Home > Explore + Learn > Chinese art > China's Calligraphic Arts

China's Calligraphic Arts

Six major scripts have developed over the course of more than three thousand years for writing Chinese characters, and all are still used in "artistic writing" (calligraphy) today. Each of these styles of writing—oracle bone, seal, clerical, cursive, running, and standard—has distinct differences in appearance.

Characters in seal script, for example, have symmetrical structures made with thin, even lines. Clerical script is recognized by its prominent down strokes, while running script more closely resembles informal handwriting. One script builds upon the other, as seen in the progression above, where each set of characters represents the word "dragon."

Dating to the thirteenth century BCE, the earliest examples of Chinese writing are found on bones, stones, and metal artifacts of ritual or historical importance. The early emphasis on beautifully-rendered even lines in writing created by knives or a stylus was supplanted by the growing importance of brush writing during the late Bronze Age and early Imperial Period. Experimentation with brushwork and gradations of ink progressed when paper became a popular writing medium during the second century CE. This allowed brush-written calligraphy to emerge as a fully independent art form.

Although the development of major scripts was virtually complete by the fourth century, the art of calligraphy continued to evolve over the millennia. Master calligraphers with years of training and dedicated practice were recognized for their personal styles, and later generations of artists often adapted brushstrokes and designs to their own style. Through writing, carving, and reproduction by rubbing, this stylistic evolution of scripts continues to enliven Chinese calligraphy to the present day.

This feature is based on the exhibition Writing, Carving, and Rubbing: China's Calligraphic Arts, which was on view at the Freer April 4–October 25, 2009.

Above: The six major scripts—from left, oracle bone, seal, clerical, cursive, running, and standard—each representing the word "dragon."

Collections

Browse Chinese art in our collections section. »


Publications

In Pursuit of Heavenly Harmony: Paintings and Calligraphy by Bada Shanren from the Estate of Wang Fangyu and Sum Wai
By Joseph Chang, Qianshen Bai, and Stephen D. Allee

Later Chinese Painting and Calligraphy: 1800-1950
By Robert Hatfield Ellsworth


Events

children learn calligraphy during an ImaginAsia program Children learn about calligraphy during an ImaginAsia program.

Find China-related events on our calendar »