What is Clerical or Chancery Script Calligraphy?

What is Clerical or Chancery Script Calligraphy?

Aïda Yuen Wong, Professor of Art History at Brandeis University; Founder and Head of Design of Callimode, an Asian American contemporary jewelry brand specializing in luxury designs to express antiracism in Asian calligraphy. Ethical & Sustainable Jewelry with Recycled Gold and Non-Conflict Diamonds.

August 19, 2022

Definition of Clerical Script 

The early history of the clerical script (lishu 隸書), also called chancery script, was most often associated with the writing of government documents. Compared to the earlier seal script which frequently carries more strokes and meandering lines, the clerical script is comparatively abstracted and faster to execute. Originated in the late Warring States period and the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE), it continued to develop in subsequent eras. This script could be found handwritten on wood, bamboo, paper and silk, as well as engraved on stone. A high point was in the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 CE), when many commemorative and didactic steles bearing this script were erected. Masterpieces of the clerical script of this era included the Yiying Bei, Caoquan Bei, and Shichen Bei. Some are more robust, while others more flowing. But by and large, clerical script calligraphy exudes dignity and solemnity, particularly appealing to those who value control and precision without foregoing graceful expressivity.  


Practitioners of the clerical script put great emphasis on presses and lifts, creating modulated lines that thicken before tapering off at the conclusions of the horizontal or rightward diagonal strokes. This type of wavelike drag of the brush, when used in executing the horizontal lines, is evocatively described as "silkworm head and goose tail." The start of the stroke is rounded while the ending is a pointed wedge.  

The clerical script is the first to bring attention to the pliancy of the brush with varying degrees of exaggeration, marking a major turning point in Chinese calligraphy history. As functional writing, the clerical script would be supplanted by other script types such as the semi-cursive and the regular/standard after the Han dynasty, but continued to exist as an archaizing art form.


Like other script types, the style of clerical script would not remain static, as calligraphers have imparted personal styles, creative structures through merging with other script types, among other means. Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang dynasty (618-907) commissioned a treatise to clarify the methods of the clerical script which prompted this script to rise in popularity. Compared to its predecessors, Tang clerical script has rounder, plumper and quite dramatic left and right falling strokes. Periods such as the Ming (1368-1644) and early Qing dynasties (1644-1911) produced renowned clerical script proponents such as Zheng Fu, Gao Fenghan, Jin Nong who were individualistic innovators. The love for clerical script intensified as more and more calligraphers turned to ancient steles and engraved calligraphy for inspiration in the Qing to the early Republican Eras.

The Chinese clerical script was adapted by many regions where Chinese cultural impact could be felt. These scripts are classified as “Japanese Clerical Script,” “Korean Clerical Script,” “Vietnamese Clerical Script,” and so forth. Local interpretations and contexts must be taken into account to make full sense of the adaptations.