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Clerical Script in Chinese Calligraphy

    Clerical script appeared at a significant time in Chinese history: the first unified empire of China.

    Despite the changes of dynasties in the following centuries, the script thrived. It eventually gave birth to other major scripts, too.

    And today, you can still come across clerical script on monuments and shop signs all over China and other parts of Asia.

    What is clerical script?

    Clerical script (隶书 [lìshū]) is a formal and official Chinese character script that first emerged during the Qin dynasty (221 – 206 BC).

    It was in popular use for approximately 400 hundred years before it was partially supplanted by regular script. However, it remained a popular medium for official documents and inscriptions.

    It has three main forms, each corresponding to the time it was used in: the Qin, Former Han, and Later Han (see below).

    Today, clerical script can still be seen all across China. It is still practiced by calligraphers and is particularly popular on monuments and even in shop signage.

    Features of clerical script

    The clerical script has a firm, upright, and distinguished look about it.

    It is perhaps best understood in reference to the small seal script. Small seal consists of rectangular shapes with long curved strokes, whereas clerical is square-shaped and has straighter strokes.

    In instances where multiple strokes were needed for small seal script, less are needed for clerical script. And multiple dots are unified into single strokes in other cases.

    Clerical script characters are only about 80% of the height of small seal ones. The brush doesn’t need to travel as far for each stroke and to move into position for the next stroke. 

    These more compact strokes are aided by multiple angles, which further contribute to speed and efficiency. These factors contribute greatly to clerical script’s practicality.

    Silkworms’ heads and swallows’ tails

    Horizontal strokes in clerical style first introduced the silkworm’s head (蚕头 [cántóu]) and swallow’s tail (燕尾[yànwěi]) feature of horizontal strokes.

    Eight-part script

    The eight-part script (八分 [bā fēn]) is a form of clerical script said to have been created by the Qin official Wang Cizhong. 

    It’s not entirely certain why it is called this. 

    It might be because the character for eight (八) is made up of two approximately even and balanced strokes. Or because there the different character strokes could possibly go in eight different directions. Or because of another reason entirely.

    Some scholars believe that ‘eight-part script’ is actually a changeable category, like regular script.

    According to this view, today’s clerical script is essentially the eight-part version of Han dynasty clerical script. Han dynasty clerical script is the eight-part version small seal script. And small seal script is the eight-part version of large seal script. 

    Clerical script and regular script

    side by side comparison of small seal and clerical script for character for 'emperor'
    Side by side comparison for the character for 皇 (huáng) ’emperor’

    Regular script emerged later than clerical script, but is clearly derived from it, too.

    To make things more complicated, clerical script would have been seen to be regular script when it was in popular use. 

    And today, regular script is sometimes referred to as ‘today’s clerical’ (今隶 [jìn lì]) to distinguish it from different scripts that were considered regular in earlier periods.

    Translating the Chinese word for ‘clerical script’ into English

    It is difficult to directly translate the Chinese name for clerical script, 隶书 (lìshū), into English. 

    Lì (隶) can be translated as ‘clerk/clerical’ or ‘official’ in Chinese. Zàoyì (皂隶) is an archaic name for a government runner or messenger (often referred to as a yamen in English).

    It has even been suggested that the lì (隶) comes from nùlì (奴隶) which means ‘slave’. This perhaps makes sense in context of the story of Cheng Miao (see below), but appears unlikely to be true otherwise.

    The origin story of clerical script

    There is a popular story about the origins of clerical script. At present, no solid evidence for this story has been uncovered. And many scholars believe it might not be true.

    The story has it that during the Qin dynasty, the official Cheng Miao (程邈 [Chéng Miǎo]) was imprisoned for criticising the Qin Emperor. 

    Cheng then spent ten years in his prison cell improving the small seal script that was then in use. He created about 3,000 clerical script characters.

    So great was Cheng’s achievement, the Qin Emperor released and promoted him. Thereafter, clerical script was used all across the empire.

    History of clerical script

    What is known for certain is that clerical script appears to have emerged during the Qin dynasty and that it was clearly based on the small seal style.

    Some argue that the clerical style gradually emerged, probably via multiple writers. This would have been natural for a number of reasons. These include:

    • How much easier it is to write and the small seal style
    • The improvement of writing tools during this time (including moving from bamboo and silk to paper)
    • Ongoing centralisation of the empire, culture, education, and bureaucracy 

    Qin dynasty (221 – 206 BC): Standardisation and destruction

    The short-lived Qin dynasty (it lasted only fifteen years) was a significant turning point in Chinese history. It was the first time in Chinese history that most of China was unified into one empire.

    The Qin dynasty was known to have destroyed many precious historical records. This was said to have been carried out because scholars were referring to them to criticise current polices (he is also said to have buried alive 460 scholars as a warning to others). 

    The destructive side of these centralisation efforts reduced the historical record of Chinese script at the time.

    But examples of a distinct clerical script do exist from this era. And it is easy to why it would have developed during this time. After all, communication would have been a very big part of the centralisation and standardisation of the dynasty’s goals.

    The Former (or Western) Han dynasty (202 BC – 9 AD)

    After the Qin dynasty fell apart, many elites across the China wanted autonomy back. A return to how it had been during in the Zhou dynasty that preceded the Qin.

    The Han dynasty largely went down this path. But it also maintained some Qin policies and bureaucratic structures.

    These efforts and relative centralised government no doubt helped the clerical script grow in usage. It became markedly distinct from its Qin form.

    Rubbing of 鲁孝王刻石 ( xiàowáng ké shí) (56 BC)

    The Later (or Eastern) Han dynasty (25 – 220 AD)

    The Later Han period began when the dynasties’ capital moved from Chang’an (today’s Xi’an) to Luoyang in Henan province.

    This area is noted for the success of Confucianism (which had been around for centuries by this point) and the expansion of education system. 

    The Imperial Academy, where future government ministers were trained, grew from a few dozen to over 30,000 students in the second century.

    These factors contributed to the development of the clerical script, which began to look different from its Former Han form.

    section from the cao quan bei
    Section from the 曹全碑 (Cáo quán béi) (185 AD)

    Other scripts

    Clerical script proceeded the other main scripts still in common use, including regular script, running script, (or walking script), and grass script.