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Chinese History


I. What about tortoise shells, oracle bones, and the Orchid Pavilion?

According to Cangjie’s legend, Chinese writing extends back over five millennia up to the era of the legendary emperor Huangdi.

According to a legend, Chinese characters were invented by a bureaucrat at the court of emperor Huangdi, called Cangjie (c. 2650 BC). The legend tells that Cangjie was hunting on Mount Yangxu (today in Shaanxi province) when he saw a tortoise whose veins caught his curiosity. Inspired by the possibility of a logical relation of those veins, he studied the animals in his world, the landscape around him, and the stars in the sky and invented a symbolic system called “zì” - Chinese characters. It was said that on the day the characters were born, Chinese heard the devil mourning and saw crops falling like rain as it marked the beginning of the world.

In the beginning of the 20th century7 20 000 oracle bone pieces were found in the village of Xiǎotún (小屯) near Ānyáng in Hénán Province whose inscriptions showed an astonishing similarity with old Chinese characters. The inscriptions were records of the divinations performed for or by the royal Shāng dynasty households (Shāng Dynasty: 1600–1046 BC).

Today about 1500 of these "Jiǎgǔwén” (甲骨文), shell-bone-scripts, could be identified with later Chinese characters.

ill. 26: Shāng Dynasty Oracle Bone Script on Ox Scapula, Linden-Museum, Stuttgart, Germany

ill. 27: Bronze Bell with inscription (Western Zhōu, ca. 1100-771 B.C)

ill. 28: The Art of War ("孫子兵法") by Sun Tzu , collection at the University of California, Riverside

Parallel to the oracle bone script, the normal script of bamboo books coexisted alongside elaborate pictorial forms found on bronze recipients, preserved in bronze inscriptions of the Zhōu dynasty (1045–256 BC). The character shapes on these objects resemble a script that is used still today in official or artistic stamps, the so called “seal script” (see pictures below)

The Seal script, which had evolved slowly in the state of Qín during the Eastern Zhōu dynasty (4th-3rd century B.C), became standardized and adopted as the formal script for all of China in the Qín dynasty (221-206 B.C.) and was still widely used for decorative engraving and seals beyond the Hàn dynasty. Although the art of carving a traditional seal in the script remains alive, few people are still able to read it effortlessly. But despite the Qín script standardization, more than one script remained in use at the time.


          ill. 29/30: Chops with seal scripture
          (chops on calligraphies of Huai Su, Tang Dynasty (702-785 A.D.) Taipei Palace Museum)

From the Warring States period (426-221 B.C.) over the Hàn Dynasty until the Late Eastern Jìn Dynasty (about 310-420 B.C.) five types of scripts developed in parallel due to the evolution of a vulgar besides a clerical script and a seal script. All five styles are still in use today:

Seal script (zhuànshū 篆书)

  • mainly developed in Qín Dynasty, 221-206 B.C.
  • Nowadays it is only used for stamps or in artistic fields.

(see picture above)

Clerical script (lìshū 隶书)

  • with prolonged strokes in horizontal directions, derived from the zhuanshu, developed as well in Qín Dynasty, 221-206 B.C
  • Today it is used only for calligraphy. 

ill. 31: Qián Yǒng (clerical script): Brush and Ink (Museum for Oriental Arts New York)


Block script (kǎishū 楷书)

  • a standardized script that was perfected in Hàn Dynasty, 206-220 A.D.
  • Today it is still in use as regular standard script. 

ill. 32: Cài Xiāng 蔡襄 (Northern Sòng Dynasty, Japan Calligraphy Museum, Tokyo)


Semi-Cursive script (xíngshū 行书)

  • stylistically between kaishu and caoshu, especially popular in Hàn Dynasty (221-206 B.C. ) and Eastern Jìn Dynasty (220-420 A.D.)
  • Today it is still in use as typical handwriting. 

ill. 33: Wáng Xīzhī, 王羲之 (303–361 A.D., Eastern Jìn Dynasty, calligraphy of the Orchidee Pavilion, Zhèjiāng Province)

Grass-writing script or Cursive Script (Cao Shu 草书)

  • Strongly cursive style, popular from Hàn until Táng Dynasty (818-907 A.D.)
  • Today it is in use for a quick draft style of personal handwriting and calligraphy 

Some of the simplified Chinese characters adopted by the People's Republic of China, and some of the simplified characters used in Japan, are derived from the Cursive Script. The Japanese hiragana script (e.g. あからした etc.) is also derived from this script.

ill. 34: Wáng Xīzhī, 王羲之 (303–361 A.D., Eastern Jìn Dynasty, Orchid Pavilion 兰亭序 lántíngxù /Beijing Palace Museum 北京故宮博物院藏)

The Kaishu-standard script has been attributed to the “father of the script” (a calligraphist of the Eastern Han and Wei period, ca. 151–230 AD). It then matured further in the Eastern Jìn Dynasty in the hands of the “Sage of Calligraphy” Wáng Xīzhī (王 羲之, 303 –361 A.D.) and his son Wáng Xiànzhī (王 獻之, 344–386 A.D.). ” Wáng Xīzhī made the Orchidee Pavilion near Shàoxīng in Zhèjiāng-Province a famous site for all calligraphy enthusiasts.

ill. 35: Orchid Pavilion 兰亭序 lántíngxù (near Shàoxīng in Zhèjiāng Province)

After Ōuyáng Xún (557–641 A.D.), the famous Táng Dynasty calligrapher, the standard or regular script has been conserved until today.


7 The excavations took place from 1928-1937.


II. The Four Arts of a Chinese Scholar (sìyì (四艺)

The four arts of a Chinese Scholar, that he had to master from the Han dynasty on, were qín (琴 kind of zither), (棋 a game), shū (书 calligraphy) and huà (画 painting).

Qín 琴 refers to the musical instrument of the scholars, the gǔqín. In fact, the gǔqín's name breaks down to 'gǔ' (old) and 'qín' (a string instrument). The gǔqín is a seven-stringed zither that owes its invention to the Chinese society of more than 3000 years ago.


      ill. 36/37: Qín 琴 (or gǔqín 古琴) Photo: Lingfeng Shenyun (靈峰神韻)

棋 refers to a board game, which is nowadays called “wéiqí” (围棋, literal meaning: "surrounding game", known in the western world as “Go”). Wéiqí is a game in which two players alternate placing black and white stones on a playing surface consisting of a grid of 19x19 lines. Stones are placed on the intersections of the grid, rather than inside the squares as in chess.


ill. 38/39: Zhou Dynasty painting, Scene out of “Zuó Zhuàn左傳” (one of China’s first historic narratives)8

Shū (书): Calligraphy, opposite to standard writing meant that the strokes may be accentuated for dramatic effect of individual style. Calligraphy was the means by which scholars could mark their thoughts and teachings for immortality and as such, represent some of the most precious traces of ancient Chinese culture.

Calligraphic processes are structured in a similar way as wéiqí. A minimal set of rules convey a system of incredible complexity and magnificence. Every character from the Chinese script is built into a fixed geometrical shape of which the square is the most important in addition to a triangle or circle. The number of brush strokes depends on the calligraphy style. For the Block Style script (kǎishū 楷书) the number of strokes is kept invariable. As little as one stroke more or less can create a new character with a different meaning. In the so called “Grass Writing” style (cǎoshū 草书 ) the stroke number of a character can vary considerably depending on the artists expression. (see more about “calligraphy” in “I. What about tortoise shells, oracle bones and the Orchid Pavilion?“ and “Chinese Calligraphy - The four treasures of the study”)

ill. 40: Caoshu-Calligraphy of Huái Sù 怀素, cortesy name Cángzhēn 藏真 (737–799 A.D., Táng Dynasty) ill. 41: Kaishu-Calligraphy of Cài Xiāng 蔡襄 (Northern Sòng Dynasty, 960–1279 A. D.)

Huà (画 painting): Through painting a Chinese noble would demonstrate his mastery over the art of line. Often Chinese paintings would be produced either on silk or on a sheet of plain white rice-paper (as paper was available since the 1st century A.D) using often nothing but black ink and a single brush (from the Táng Dynasty, 10th century, more and more colors were added).

The well-measured expression of inner movement and personality in the way of setting a stroke was a central topic of Chinese paintings throughout the centuries. It was demonstrated in the power of a single line. They reflected a skill that valued intentional and calculated strokes over instinctual erratic creation.

To add tonal quality to paintings the artists would often paint portions of the subject and then wash the cloth before continuing. This procedure enhanced the bewitching effect of beautiful landscapes and depictions of rituals.

Finished works were in general mounted on scrolls, which could be hung up or rolled up. Others were made in forms of albums and put on walls.

The fact that during the Mongolian Yuán Dynasty (1279–1368 A.D.) painters joined poems to the art of painting shows how closely the three arts, painting, poetry and calligraphy, were intertwined.

This is why the most known Chinese paintings worldwide often are so called “water-ink-paintings” (shuǐmòhuà 水墨画). Oil paintings followed only in the 19th/20th century after the influence of western painters.

ill. 42: Guō Xī (郭熙,): Early Spring (1072 A.D.)

8 weiqimetaphysics.wordpress.com


III. Chinese Dynasties