The art of calligraphy has enjoyed
a long history in China, originating as early as the invention of the first written
script. This occurred with the emergence of oracle bone script in the Shang dynasty
(16th-11th centuries BC) some 3000 years ago, after which many different types appeared.
Although forms vary greatly, they can be divided into five basic categories; seal,
clerical, standard, running, and cursive.
Before the Ch'in dynasty (221-207
BC), no specific terms were applied to script forms. When the First Emperor of the Ch'in
unified China, he had various regional scripts standardized based on the writing of Ch'in,
which became transformed into the even and regular "seal" script. By the end of
the Ch'in and the early Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), a new script called
"clerical" emerged. It evolved over the centuries and by the end of the Han,
"draft-cursive" appeared. "Modern cursive," in which many of the
strokes are connected, further developed from draft-cursive and reached maturity by the
Eastern Chin (317-420). After the Northern and Southern Dynasties (386-589), everyday
writing was dominated by the use of standard and running scripts. Thus, they represent the
five major script types of Chinese calligraphy.
By the close of the Sui (589-607)
and early T'ang (608-907) period, standard script had flourished with its formal features.
In the High T'ang, calligraphers also experimented with cursive script, liberating the
brush for an often free-wielding style. Running script of the Sung dynasty (960-1279) is
especially noted for calligraphers having excelled at expressing their ideas and
individuality. By the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), they increasingly looked to the past (in
"returning to the ancients" and "revivalism") for inspiration as
standard, running, and cursive scripts were equally emphasized. Ming (1368-1644) and early
Ch'ing (1644-1911) artists followed the achievements of the Yuan masters but also looked
back to models of standard and running scripts from the Chin and T'ang. By the middle
Ch'ing, studies in epigraphy flourished, and calligraphers turned to ancient writing on
bronzes and stelae. In particular, they emphasized the engraved stone inscriptions from
the Northern Wei (386-535), which led to a resurgence of interest in ancient seal and
As early as the Neolithic age, the
inhabitants of China decorated their ceramic vessels with pigments, inaugurating the long
tradition of Chinese painting. The creative genius of craftsmen in the early Hsia, Shang,
and Chou dynasties (20th-3rd centuries BC) appears on their bronzes, jades, ceramics, and
textiles. In the Han dynasty, painting served as a medium to "instruct and
moralize," and figures, birds, and other animals dominated the subject matter. These
lively yet serious forms were expressed in stone engravings and paintings on walls and
From the 3rd to 6th centuries, the
aesthetic ideal of "art for art's sake" gradually took root. Figure painting was
thus represented by an air of refined elegance and a sense of spirited freedom.
Furthermore, the concept of landscape painting, influenced by an increasing trend towards
Nature, began to emerge. In the Sui and T'ang dynasties, genres expanded and diversified.
Figure painting flourished with its solid and beautiful forms, reaching a high point in
Chinese art history. Landscape painting also matured, and the dazzling blue-and-green
style co-existed with a monochrome ink tradition. In the late T'ang and Five Dynasties
(907-960), bird-and-flower and animal painting also developed to unprecedented levels, and
opulent colored and rustic refined styles co-existed. Sung artists continued in these
traditions. Their beautiful landscapes, whether showing majestic peaks of the north or
misty rolling hills of the south, allowed viewers to enter and walk, view, travel, and
dwell within them. In figures, birds, and flowers, artists not only captured outward
forms, but also imbued them with feeling and spirit.
In the Yuan dynasty,
scholar-painters led the art world and emphasized their expressive features of brush and
ink, combining the arts of painting with calligraphy. In the early Ming dynasty, Yuan
scholar art continued, but the moist ink style of Southern Sung (1127-1279) court painting
was revived at the time. By the middle Ming, elegant scholar painting was revived. By the
late Ming and early Ch'ing, scholar painting continued to flourish and was dominated by
copying the ancients and individualized expression. In the middle Ch'ing, painting was
influenced by the study of ancient inscriptions on bronze and stone, often giving later
Ch'ing painting a sense of power and solidity.