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Chinese calligraphy, discovering all the styles

Aggiornamento: 19 feb 2021

Di Alessia Rezzano

Welcome back to the second chapter of Chinese calligraphy!

In the first one, we went through some interesting facts and basic rules when it comes to writing Chinese characters.

Today we’ll go into further details in the history of calligraphy and the changes of styles that brought a pictogram to become the simplified characters we know now.

In the previous blogpost, we stated that the correct word to identify one word in Chinese is character and not ideogram.

What’s the difference?

Let’s start step by step. Chinese does not have an alphabet, but is composed of characters, that could be divided into big categories simplified in: pictograms, ideograms, united meanings and phonetic compounds. Pictograms are the representation of concrete objects (moon 月, sun 日, mountain 山, woman 女, water 水). Ideograms instead represent abstract concepts or ideas. United meanings are formed by the union of two or more simple characters, which create a new character with a new meaning (女 + 子 = 好). Phonetic compounds are always formed by two or more simple characters divided into two parts: one part is relative to its pronunciation and the other is related to its semantic category (方 房 、 羊 : 洋).

When were Chinese characters born?

As we said in the previous blogpost, historians date the birth of Chinese characters back to the Neolithic period, with pictograms engraved on animal bones during religious ceremonies (甲骨文). With the first inscriptions on bronze (金文)during the Zhou dynasty, there is an evolution regarding the length of the characters used, from few characters to short texts regarding different topics.

During the period of the fighting states (475- 221 BC) the brush and ink are used to write on wood, silk and bamboo. Because of the shape of bamboo sticks, the characters were written in vertical and were read from the top to the bottom.

In the 3° century AD bamboo and wood are replaced by the invention of paper, while silk will continue to be used for important occasions.

Going back to the 221 BC with the rise of Emperor Qingshihuang, remembered for his world-famous terracotta army, we are witnessing the unification of weights and measures, and writing.

The common writing in the whole country is simplified: the number of characters is reduced and the calligraphic style that is coined is still called today little seal 篆书. The Little Seal style then proved to be impractical, because the characters are still very complicated and too curvy. It was soon replaced by the administrative style 隶书, much more linear, transforming several pictograms in ideographic signs. At the dawn of the Han dynasty (1 century BC), the cursive style 草书was born and was generally used privately by officials . The choice of this style is mainly linked to its speed and practicality since it was a sequence of characters, with no need to remove the brush from the paper.

During the last period of the Han dynasty (2nd century AD) a new style called the Regular style 楷书 was introduced. It was very similar to the administrative one, which had even more linear features.

Under the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD), writing reached its maximum standardization, and the new style is called Standardized 正楷. It is with this style that the calligraphers establish the technical structure of the stroke.

The standardised style, also called current, will no longer be changed until 1956, the year in which the government feels the need to simplify and modernize its (written) language. We are in the middle of the Maoist period, which means that any cultural or historical aspect of the country must be analyzed critically and then modified; writing is a clear example of this campaign against the past.

The writing is therefore changed thanks to the reduction in the number of strokes, the adoption of only one part of the more complex character and the adoption of simpler homophones.

The complexity of the characters does not lie only in the features and in the way of writing them. Another difficulty that not only foreigners face during the study of Mandarin Chinese but also of the Chinese themselves, is the fact that from the character (in most cases) you cannot understand any information on the pronunciation and the tone. For this reason, an official phonetic transcription system for reading Chinese characters called pinyin is adopted. Simplified Chinese became the official (written) language throughout the People’s Republic of China in the 1960s, during which time it was decided to abandon writing in vertical columns in favor of a horizontal system.

Today, however, Taiwan, Hongkong and Macao are exceptions where the system of non-simplified characters continues to be used.

Link to the Italian version here

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