Past Programs & Events > The History and Development of Chinese Calligraphy
9 October 2003

The History and Development of Chinese Calligraphy

For a script style to evolve, it must first have an origin. People inherit their traditions, then add values through their efforts, to develop a new calligraphy script type.” – Lam Yut Hung


The History and Development of Chinese Calligraphy 

From 5 to 12 October, 2003, Soka Gakkai Malaysia (SGM) organised “Lam Yut Hang’s Calligraphy Charity Exhibition” charity exhibition. In conjunction with this, Mr Lam Yut Hang, the featured calligrapher from Hong Kong was invited to deliver an art talk entitled “The History and Development of Chinese Calligraphy.”

Lam was born in 1935 in Xinhui District of Guangdong province, China. He then migrated to Hong Kong at the age of fourteen. In 1959, he graduated from the faculty of philosophy at Taiwan University and further obtained a master’s degree in philosophy from the University of British Columbia, Canada. Being proficient in Hong Kong’s culture, Lam is very familiar with Chinese culture and cares greatly for the education and cultural life of youth. Hence since the 1970s, he served as the president of Hong Kong’s Union Press which published many popular publications benefiting young readers at that time, including Children’s Paradise (Er Tong Le Yuan), The Chinese Student Weekly (Zhong Guo Xue Sheng Zhou Bao) and College Life (Da Xue Sheng Huo). They also published and distributed Chao Foon and Student Weekly (Xue Sheng Zhou Bao) in Nanyang (present day Malaysia and Singapore). During the 50’s and 60’s, these publications played an influential role in the development of cultures in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. Lam also used to serve as a director for the Hong Kong Better Education Society and Hong Kong Cultural Development Society.

The History and Development of Calligraphy

On the history of calligraphy, Mr Lam pointed out that the history of Chinese calligraphy can be traced back to 4000 years ago, thanks to nearly 100 years of archaeological research. Through systematic excavation, it was confirmed that the earliest characters established are the oracle bone inscriptions, created around 1400 B.C. to 1200 B.C.

He pointed out that Chinese calligraphy belongs to the “ideographic” writing system. Oracle bone inscriptions take hieroglyphics as the main body. Only with hieroglyphics can there be ideographs and indicators. When learning Chinese, it is absolutely helpful to understand the oracle bone scripts.

Mr Lam believes that the oracle bone inscriptions, which are hieroglyphics, will make it relatively easier for children to learn writing through the way of painting, as well as to help improve their interest in calligraphy. To increase interest, children can learn calligraphy by copying and practising calligraphy through computer games or copybook for calligraphy. After this, they can gradually move on to learn other script styles, namely the seal script (zhuan shu), clerical script (li shu), regular script (kai shu), the early cursive script (zhang cao), wild cursive script (kuang cao) and running script (xing shu). After the learners have understood the “source” (origins) of calligraphy, the “flow” (development) is to slowly allow them to explore other calligraphy styles.

After introducing the “source” (i.e., oracle bone inscriptions), Mr Lam further elaborated on the “flow” of great seal script, Chinese bronze script, small seal script, clerical script and regular script which evolved from the basis of oracle bone scripts.

From an alternative perspective, Chinese calligraphy can be divided into three systems: writing system, engraving system and casting system (bronze script). He pointed out that when studying calligraphy from these three systems, we should try to figure out the structure of font lines. However, Mr Lam said that artefacts of the oracle bone script and bronze script are all rubbings, with white characters on a black background, so the font lines are not visible. For this reason, people were not able to figure out the lines and structures of these two styles. However, this situation gradually changed in the Zhou Dynasty.

The evolution of Chinese characters took a turn in the Zhou Dynasty. At that time, the emperor could not control the vassal states, resulting many diversions in the structure of characters during the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States period. During that time, the lines and structures of fonts in different states were very different. Then in the Qin Dynasty, Li Si worked out the policy of “uniformity of script,” and the font of small seal characters (xiao zhuan) was adopted. Thanks to this policy executed by Li Si, the presentation of Chinese characters was unified. This can be considered as a significant milestone in Chinese calligraphy.

Before the Han Dynasty, there were many wars, and the generals had to submit reports to the princes and kings. On the battlefields, small seal script evolved into cursive seal script because it needed to be written quickly. The characters on the bamboo slips discovered by archaeologists hint that there was a transformation in characters at the end of the Qin Dynasty. The font developed from curvy to straight lines, and the font evolved into squarish blocks. Ancient clerical script started to emerge. Clerical script mainly turned the lines and shapes of characters into squarish characters. This was coined as “Clerical transformation” (Li Bian, graphic transformation from the small seal script to the clerical script) in history.

Then in the Han Dynasty, the Emperor allowed his officials to present their official documents using Chinese (Han) characters. Hence, the formal official script was conveniently replaced by clerical script used among the common people. And later, the clerical script slowly developed into the early cursive script (Zhang Cao). Eventually in the Tang Dynasty, the font gradually evolved into regular script, which is still practised today.

Mr Lam pointed out that a lineage must have its “origin” (source) in order to “flow” (sustain). Likewise, for a script style to evolve, it must first have an origin. People inherit their traditions, then add values through their efforts, to develop a new calligraphy script type. Creating new script types requires hard work from all aspects, because the generation of script type can never be achieved ex nihilo.

Lastly, the host, Mr Koh Sia Feai, quoted a poem from Song of the Zhi Tone (Zhi Diao Qu), “One who drinks from the water, embraces its source” as a summary to Mr Lam’s sharing. During the question-and-answer session, Mr Lam exchanged extensively with the audience about calligraphy, shedding light on their questions. The audience benefitted greatly from his generous sharing.