East Asian Calligraphy/History

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The Chinese writing system can be traced back to the oracle bones of more than 4000 years ago, found in the ruins of the Shang dynasty, the first literate dynasty of China. The writing found on the oracle bones, known collectively as the Oracle Script, were mostly for divination purposes. Later on during the next dynasty (the Zhou), more types of writing appeared: on bronzeware vessels, on silk, on bamboo scrolls. It was in the early Chinese writing system of this period that great philosophers such as Confucius, Mencius, and Lao-tze recorded their thoughts and beliefs.

In 221 BC, the Qin state of northwestern China brought the country under a unified bureaucratic empire, for the first time in Chinese history. The Qin set out to unify Chinese culture as well; they standardized and simplified the Chinese system into a common script, known today as the Seal Script, due to the primary use of their script today: on seals.

The Qin Dynasty was short and lasted only 15 years. They were replaced by the Han Dynasty, who pushed China into a golden age just as Rome on the other side of the world heralded the golden age of Mediterranean Antiquity. The Han Dynasty would forever lend their name to the Chinese people; even today ethnic Chinese around the world call themselves Han and their writing system Hanzi (which passed into Japanese as Kanji and Korean as Hanja). In addition, the Han Dynasty saw the further development of the Chinese script into the Clerk Script. This script is used today primarily for stylistic purposes.

As the Han Dynasty ended and China spun into several centuries of chaos and disunity, new writing styles emerged, including the super-cursive Grass Script, the moderately-cursive Running Script, and the neat, squarish Regular Script. The Regular Script is now the standard writing script of Chinese. It was also during this period that Chinese writing passed to Japan. The Grass Script and the Regular Script became, respectively, the foundations for Japanese hiragana and katakana.

The next major development came in Korea, where in 1446, the Hunmin Jeongeum was published under the reign of King Sejong. In this document, a newly invented alphabet for Korean, Hangul, was presented. Hangul is the only major alphabet in the world designed explicitly with phonological principles in mind, that having been studied for centuries by scholars of Sanskrit and Classical Chinese. Originally Hangul was intended to be supplementary to Hanja; but the 19th and 20th centuries saw its rise to become the dominant script of the Korean language.

The 20th century saw another important development: the simplification of Chinese characters. After taking over mainland China in 1949, the Chinese communists sought to eradicate illiteracy, especially in the countryside. To do this, they undertook a campaign to simplify the shapes of a large number of Chinese characters. The reformed characters, known as Simplified Chinese, have been universally adopted by both mainland China and Singapore. On the other hand, there are plenty of people as well who believe that the reform has bastardized the Chinese writing system and does little to combat illiteracy. The traditional characters, known as Traditional Chinese, are still in use in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau, as well as many Chinese communities around the world.