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Running Script in Chinese Calligraphy

    Running script is one of the most expressive and versatile styles of Chinese calligraphy.

    Some of the greatest works in the history of Chinese calligraphy have been done in it.

    And many calligraphers have had their own distinct version of it.

    Let’s look into what it is, its origins, key features, and how it has developed over millennia.

    Two Odes on the Red Cliff in Running Script by Zhao Mengfu
    Two Odes on the Red Cliff in Running Script (1301) by Zhao Mengfu, running script, ink on paper, 27.2 x 11.1cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    What is running script?

    Running script (行书 [xíngshū]) refers to a category of Chinese calligraphy that is perhaps best described as a semi-cursive.

    It is one of the three primary scripts of Chinese calligraphy. The other two are:

    • Regular script (sometimes called standard script)
    • Grass script (sometimes called cursive script)

    Running script generally looks like standard Chinese calligraphy characters – but written slightly faster and looser.

    However, it is not written as obviously fast and loose as grass script.

    Running script variations

    There are there are two main variations of running script:

    • Running-regular script (行楷 [xíngkǎi]): Running script more similar to regular (/standard) script.I.e., slightly or lightly cursive
    • Running-grass script (行草 [xíngcǎo]): Running script more similar to grass script.I.e., very or heavily cursive

    Running script features

    Running script leaves a lot of room for varied features, which can come in the form of:

    • Strokes of different lengths, shapes, and tilts. For example, horizontal brushstrokes that thicken as they progress.
    • Different spacing between and within characters and lines
    • The same characters or strokes written differently (in the same piece of calligraphy)
    • Strokes joining up, often by an elegant threat of ink, in a way that also shapes the entry and exit points of each individual stroke

    And more. 

    Running script vs regular script vs grass script

    Comparison between standard script, running script, and grass script
    Comparison between three popular Chinese calligraphy scripts

    The freedom it enables calligraphers to experiment with different stroke lengths, widths, and connections. This helps give the script a deep sense of personality.

    Grass script, is very expressive, too. However only real calligraphy connoisseurs can understand its content, which limits its appeal.

    Running script through the ages

    Han Dynasty (202 BC – 9 AD, 25–220 AD): Origins

    Chicken or egg?

    It’s natural to assume that running script first appeared once regular script was established. 

    After all, it often simply looks like a cursive version of it.

    However, regular script was preceded by clerical script, a proto-regular script created during the Qindynasty (221 – 206 BC).

    Therefore, clerical script could have had cursive – i.e., running – versions, too. 

    And there is a relative scarcity or records from this era. So, it’s difficult to track with precision the evolution and interaction between each script form.

    In his book Chinese Calligraphy, Chiang Yee argues: 

    Both this style [running script] and [grass script] were created before the real[regular script] was established. [Running script] cannot therefore be said to be derived from [regular script]; it is a parallel style with prevailed at the same time. The two found each other good companions, and became, indeed, inseparable; every type of [regular script] came to have a corresponding type of [running script].

    – Chiang Yee, Chinese Calligraphy (1938)

    Liu Desheng (? – ?): The inventor of running script?

    Liu Desheng is said to be the creator of the earliest running script. He a famous calligrapher from the Eastern Han dynasty (202 BC – 225 AD).

    However, no records of his work survive today.

    Early innovator: Zhong You (151 – 230 BC)

    The next figure famous for innovating in running script is Zhong You (钟繇(sometimes referred to as Zhong Yao).

    Zhong You was also an influential master of regular script.

    The Jin Dynasty (266 – 420): Gigantic progress

    Wang Xizhi (303 – 361 AD): The calligraphy sage

    Three Passages: Ping’an, Heru, and Fengju by Wang Xizhi
    Three Passages: Ping’an, Heru, and Fengju by Wang Xizhi, 24.7 x 46.8 scroll, ink on paper, scroll, running script. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum’s Open Data collection)

    Next, was the ‘calligraphy sage’ (书圣) himself, Wang Xizhi (303 – 361 AD)

    During Wang’s era, the modern versions of regular script and grass became established. 

    Wang blended all the main script forms effortlessly in his running script, too.

    Wang Xianzhi (344 – 386 AD): Heir to running script’s development

    The Twelfth Lunar Month (Eastern Jin) by Wang Xianzhi, tracing of ink imprint, running-cursive script. Location unknown. (Image source: Alamy)

    Wang Xianzhi was seventh son of Wang Xizhi. Like his father, he is considered a leading innovator in running script.

    A – perhaps apocryphal – story has it that about two years before his father passed away, Wang Xianzhi stressed the need for further innovation in existing scripts to him. 

    But in the end, it was the younger Wang who would carry out this ongoing innovation himself.

    The Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD)

    After the Jin, the next big leap in running script development was the Tang dynasty. In fact, it was the great era for development for all major calligraphy scripts.

    Whilst no individual calligrapher surpassed Wang Xizhi’s heights in running script, many came close.

    Ouyang Xun (557 AD – 641 AD): Early Tang innovator

    Detail from Discussion Between Confucius and Bu Shang by Ouyang Xun, ink on paper, running script, 25.2 x 16.5cm. The Palace Museum, Beijing. (Image source: Alamy)

    Ouyang Xun is primarily known for his elegant and finely balanced regular script. However, his running script was also remarkably well executed, too.

    Its thick strokes and balanced structure hint at what would later become hallmarks of Tang calligraphy more broadly.

    The origins of Ouyang’s style undoubtably appeared during the Northern and Southern dynasties (420 AD – 589 AD) and short-lived Sui dynasty (581 – 618 AD).

    Yu Shinan (558 – 638 AD)

    Draft of the Epitaph for Princess Ru’nan by Yu Shinan
    Draft of the Epitaph for Princess Ru’nan (636 AD) by Yu Shinan, ink on paper, running script, 26.3 x 39.5CM. Shanghai Museum. (Image source: Alamy)

    Yu Shinan is also primarily remembered for his regular script. However, he also mastered a brilliant running script.

    His gentle and flexible running script characters flow in a controlled manner and also reflect the clear influence of Wang Xizhi and Wang Xianzhi.

    Yan Zhenqing (709 – 785 AD)

    Section from 17th century ink rubbing of Letter on Controversy over Seating Protocol by Yan Zhenqing
    Section from 17th century ink rubbing of Letter on Controversy over Seating Protocol (764 AD) by Yan Zhenqing, ink on paper, in running-cursive script. Original stele is in Stele Forest Museum, Xi’an, Shaanxi Province. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Yan Zhenqing is known for his abilities in regular, running and cursive scripts.

    He was a respected official and calligrapher during his lifetime. And afterwards his reputation grew, especially during the Song dynasty. 

    In part, this was due to his reputation as an upright official. This was added to further by the nature of his death by execution aged 76.

    However, his reputation also comes from this distinct and muscular style. 

    His most famous masterpiece, Draft of Requiem to My Nephew (see below) demonstrates this expressive and elegant style perfectly.

    The Song dynasty (960 – 1279 AD)

    During the Song dynasty, running script did not develop to the same degree as it had during the Tang.

    However, the Tang is a high benchmark to measure against! And Song calligraphers did still develop the script in their own unique ways.

    Su Shi (1037 – 1101 AD)

    One Night by Su Shi
    One Night (1080 – 1083 AD) by Su Shi, running script, ink on paper. 27.6 x 45.2cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum’s Open Data collection)

    Su shi is generally considered the greatest calligrapher of the Song dynasty

    He wrote at length – but not systematically – about artistic theory. One recurring point he made was that models from the past should serve as a base for additional innovation.

    In running script, he did this by studying the running-cursive of Yan Zhenqing. In particular, he imitated Yan’s style in Controversy Over Seating Protocol.

    His finest work of running script is no doubt Cold Food Observance (1982) (see below for more information on this).

    Mi Fu (1051 – 1107 AD)

    Letter Written to Jing Wen, On a Satchel
    Letter Written to Jing Wen, On a Satchel (c. 1091) by Mi Fu, ink on paper, running script, 28.4 cm x 41.9 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image Source: Wikipedia Commons)

    The eccentric and brilliant Mi Fu was one of many of Su Shi’s artistic friends.

    His running script is his most highly praised style. It contains both the feel and many direct elements of Jin and Tang dynasty running script styles.

    Yuan dynasty (1279 – 1368 AD)

    Whilst the Mongol dynasty was essentially a period of foreign rule for the Chinese, it did unify the emperor.

    For over a century before, the land and population of China had been split in half by the Jurchen Jin dynasty (1115 – 1234 AD). 

    This meant that calligraphers were not in touch with one another. 

    Zhao Mengfu (1254 – 1322 AD)

    Two Odes on the Red Cliff in Running Script by Zhao Mengfu
    Two Odes on the Red Cliff in Running Script (1301) by Zhao Mengfu, running script, ink on paper, 27.2 x 11.1cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    Zhao Mengfu was a relative of the Song royal family who famously – or infamously – agreed to work for the Mongols.

    He gained access to calligraphy and painting from across China. This enabled him to study and formulate his own styles in accordance with a wealth of great works.

    He was particularly inspired by Jin dynasty calligraphers such as Wang Xizhi. 

    He systematically and diligently studied and copyied Wang’s works. This led him to develop an elegant and powerful running-cursive style.

    Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644 AD)

    Despite being a Chinese-ruled dynasty, the early Ming did not present favourable conditions for running script’s development.

    A big part of this was due to the authoritarian (some argue tyrannical) rule of the early Ming system.

    Literary inquisitions and forced appointments of painters were part of this. An official Ming Chancellery style was enforced across calligraphy, painting, and writing. 

    Later on, in the mid and late Ming, the freedom to innovate re-emerged.

    Wen Zhengming (1470 – 1559 AD)

    Poem on Snow by Wen Zhengming
    Detail from Poem on Snow (1536) by Wen Zhengming, running-cursive script, ink on paper. 31.6 x 483.9 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    Wen Zhengming famously failed ten civil service exams. Part of this is said to have been down to his calligraphy.

    He diligently corrected this in the following years. His calligraphy in general was heavily inspired by Zhao Mengfu’s, and his running script in particular by Huang Tingjian’s.

    Some critics have argued that his style does not build upon its influences sufficiently. 

    Either way, as perhaps the most influential calligrapher, artist and poet of his day, his running script was an important contribution to the field.

    Dong Qichuan (1555 – 1636 AD)

    Detail from Free-copy of Calligraphy by the Four Calligraphic Masters of the Song Dynasty by Dong Qichang
    Detail from Free-copy of Calligraphy by the Four Calligraphic Masters of the Song Dynasty (Ming dynasty) by Dong Qichang, running script, ink on paper. 26 x 544.4 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    Dong Qichuan was one of the highest serving officials in the annuls of calligraphy history.

    He was heavily inspired by Jin and Song calligraphy, particularly the work of Mi Fu. 

    And he had a complex relationship with the work of Zhao Mengfu (whom he later admitted to not having fully understood when younger).

    Qing dynasty (1644 – 1911 AD)

    When the Manchus took over from the collapsed Ming dynasty, it wasn’t the first time they had ruled Chinese land.

    However, this time, they would go on to rule the largest Chinese empire ever seen. 

    Despite their strict regime and segregation between Han and Manchu, they worked with and not against Chinese culture.

    Fu Shan (1607 – 1684 AD)

    Despite the Qing government’s efforts (including imprisonment), Fu Shan never served under the new dynasty. He remained loyal to the Ming (who he had never served, either). 

    His running-cursive was particularly inspired by the word of Wang Xizhi, Wang Xianzhi and Yan Zhenqing. His style featured continuous stokes that gave his characters an eccentric but aesthetically pleasing appearance. 

    The three running script masterpieces

    The three running script masterpieces (三大行书) refers to the three most famous running script works.

    The following three running script works of calligraphy are some of the most famous of any script. Each one is similar in terms of its overall impression – the characters stand out for their elegance, power and sense of personality.

    The content of each work is very different. However, they all fall within the wide range of subject matter suitable to running style calligraphy, which is a reflection of how universal it is.

    Wang Xizhi’s Orchid Pavilion Preface (兰亭集序 [Lántíng jí xù])

    Preface to the Orchid Pavilion by Wang Xizhi
    Preface to the Orchid Pavilion (535) by Wang Xizhi, ink on paper, Tang dynasty imitation in running script (allegedly by Feng Chengsu), 24.5 x 69.9cm. Palace Museum, Beijing. (Image source: Alamy)

    Wang Xizhi’s Preface to the Orchid Pavilion (written in 353 AD) records a joyful gathering of literati for drinking and writing poetry.

    On this day, the weather is clear, the air is fresh, the breeze is warm. Looking up at the immensity of the cosmos, looking down at the multitude of the world, the gaze flies, the heart expands, the joy of the senses reaches its zenith, this is true happiness.

    – Wang Xizhi, Preface to the Orchid Pavilion

    It philosophically oscillates between simple celebration and semi-lamentation.

    况修短随化,终期于尽。古人云:“死生亦大矣!” 岂不痛哉!
    Or rather, not only that, all feelings, like all life, eventually meets its fate in destruction. The ancients said, “Life and death are weighty matters.” How can we help but feel sorrow about this?

    – Wang Xizhi, Preface to the Orchid Pavilion

    Unfortunately, the whereabouts – or fate – of the original version isn’t known. There are rumours that it was buried in the tomb of the Tang emperor Taizong (b. 598 – d. 649 AD). Taizong, himself a keen calligrapher, was a big fan of Wang’s work.

    Today, the most famous copy of the work is on display in Beijing’s Forbidden City.

    Yan Zhenqing’s Draft of Requiem to my Nephew (祭姪文稿 [Jì zhí wéngǎo])

    Photo of Draft of Requiem to my Nephew by Yan Zhenqing
    Draft of a Requiem for my Nephew (758 AD) by Yan Zhenqing, ink on hemp paper, running script. 28.3cm x 75.5cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Yan Zhenqing (709 – 785 AD) was a Tang dynasty minster, general, and calligrapher.

    His Draft of a Requiem to my Nephew was written in 758 AD, during the An Lushan Rebellion which took his nephew’s life.

    Since your youth, you were like a glazed ritual vessel in our ancestral hall, like a garden’s fragrant grass. You brought great joy to our Yan family, we looked forward to your good fortune. We never thought that the rebellion [An Lushan] would intrude on us here.

    – Extract from Draft of a Requiem to my Nephew by Yan Zhenqing

    Like Wang Xizhi’s Preface to Orchid Pavilion, it’s not known where the final version of Yan’s masterpiece is.

    However, the draft that remains is valuable in part because of the insight it gives into Yan’s calligraphic process. This brings a sense of authenticity to the piece. 

    The Requiem is a moving document that adds to the many great poems about this period. It laments both the unfairness of Yan’s nephew’s death and expresses a sense of stoicism.

    Su Dongpo’s Cold Weather Observance (寒食帖 [Hánshí tiē])

    Cold Food Observance (1082) by Su Dongpo
    Cold Food Observance (1082) by Su Dongpo, ink on paper, running script. 34.2 X 118cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Su Dongpo (1037 – 1101 AD) (the literary name for Su Shi) was an admirer of both Wang Xizhi and Yan Zhenqing. Like them, he was also a scholar official.

    Su was highly influential during and after his lifetime in a number of fields, including poetry, painting, and tea culture.

    He also formulated his own theory on art, which emphasises a naturalness and freedom. He didn’t, for example, believe in strict planning or drafting before writing calligraphy.

    He wrote Cold Food Observance in 1082. At the time, he was in exile for having criticised Song government’s radical reforms.

    Cold Food Observance festivals were holidays in China until near the end of the Qing dynasty era (1644 – 1912 AD).

    In the piece, he directly laments the isolated and poverty-stricken situation he finds himself in:

    Since I’ve been in Huangzhou, three Cold Food Festivals have already passed. 
    Each year I regret spring’s decline, but spring’s rays are indifferent. 
    This year has brought endless spring rains, two months of consecutive autumn-like cold.

    – Su Dongpo, Cold Food Observance

    The tone of the rest of the piece is similar. Reading it, you may get the false impression that Su was a pessimistic individual. However, the exact opposite is true…

    Su was known for his gregarious and amiable disposition. He also believed strongly that an artists’ work (including calligraphy) strongly reflects an artists’ character.

    By that standard, the flowing, strong and spontaneous appearance of Cold Weather Observance capture’s Su’s spirit well.

    How to translate xingshu?

    The Chinese word for running script (行书 [xíngshū]) has been translated in a number of ways, including: 

    • Running hand
    • Walking script
    • Semi-cursive

    The word xíng () in Chinese certainly is often used for the word ‘walking’ but not for ‘running’. 

    And there is another style, grass script (草书 [cǎoshū]), looks ‘faster’ than running script. From this view, the logical order could be: 

    • Regular script (static)
    • Running script (walking)
    • Grass script (running)

    However, standard (/regular) script is a more direct translation script (楷书literally ‘model writing’). As is grass script (草书 literally ‘grass (/draft) writing’).