Sunday, August 26, 2007

The History of Chinese Calligraphy-Shang and Zhou

The History of Chinese Calligraphy

Seal script. Seal script is a broad term referring to calligraphic styles prior to clerical script. It is difficult to write for modern Chinese, but has remained the principal script employed on seals for the last two thousand years. There are two styles in this script - big, or earlier, seal script and small, or later, seal script.

Big seal script. In the early history of Chinese writing, picture symbols were used to represent objects. Having survived on animal bones, bronzes, stones and bamboo slips, these pictographic characters are collectively called big seal script, the first style in Chinese calligraphy. Because of its depicting nature, a Chinese character in this style might be in varied forms by different painters.

Like driving a chariot or shooting an arrow, calligraphy was a skill in ancient China and performed by who technically knew how. Showing an incontestable aesthetic quality, these characters shared a common temperament - simple, honest and unaffected. The conception of antiquity, one of the criteria to judge a calligrapher's attainments today, refers to those writings.

Shang Dynasty c. 1675 - c. 1066 BC
Well-developed in agriculture and handicrafts, the Shang is known the second hereditary Chinese dynasty. Its history was a matter of legend until 1899 when the discovery of about 150,000 pieces inscribed bones, once used for divination, at its capital Anyang in northern China confirmed its existence.

Oracle bone inscription, c. 1500 BC

Bronzes. Chinese people learned how to use bronze around 2200 BC. Among large number of excavated bronze objects are tools, weapons, wine vessels, bell-shaped musical instruments and sacrificial vessels. These Bronzes were made in piece molds, showing a casting technique as advanced as any ever used.

To the mid Shang dynasty, inscribed bronze began to appear. The inscriptions from this period are short. In most cases they are bronze owners names, two or three characters long with strokes pointed at both ends.

Quadruped vessel, c. 1300 BC
Ink rubbing on rice paper.

Zhou Dynasty c. 1066 - 256 BC
Around 1066 BC, a duke kingdom Zhou in the west rose to power and overthrew Shang. In 771 BC an invasion of a nomadic tribe from northwest desert forced the Zhou to move its capital east from Xian to Luoyang. This event divided the dynasty into two period - Western and Eastern Zhou.

The Zhou was built upon a patriarchal clan system, in which people of the same family name with blood ties lived in a compact community and supervised by clan elders. Zhou people devoted much attention to offering sacrifices to their ancestors and had a special place, ancestral temple, for their sacrificial rites.

The sacrificial utensils for a rite were the bronzes - tripods, plates, trays and bowls. They were not only for cooking and containing the food, but also the symbols of a clan's social status. According to Zhou's stipulations, its king could own nine tripods, a cooking vessel, in his temple, and the number of the tripods would be reduce to seven for dukes, five for senior officials, three for bachelors, and one for common clans.

When Chinese bronzes reached its full bloom by its extended ritual uses in Western Zhou, lengthy bronze inscriptions began to appear, recording official appointments, wars, law suits, ritual ceremonies, and so on. The characters in these inscriptions are less pictographic than before - they are regular in form, consistent in stroke thickness, and evenly aligned in columns and rows. The bronze inscriptions from this period, unmistakably imprinted with the clansman's sentiment, were commonly presented in a magnificent, solemn and dignified style.

Vessel of Perishing Sky, c. 1066 BC
Tripod of Yu, c. 1042 BC
Plate of Qiang, 946 - 935 BC

Tripod of Ke, 910 - 895 BC
Plate of San, 851 - 828 BC
Tripod of the Duke of Mao, 827 BC

This sacrificial vessel bears the longest inscription in Chinese bronzes - total 499 characters were cast on its inner face, recording its owner's indebtedness about a handsome reward given by the king. Holding a decisive position in the evolution of Chinese writing, its sedate and well-knit characters marked the maturity of big seal script.
White Plate, 827 - 782 BC

The Zhou was weakened by 771 BC invasion. After moving its capital to Luoyang in following year, it began to dissolve into a number of warring states.

Schools of thought. The political turbulence in this period was accompanied by an intellectual upheaval in various schools of thought. While Confucius, 551 - 479 BC, strove to analyze the troubles of his day by affirming the virtues in Zhou's rites which were forgotten in warring states, his contemporary Laozi, the exponent of Taoism, favored inaction and withdrawal from society. None of them, however, affected the art yet until several centuries later when the reverence in Confucianism during Han dynasty and Taoism during Jin dynasty exerted a great influence on Chinese calligraphy.

Writing in local color. In coincidence with the rise of conflicting schools of thought, Chinese writing began to move into differently directions in the rival principalities. In one state the characters were casually built with strokes in the shape of tadpoles, in another they were stretched into rectangles with strokes uniform in thickness. What shared in those characters is their rashness. All objects that bear script from this period - bronzes, stones, fabrics or bamboo slips - were for the worldly purpose.

Writing variations in 1. Qin, 2. Chu, 3. Jin, 4. Qi, and 5. Wu.

Stone Drum Inscription, 770 - 766 BC 1

Basin of King of Wu, 514 - 496 BC 5
Treaty of Peace, 497 - 489 BC 3
Ink on stone.
Food Vessel of Chen Man, 488 - 432 BC 4
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