new types appeared thereafter. These renditions of characters became the norms from which calligraphers could choose to satisfy artistic proclivity. Post-Han developments only added refinements to the basic system.
Post-Han Calligraphic Aesthetics
Six Dynasties to T’ang
Stelae continued to be the medium for commemoration and public education, especially in northern China. While a formal style of handwriting was preferred for them, the trend was from small and clerical scripts to standard script in T’ang. The less constrained running and cursive scripts were casual and personal, and were thus favored by literati who wrote on silk and paper. Since these scripts are free and expressive, it is not uncommon to see running script graphs intermingled with cursive script graphs
In the Six Dynasties period, powerful aristocratic clans fleeing invading nomads left northern China and migrated to the south. Among them were Wang Hsi-chih (ca. A.D. 303-361) and his son, Wang Hsien-chih (A.D. 344-388), who elevated writing to the art form practiced by intellectuals (Figs. 15, 16). They are considered the founders of the orthodox tradition of Chinese calligraphy, and their lifetime is regarded as the Golden Age of this art.
Many kings of the numerous southern kingdoms that followed, particularly those in the 5th century, were ardent admirers and patrons of calligraphic art, a royal enthusiasm that continued throughout Chinese history. Also in this period there were strong Taoist influences on aesthetic theories that account for the “spontaneousness” advocated by early critics of calligraphy (Ledderose 1984). An 8th-century critic divided penmanship into three categories—”divine-perfect,” “wonderful-exquisite,” and “able-skillful”—that became standard and were adopted by critics of painting a century later.
Sung to Ming Period
The Sung dynasty (A.D. 960-1279) witnessed the ascendancy of running and cursive scripts, as well as the merger between painting and calligraphy. Advanced techniques of producing rubbings and prints made calligraphic material widely available, so greater interest in the medium was generated. Despite flourishing antiquarianism, Sung intellectuals generally ignored clerical and seal scripts. It was the great master Mi Fu (1052-1109), a painter, calligrapher, connoisseur, and historian, who rekindled his followers’ interest in archaic scripts (Fig. 17). Mi also encouraged them to explore the separate province of painting as amateurs. Impressionistic monochromatic and light-colored ink paintings made by intellectuals were strongly influenced by calligraphy, and later became a separate category called “literati painting” (wen-jen-hua), which was popular in Korea and Japan, as well as in China. Interaction with the medium of painting benefited both students and critics of calligraphy, to the end that Yuan-Ming critics were able to extend their concerns from brushwork and the quality of the paper and seals to the structure and spacing of the characters themselves.
Ch’ing to Present
The resurgence of antiquarianism stimulated Ch’ing calligraphers to gather and study original examples of archaic script, rather than to imitate the styles of their predecessors as most calligraphers from T’ang to Ming did. Chance discoveries and scientific excavations of ancient remains, especially Shang bone-shell script and Ch’inHan inscribed wooden tablets in the 20th century, have provided abundant original material for calligraphers interested in archaic scripts. Although traditional types of criticism have continued to be important, Western theories of aesthetics and art history introduced after the 1950s have brought to the study of calligraphy new analytical and dating techniques, as well as interdisciplinary approaches.
Religious Connotations of Chinese Writing
Writing and divinity are associated in many early civilizations. In China, writing was first a means of communication with ancestral spirits and other supernatural beings. ln divinational records, the charges usually followed a format that begins with character chen, a word commonly translated as “to ask.” Keightley has, however, persuasively argued that it is not an interrogative verb, but rather a prayer, prediction, or statement of intent (1978:29). Aiding in interpretation of ritual texts is the presence of red pigments rubbed over the characters inscribed on shells and bones; such pigments, of which ocher and cinnabar are examples, have been found in many prehistoric ritual contexts, including burials. Black pigments on Chinese characters are probably blood blackened with age.
Shang rulers must have believed the potent red colors enhanced the magic quality of the written characters. To Shang diviners, oracular inscriptions possessed supernatural power through which theocratic kingship was validated and maintained by securing ancestral endorsement and by keeping records of it. Writing was not only archival, but also magical and invocational. Belief in the miraculous power of red ink writing apparently continued for at least seven centuries, when the Eastern Chou treaty between the Chin state and its allies (found in Nin-ts’un, Hou-ma, Shansi province, northern China) was written with blood ink on sets of jade slabs. The date of the treaty is still controversial, but is most likely the late 5th century B.C. Jade has always been mystical to the Chinese—its hardness also symbolizes long-enduring goodness. Appeal to divinities and longevity are both elements appropriate to the consecration of a mutual political vow (Fig. 7).
The supernatural powers of written characters was an accepted part of Taoism during its formative period. The Taoist custom of including in the tombs a special ownership proclamation, “terrestrial tessera” or “tomb receipt” (tichuan, literally “earth-ticket”,), first appeared during the Han dynasty in the 1st century A.D. and persisted until the Ch’ing dynasty. Brick- or bottle-shaped objects made of stone, brick, wood, lead, stained the date of death, the name of the deceased, the location and size of the tomb, the token value of the tomb land, the announcement of inalienable right to the land, and a Taoist incantation. These tomb receipts therefore proclaimed that the land was reserved for the gods of the underworld.
A vestige of the belief that writing is magical and evil-repelling still exists in Taiwan. In the folk tradition of southeast coastal China, White Tiger star, one of the “baleful stars” (hsiitng-hsing), is most feared because to meet it is death, whereas Jupiter, the auspicious Unicorn star is welcomed because it can neutralize pernicious influences. Therefore, on important occasions, such as installing a marriage bed or building a house, White Tiger star must be avoided. This can be achieved by obtaining a black ink inscription on red paper stating “the Unicorn is here” (Ch’in- lin) which will intimidate the White Tiger. Taoism places great emphasis on magic writing. Its followers believe that Chang Tabling, the founder, received from Lao Tzu the ability to control spirits with magic writing. The Tai-p’ing-ching, written before the end of the 6th century A.D., says that the written talismann(fit) can be consumed and directed toward the sick parts of the body. A Sung dynasty book, Chit Yu K’o (Praying to Divine the Cause), contains many “strange written characters” that can make the spirits act as heavenly soldiers fighting ghost armies to prevent them from achieving evil. Taoist followers maintain that these fit-talismans are written in the special celestial script called “radiance of the clouds seal script” (Yii-chuan ming-kuang), undecipherable by mortals. Since written characters possess supernatural powers, Taoist followers regard a composite of many fragmentary graphs as most protective, so even Taoist monks cannot recite them. Non-audible but visual amulets are characteristically Chinese. In modern Taiwan, they are usually written in cinnabar or chicken blood, a Shang-Chou custom that later became part of Taoist religion.
Planchette writing is also practiced by believers. Those with questions consult Taoist monks who, in trance, relay the message from the spirit to the living by stick writing on sand. This custom has a history stretching from at least the 6th century A.D. to the present. In 1972, Ledderose witnessed a planchette writing in Taiwan and observed that the medium, who was in ecstatic agitation, wrote the answer on sand in cursive script, while two assistants deciphered and read out the messages. Yang’s original manuscript was also written in cursive script, a significant point since these Taoist writings in trance dating 1600 years apart were both in cursive script. The puzzling cursive graphs on Shang oracular texts have always been considered meaningless doodles, but ethnohistoric and ethnographic analogy suggests that they were written by Shang diviners deeply in trance who wrote in brush what was later carved by the engraver.
Around the beginning of the 7th century A.D., another magical aspect of Chinese writing developed into an interesting method of fortune telling, “glyphornancy” (ch’aitzit, literally “to dissect characters,” or pit-tzu, “to divine on characters”). Because Chinese characters are essentially graphic, professional fortune tellers with Taoist affiliations professed to be able to predict future events by analyzing the structure of a word picked at random by a client, who need not have been literate. Since the Sung dynasty, many essays have described the procedures of this type of divination. Another divining method related to character analysis involved numerology. By counting the strokes that make up the written characters of both last and first names and combining it with Taoist yin-yang elements, fortune tellers could predict the future. These glyphomanticists have to master the scripts and must possess an unusually wide range of knowledge of all possible literary associations. This type of prognostication is still practiced in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore (Bauer 1979).
The development of a writing system in China from around 1200 B.C. until the present has proceeded in an orderly fashion. Some scholars, viewing the signs and scribbles on ceramic utensils as primitive writing, claimed that it began around 4800 B.C., but Boltz (1986:432) has convincingly diesmissend the possibility of a “prolonged gestation” of “a ‘halfway’ writing system.” The progress of the Chinese writing system reflects that of statecraft. While political organization developed from Shang theocracy and Chou feudalism to Ch’in and Han imperial sovereignty, the main function of writing evolved from kingship validation and authority sanction to an administrative vehicle. As literacy expanded from religious specialists and aristocrats to general bureaucratic administrators, Chinese scripts became simpler and easier to write. In the process of simplification, however, attention was always paid to the beauty of shapes and strokes.
The process of simplifying the script intensified during the transitional period following the demise of Chou feudalism to the establishment of the Ch’in and Han empires, when the central government felt an increasing need to raise the general level of literacy and to build up an effective, standardized communication network in the rapidly expanding territory. The most drastic morphological change occurred between the late ChouCh’in seal script and Ch’in-Han clerical script, a shift explained by Hs Shen in the 2nd century A.D. who dispelled the myth that the Chinese writing system was ideographic. His work was the beginning of Chinese palaeography and has guided historians of ancient China ever since.
Chinese calligraphy and painting are technically and aesthetically related and have the same criteria for criticism. Belief in the magic power of graphs has a long history and is still current in parts of China. Reverence for writing was such that in Beijing in the 1930s there were special receptacles for papers with writing on them. As Derk Bode has remarked., “China throughout its history was an overwhelmingly scribal rather than verbal civilization” (1981), one that can be best understood through the development of its writing system.