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Regular Script: Chinese Calligraphy Standard

    Regular script is the standard form of Chinese writing.

    Like the Confucian ‘Way‘ (道 [dào]), it is ordered by ritual yet open to endless investigation and improvement.

    Understanding regular script is essential for to understanding the other major scripts in Chinese calligraphy. 

    And it is essential for understanding Chinese calligraphy more broadly, too. 

    Detail of Ni Kuan Zan by Chu Suiliang
    Detail of Ni Kuan Zan by Chu Suiliang, ink on yellow silk, scroll, standard script, 24.6 x 170.1cm, National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Photo credit: flickr.com).

    What is regular script?

    Regular script (楷书 [kǎishū]) (also known as standard script) is the primary script of Chinese characters, in both calligraphy and elsewhere. 

    The character  (kǎi) means ‘model’ in Chinese. After all, this script is used to teach Chinese writing to beginners.

    Each regular script character is written in an ordered number of strokes and dimensions.

    It is the main form of script used in Chinese today. Whether written by hand or digitally, it is used for official and formal matters.

    Text of the Heart Sutra by Ouyang Xun
    Text of the Heart Sutra (635 AD) by Ouyang Xun, ink rubbing, standard script. Gansu Tianqing Museum. (Image source: Alamy)

    The name ‘regular script’

    In Chinese, regular script is most commonly referred to as regular script (楷书)

    However, when discussing calligraphy in particular, it is sometimes referred to as ‘today’s regular (script)’ (今楷). 

    This is because ‘regular’ () is used in the names of other scripts, too. For example ‘regular seal (script)’ (篆楷), or ‘regular clerical (script)’ (隶楷).

    And during Chinese civilisation’s long history, today’s regular script has not always been the standard script.

    For example, what is now considered clerical script(隶书 [lìshū]) was once essentially the Chinese regular script during the Early Han dynasty (202 BC – 9 AD).

    So, today’s regular script is sometimes is also called ‘today’s clerical’ (今隶 [jìn lì]).

    Other names for regular script

    Besides ‘regular scipt’ (楷书 [kǎishū]) and ‘today’s clerical’ (今隶 [jìn lì]), regular script is also sometimes known as:

    • 真书 (zhēnshū) – which can be literally translated as ‘true’ or ‘clear’ script
    • 正书 (zhèngshū) – which can be literally translated as ‘upright’, ‘correct’ or ‘straight’ script
    Section from Record of the Magu Immortal’s Altar by yan zhenqing
    Section from Record of the Magu Immortal’s Altar (771 AD) by Yan Zhenqing, ink rubbing, regular script. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    Regular script features

    Regular script provides fixed dimensions. This is not the case with all the styles that came before it and emerged at the same time.

    When learning to write Chinese, students are often given paper with squares divided into nine smaller squares. This helps them understand the positions of characters and strokes.

    Spaces between characters are also kept uniform. And when regular script is written vertically separate columns of text are also evenly spaced.

    These points do not mean that it has no artistic value. In fact, its uniform and clear appearance can create attractive works of calligraphic art.

    A brief history of regular script

    The sources of regular script

    Today’s regular script can be viewed as having developed from the following sequence of scripts: 

    • Seal script (篆书) which first appeared during the Zhou dynasty (1046 BC – 256 BC).
    • Zhang cao (章草) script, also developed near the end of the Han dynasty
    • Clerical script. This also first appeared during the end of the Han dynasty (202 BC – 9 AD, 25–220 AD) (see below, ‘A brief history of regular script’).

    Regular script also emerged in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, alongside two other important scripts:

    These three scripts no doubt influenced one another’s development. 

    Regular script’s development

    Han dynasty (202 BC – 9 AD, 25–220 AD) to Jin dynasty (266 – 420)

    Wang Cizhong (? – ?) is believed by some to be the creator of standard script. He lived during the Qin dynasty or early Han dynasty.

    The politician and calligrapher Zhong Yao (151 – 230 BC) (sometimes referred to as Zhong You) is thought to have standardised regular script near the end of the Han Dynasty.

    Chinese history’s most famous calligrapher, Wang Xizhi (303 – 361 AD), further accelerated standard script’s development during the. 

    So too did his seventh son, Wang Xianzhi (344 – 386 AD). 

    The younger Wang often wrote in a kind of regular-running hybrid script with rectangular characters. This aesthetic would develop further in the following centuries.

    Tang dynasty (618 – 907 AD)

    By the Tang dynastyregular script reached its apex of development.

    During this period, three of the ‘Four Masters of Regular Script’ lived (see below). 

    Characters in this script from this period are often recognisably modern, just slightly squat with thick stokes.

    One example of this was the regular script work Liu Gongquan.

    nscription on the Bell Tower of Huiyuan Temple (836 AD) by Liu Gongquan
    Inscription on the Bell Tower of Huiyuan Temple (836 AD) by Liu Gongquan, ink rubbing, regular script. Shaanxi Provincial Museum. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    The four regular script masters

    The ‘Four regular script masters’ is a term that has been retrospectively applied to the following group of calligraphers:

    • Ouyang Xun (Tang dynasty)
    • Yan Zhenqing (Tang dynasty)
    • Liu Gongquan (Tang dynasty)
    • Zhao Mengfu (Yuan dynasty)