The Chinese language is spoken by more than one billion people, in places including the Republic of China (Taiwan), Singapore, and Hong Kong, as well as mainland China. In addition to its different dialects, one of the things that prominently sets
Chinese apart from most other languages is the way it’s written. More than 80,000 characters provide the makeup of the written language — but
don’t worry, you only need to know a few thousand for your most basic
reading and writing.

Following our recent look at Arabic calligraphy, Chinese was an obvious choice to continue our exploration of beautiful written characters. Needless to say, we discovered a stunning array of Chinese calligraphy in the Shutterstock library.

Moving Up by Gray Ng
Moving Up by Gray Ng

In written Chinese, sentences are comprised of characters that appear on the page from top to bottom, or from left to right. Each character is its own word, but since the language itself is
not phonetic, the way it’s written doesn’t correlate to the way that
it’s spoken. Therefore, each character really represents a meaning or an idea, rather than a pronunciation.
This is what makes Chinese a tonal language.

Like Arabic, there are several scripts and styles that create the makeup of written Chinese. Below are examples of some of those most commonly used.

Chinese Calligraphy: Success, Succeed and Victory by Tristan Tan
Chinese Calligraphy: Success, Succeed and Victory by Tristan Tan

Standard Script

Otherwise known as kǎishū, this is a very commonly used handwritten script. Individual strokes combined with clearly legible and balanced characters create this style that is still taught to schoolchildren, and that serves as one of the most common typefaces for modern printed materials. Each character is broken down by its number of brush strokes, which can be large or small, depending on the complexity of the symbol.

 
 “Happy Birthday” in Chinese Characters by Miriam Doerr

Seal Script

Known as an Ancient style of Chinese calligraphy, the seal script is executed with balanced movements and even lines. It evolved from the Shang and Zhou dynasties of the 11th to 3rd Centuries BCE. The seal script’s literal translation from Chinese is “decorative engraving script,” since it was largely used for decorative inscriptions during the Han dynasty. This script is generally used that way today as well, since most modern-day Chinese people cannot read it.

Seals for the Chinese New Year by yienkeat
Seals for the Chinese New Year by yienkeat

Semi-cursive Script

This is also known as “running” script. This style of calligraphy allows strokes, and sometimes characters, to run into one another. The appearance of each character is rounder and less angular as a result of the brush leaving the page less than in standard script. Its legibility and general ease for writers and readers makes it one of the most popular forms of Chinese freehand in everyday use.

Antique Chinese Calligraphy by Sophy Ru
Antique Chinese Calligraphy by Sophy Ru

Cursive Script

Developed after the Han dynasty, this style of writing is very difficult to read for those who are untrained. It is much faster to write than other scripts, though, as individual strokes within each character are drastically simplified and abbreviated, created by a single continuous movement of the writer’s hand and brush. Because of all these elements, extensive study and training is required to read and write in this style.

Cursive Chinese Calligraphy by zalajon
Cursive Chinese Calligraphy by zalajon

Clerical Script

This form of calligraphy was used primarily in the preparation of official records and documents in both public and private correspondence, as well as on monuments. This is a simplified version of the seal script, and it maximizes the use of brush and ink. It also differs from seal script in that it uses modulated and tapered strokes that are more pronounced, with a dominant rightward or downward diagonal stroke. This indicates that the writing implements typically used are more stiff.

Chinese Character for
Chinese Character for “Love” by cl2004lhy

There are many different dialects to which these scripts are applied, including Cantonese, Mandarin, Wú, Southern Min, Hakka, Hunanese, Gan, and Dungan. Due to their widespread use, however, Cantonese and Mandarin are also the two that appear most in writing.

Preservance and Willpower by Tristan Tan
Preservance and Willpower by Tristan Tan

Cantonese

This dialect has appeared in writings since the 17th century, and is used primarily in personal correspondence. It can be found in magazines, literature, advertising, poetry, and even comics. Cantonese is written in both formal and colloquial formats. The difference between the two is that one (formal) can be understood by Mandarin speakers and one cannot — the colloquial form resembles something closer to spoken Cantonese, which is more difficult to interpret for a Mandarin speaker. In addition to traditional Chinese characters, this dialect is written with more than 1,000 extra characters created specifically for Cantonese.

Chinese New Year Calligraphy by yienkeat
Chinese New Year Calligraphy by yienkeat

Mandarin

Spoken by a majority of the Chinese population in China, Taiwan, and Singapore, Mandarin is known as the official language of education, the media, and government (in China and Taiwan), and one of four official languages in Singapore. Written Chinese is actually based on Mandarin, which requires speakers to learn the grammar and vocabulary of Mandarin in order to read and write in Chinese.

Interesting fact: The word “Mandarin” has two different meanings when referring to Chinese language. It can refer to the standard mainland language of China or the Mandarin group of languages which includes itself and Jin, a language spoken in the central-north region of China, as well as Inner Mongolia.

Of course, this is all just scratching the surface for a tradition that dates back centuries, and which has turned the act of writing into an art form. For more captivating looks at Chinese calligraphy, explore our full Chinese Scripts Lightbox »

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