What is Running Script Calligraphy?

What is Running Script Calligraphy?

By 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.

October 6, 2022

Characteristics of the Running Script

Five main scripts are commonly used in Chinese calligraphy; three are formal, while the other two are informal, which are the cursive and the semi-cursive (also called the running) script. As its name implies, the semi-cursive script is fluid and somewhat scribbly, but not as abstract as the cursive script. As with all East Asian script types, it is still formed by a defined set of strokes. 

Unlike the standard script where the characters are distinct and separate, the semi-cursive script (行書) contains some linked strokes, and certain characters are allowed to flow from one to another. It has a fluid, dance-like aesthetic.

In the old days, the semi-cursive script was the closest to regular handwriting, often used in personal letters or as draft calligraphy. It is easier to read than cursive script. 

History of the Running or Semi-Cursive Script

The oldest surviving form of Chinese writing, the Oracle Bone Script, dates to more than 3000 years ago during the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600-1100 BCE). Subsequent script types developed according to needs and aesthetic trends. The semi-cursive script emerged in the Han Dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE), nearly simultaneously with and emerging from the Clerical Script (which is described in a separate blogpost: https://callimode.com/blogs/what-is-clerical-or-chancery-script-calligraphy/what-is-clerical-script

Great many masterpieces of East Asian calligraphy are done in the semi-cursive script because of its ability to represent manners that are unique to the calligraphers. The most famous example is The Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion 蘭亭集序) from the 4th century CE (surviving today only as copies) by China's "sage of calligraphy," Wang Xizhi 王羲之. In this work, Wang spontaneously writes out his thoughts during a poetry and drinking party with friends and colleagues. It begins with descriptions of the scenery and fine weather, but evolves into a rumination on mortality. It exemplifies emotional expression. Some of the characters are crossed-out and added in between lines, reflecting the spontaneity of the moment. This preface also contains elements of the Standard Script. 

Wang Xizhi (303-361), detail of The Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion copied by Feng Chengsu (617–672). Collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing.

Wang Xizhi (303-361), detail of The Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion copied by Feng Chengsu (617–672). Collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing. 

While first developed in China, calligraphic works done with the semi-cursive script are also well-loved in Japan as Chinese writings became assimilated into Japanese culture. One of the most famous works is Prince Shōtoku's commentaries (early 7th century CE) on the Lotus Sutra, which is believed to be a draft because of its relative informality conveyed by the semi-cursive script. The prince was regent to the reigning Queen and a devout Buddhist. During this time, Japanese calligraphy and culture were deeply influenced by the Jin (265-420 CE) and the Tang Dynasties (618-907 CE). This works demonstrates his erudition as well as aesthetic inclinations. 

Attri. Prince Shōtoku, detail of his Commentaries on the Lotus Sutra, early 7th century, Japan. Imperial Household Collection.

Attri. Prince Shōtoku, detail of his Commentaries on the Lotus Sutra, early 7th century, Japan. Imperial Household Collection.

The dance-like quality of the semi-cursive script works particularly well with kanji (Chinese characters) in combination with hiragana (Japan's native syllabary derived from the Chinese cursive script) in literary expressions. Many haiku poets, for example, employ semi-cursive kanji in their creations.

In Korea, the typically boxy hangul alphabet (invented in 1443) began to adopt the semi-cursive style as an artistic form in the Joseon period (1392-1897). Like the Japanese, Koreans have abundantly used Chinese characters in their writings, and the learned class usually possessed mastery of different calligraphic script types. During the Joseon dynasty, Neo-Confucianism was at its height, further elevating the importance of Chinese cultural prototypes. The innovative semi-cursification of hangul that began during that time continues today. We often see it on product labels.