Different Strokes …

In the special exhibition Brush Ink Paper, calligraphy and paintings from China and Japan are displayed coming from the collection of Dr. Thomas Kuebler. Though one may not speak or read the respective languages from these countries, a visitor can still enjoy the aesthetic and beauty of the works presented.

The written language, particularly in China, is very old, dating back to the Bronze Age. While we can focus on the language’s history, I’m more concerned with the style and the evolution of the appearance of written characters. In this post, I will be discussing four styles of script: seal, clerical, running, and cursive. Each new way of writing seems to have come about organically throughout the ages but at the same time rules governed the way characters were formed. The different styles mixed, evolved, and sort of “grew up” together in early China.

Seal script is the oldest style from the latter part of the Shang Dynasty, around 1200 BCE. As you can see from the image, seal script is very rounded at the ends of strokes. It is also symmetrically balanced and each line is of equal thickness.


Today this style is used on signature seals such as this one from the National Taiwan University.


From seal script evolved clerical script, which was dominant in the Han Dynasty (206 BCE –220 CE). Now we have characters that are looking more modern and recognizable—and it’s only 206 BCE! But, of course, there are still differences and unique characteristics. The brush strokes create very wide lines, and some of the more dominate lines—like the one in the bottom character – end in a wavelike flare. This style is also still used today, usually as an artistic choice in advertising.


Running script was developed from clerical script during the Han Dynasty as well. This type of writing is quite different from the previous two. Strokes are allowed to run into one another; they are also more fluid and abstract as compared to the angular style of clerical script. While writing, a calligrapher’s brush often does not leave the paper but flows from one stroke into the next, as you can see in the top character.


Finally, cursive script, which also developed in the Han Dynasty and further refined in the Jin Dynasty (265–420 CE), is a child of clerical script. Here, characters are highly simplified and the calligrapher’s brush does not leave the paper at all. Certain lines in a character are usually modified or eliminated to create this fluidness. The objective for this script is to emphasize its aesthetic appeal more than the characters themselves. This also makes it so it is not particularly legible to the untrained eye and therefore is not often used outside the realm of artistic calligraphy.


My goal with this post was to make it somewhat easier to identify and understand some of the styles that calligraphers use. Though these four styles represent just the very tip of the iceberg, I hope this post sparked new interest in calligraphy.