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Cursive Chinese Calligraphy – ‘Grass Script’

    Cursive Chinese calligraphy – grass script – is the most visually strikingly form of Chinese calligraphy script.

    When done well, the vigour that placed the ink radiates from the paper, like a snapshot of a storm…

    But what is this fast and dramatic script? Where does it come from? And why is so popular with Chinese calligraphers and art connoisseurs alike?

    Read on to find out.

    Detail from Four Ancient Poems by Zhang Xu
    Detail from Four Ancient Poems (undated) by Zhang Xu, ink on five-coloured paper, cursive (/grass) script, 28.8 x 192.3cm. Liaoning Provincial Museum, Shenyang. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    What is cursive Chinese calligraphy?

    Cursive Chinese calligraphy (also known as fully Cursive script and grass script) is one of the three most popular styles of Chinese calligraphy script, along with clerical script and regular script.

    It is generally considered the most expressive type of calligraphy. And it is the closest to ‘abstract art’ of all the scripts.

    In fact, all but a few experts are able to actually read grass script. It reduces Chinese characters down to their most fundamental elements, like shorthand.

    It has been around for approximately two thousand years. Over that time, different forms have appeared and it has been modified by individual artists, too.

    [T]here is even a style of calligraphy – a particularly exciting and and creative one which renders the original text practically illegible for most viewers…

    – Simon Leys, ‘One More Art’

    What does ‘Grass Script‘ mean?

    In Chinese, the word for cursive script (草书 [cǎoshū]) is made up of the words 草 (cǎo) ‘draft’, ‘rough’ and also the word for ‘grass’, and 书 (shū) which here means ‘writing’.

    Looking at the characters directly, it’s clear that it was likely named to reflect the sense of ‘draft’ or ‘rough’. 

    However, the double-meaning included grass is also useful. In traditional Chinese culture, grass can be associated with flexibility.

    A gentleman’s moral power is like wind, the common man’s is like grass. Under the wind, the grass must bend.

    Analects (12.9)

    Two main types of Chinese cursive script (and other sub-categories)

    The two main types of cursive (or grass) script (草书’ [Cǎoshū]): 

    • Zhangcao (章草 [zhāngcǎo]) script (see below, ‘Han dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD) development of writing’)
    • Today’s cursive (or grass) script (今草 [jīnshū])

    Further sub-categories of these types exist, too. 

    For example, an intermediate style exists between running (semi-cursive) script (行书 [xíngshū]) and cursive (grass) script (草书 [cǎoshū]), called running grass script (行草 [xíngshū]).

    And the famous Tang dynasty calligrapher and poet Zhang Xu (also known as ‘Crazy Zhang’) developed what is known as ‘crazy grass script’ (狂草 [kuángcǎo]).

    …the so-called grass-script (cao shu) in its crazy form (kuang) is a sort of frenzied stenography, dashed in a wild outburst of intoxicated inspiration.

    – Simon Leys, ‘One More Art’

    How does Cursive Script fit in with other Chinese calligraphy scripts?

    Cursive/Grass Script as we know it now emerged alongside the other two most commonly scripts today (regular and running scripts).

    A pre-existing early form had appeared before that. And its current form is the product of modifications to itself and other scripts.

    To more fully understand this context, read on.

    Earliest Chinese characters

    The earliest known forms of Chinese characters were pictographic forms. And the oldest known ‘mature’ Chinese character script is Oracle Bone Script, which dates back to the Shang dynasty – 3 – 3,500 ago.

    After this, a bronze script carved into bells and other ritual objects appears on the record, about 2,800 – 3,100 years ago.

    Then, large Seal and small seal scripts (often grouped together simply as seal script) emerged during China’s first unified empire, the Qin dynasty (about 2,200 years ago). 

    Today, Seal Script is still used for creating seals, which are personalised stamps that feature on calligraphy and paintings.

    Han dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD) development of writing

    During the Han dynasty (about 2,200 – 1,800 years ago), a succession of important scripts emerged. 

    The first was clerical script, which replaced seal script. This is still used today in certain situations, especially for monuments and even shop signs.

    Around this time, a cursive form of clerical script appeared. In Chinese, this is known today as zhangcao (章草 [zhāngcǎo]) script. It is essentially a faster, joined-up version of clerical script. 

    After clerical script, what we now call regular or standard script appeared, followed by or alongside – this is still disputed – running script (which is essentially a semi-cursive version of regular script).

    At around the same time, the modern version of grass script appeared.

    Features of Chinese Cursive Script

    Cursive script is like a speeded-up version of Running (/Semi-Cursive) Script, which itself is a speeded-up version of Regular Script.

    Unlike these other forms, Cursive Script rarely uses distinct strokes for – or between – characters. The brush twists and turns across paper to give an outline rather than a full depiction of each character.

    Overall, this gives characters a more curved and rounded appearance. This is achieved in part by using a mixture of the following brush techniques:

    • Centre brush: Using the very tip of the brush. This creates a thin, even and pointed effect.
    • Side brush: Tilting the brush to give the thickest possible stroke. This creates a sword blade-shaped stroke.
    • Turning brush: Like centre brush but with rapid changes of direction. This gives a ‘crinkled’ effect.
    • Rolling brush: Using the side brush, or part of the side brush, to create turns that often include thin joining section.
    • Folding brush: Like the rolling brush but using different segments of the brush, which creates a more uneven ink distribution.

    The size/length of cursive script characters also varies more than in other scripts. Features such as long connecting lines between strokes also distort the proportions of characters.

    Cursive script also often uses both thick and thin layers of ink. 

    Like a diver holding his breath, the calligrapher needs to load up on ink. The cursive style requires less strokes than other styles, but it also enables fewer returns to the inkstone between strokes or characters.

    The rapid ‘deployment’ of ink also leads to many instances of faded or ‘hollow’ strokes (where the ink is unevenly distributed on the brush).

    Famous Cursive Script calligraphers

    Zhang Zhi: The inventor of modern Chinese cursive script

    Zhang Zhi was a Han dynasty calligrapher from Yuanquan, Gansu Province.

    Despite failing the imperial exams, Zhang dedicated himself to mastering calligraphy. He is credited with creating zhangcao style, which is seen as the first cursive style script.

    Known as the ‘Grass Sage’, he is celebrated as one of the Four Sages of Calligraphy alongside Zhong Yao, Wang Xizhi, and Wang Xianzhi.

    Although no original copies of his works survive, several copies exist.

    Zhang Xu: the ‘cursive script sage’

    Zhang Xu (675 – ca. 750 AD) was an eccentric calligrapher and poet from the High Tang period.

    He is acclaimed throughout China for his ‘crazy cursive‘ calligraphy and poetry. One of his forty surviving poems features in the esteemed 300 Tang Poems collection that was collated in the Qing dynasty (1644 – 1912 AD).

    Born in Wu County, Jiangsu Province, he came from a prominent family of calligraphers on his maternal side.

    He served in the imperial courts in Chang’an and Shangjing, where he interacted with key figures in calligraphy and poetry like Yan Zhenqing and Du Fu.

    He was one of the ‘Eight Immortals of the Cup’. This label was created by Du Fu to describe eight intellectuals known for their love of drinking. It’s said that Zhang would use his long hair as a brush while intoxicated.

    He developed a unique cursive style, known as (狂草 [Kuángcǎo]). It reflects his strong personality and deep trance-like focus.

    Zhang’s Four Ancient Poems Model is his most notable work.

    Detail from Four Ancient Poems by Zhang Xu
    Detail from Four Ancient Poems (undated) by Zhang Xu, ink on five-coloured paper, cursive (/grass) script, 28.8 x 192.3cm. Liaoning Provincial Museum, Shenyang. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)