Clerical script

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Clerical script
Clerical script from the Han dynasty
Script type
Time period
Bronze Age China, Iron Age China
Directiontop-to-bottom Edit this on Wikidata
LanguagesOld Chinese
Related scripts
Parent systems
Child systems
Simplified Chinese
Chu Nom
Khitan script
Jurchen script
Tangut script
 This article contains phonetic transcriptions in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA. For the distinction between [ ], / / and ⟨ ⟩, see IPA § Brackets and transcription delimiters.
Clerical script
Regular and clerical script eg.svg
Chinese characters for "Clerical Script", in regular script (left) and clerical script (right).
Traditional Chinese隸書
Simplified Chinese隶书
Literal meaningslave script

The clerical script (traditional Chinese: 隸書; simplified Chinese: 隶书; pinyin: lìshū; Japanese: 隷書体, reishotai; Vietnamese: lệ thư), also formerly chancery script, is an archaic style of Chinese calligraphy which evolved from the Warring States period to the Qin dynasty, was dominant in the Han dynasty, and remained in use through the Wei-Jin periods.[1] Due to its high legibility to modern readers, it is still used for artistic flavor in a variety of functional applications such as headlines, signboards, and advertisements. This legibility stems from the highly rectilinear structure, a feature shared with modern regular script (kaishu). In structure and rectilinearity, it is generally similar to the modern script; however, in contrast with the tall to square modern script, it tends to be square to wide, and often has a pronounced, wavelike flaring of isolated major strokes, especially a dominant rightward or downward diagonal stroke. Some structures are also archaic.[clarification needed]


Clerical script is popularly but mistakenly thought to have developed or been invented in the early Han dynasty from the small seal script. The process of change between small seal script and clerical script is referred to as the Libian (Chinese: 隸變; lit. 'clerical change').[2] There are also historical traditions dating to the Hàn dynasty which mistakenly attributed the creation of clerical script to the Qín dynasty and in particular to Chéng Miǎo, who was said to have invented it at the behest of Qin Shi Huang.[3] Another traditional account is that it was invented by government scribes, in particular those involved in the justice and penal systems.[4]

However, from written materials unearthed by archaeologists, it is now known that all stages of Chinese writing underwent periods of natural evolution, and none of them were inventions by one person; this is true of clerical script as well.[5] Furthermore, rather than being established by government scribes, it has been argued that clerical script was already in popular use, and the Qín dynasty use by scribes merely reflects this trend.[6]

Archaeological discoveries now clearly show that an immature form of clerical script ("proto-clerical") was already developing in the state of Qín during the Warring States period,[7] and into the early Western Hàn; this can be seen on a number of bamboo books unearthed recently.[8] Furthermore, the writing immediately preceding clerical script was not merely seal script alone; rather, there was a coexistence of seal script (the at-first dominant and formal style) alongside an increasingly popular but secondary form of "vulgar", "popular", or "common" writing, which was very roughly executed and which was generally rectilinear.[9] The popularity of this vulgar writing grew as the use of writing itself became more widespread.[9] The structures and style of many of the characters executed in this vulgar writing were similar or even identical to their later clerical script counterparts,[10] leading some to conclude that proto-clerical (and therefore clerical) script evolved not from seal script but from the vulgar writing of Qín, which coexisted with seal script in Warring States to Qín dynasty.[5] The Qín bamboo script is a good example of this transition, having evolved from vulgar Qín writing and considered by some to constitute Qín clerical script.[11]


The etymology of the Chinese name for the clerical script lìshū (simplified Chinese: 隶书; traditional Chinese: 隸書) is uncertain. In the Qin period, meant "state-owned slave, prisoner-in-servitude", and thus, some infer that the script was used in recording the affairs related to such slaves, while others infer that it was used by prisoners conscripted as scribes.[12] Li correspondingly meant "low-ranking subordinate, servitor, subaltern; runner; lackey, servant; houseman; turnkey; laborer, esp. at corvée".[13] Clerical script is also known as "clerical characters" (lìzì 隸字), "assistants' writing" (zuǒshū 佐書), "historical writing" (shǐshū 史書),[14] and "official script".[15]

Usage and further evolution[edit]

During Warring States, proto-clerical script emerged in casual, informal usage. During the Qin dynasty it appears to have also been used in some scribal capacity, but never in formal usage. Maturing into clerical script in the early Han, it soon became the dominant script for general purposes, while seal script remained in use for the most formal purposes such as some stelae, signet seals (name chops), and especially the titles of written works and stelae; some cursive was also in use at the time.[16] At roughly the same time, the clerical script was used and inscribed onto many stelae which later influenced subsequent development of Chinese calligraphic styles.[17] Out of clerical script, a new form then emerged in the middle of the Eastern Han dynasty, which Qiu (2000, p. 113) terms "neo-clerical" script; it was from this neo-clerical and from cursive that by late in the Eastern Han semi-cursive would then evolve, out of which then emerged the modern standard script. Thus, according to Qiu, the evolution from clerical script to standard script was not a direct step as commonly supposed.[16]

Clerical script in computing[edit]


  1. ^ As discussed and referenced below, proto-clerical emerged in Warring States to Qin; it is also widely known that clerical matured in the early Han. Although popularly associated only with the Han dynasty, clerical actually remained in use alongside cursive, neo-clerical, and semi-cursive scripts until after the Wei-Jin period, when the modern standard script became dominant; see Qiu 2000, p.113
  2. ^ Definition of 隸變: 文字學上指篆書改寫成隸書的經過。隸變過的形體,往往與原篆意有明顯差異。例如:篆書「󹡨」隸定成「秊」;隸變成「年」。隸定字仍可窺測出篆體的結構,隸變字則未必。
  3. ^ Qiu 2000, p.103, esp. footnote 28. Qiu cites Caì Yōng as saying: "Cheng Miao got rid of ancient (script) and established the clerical script forms".
  4. ^ This is the version given in the Hanshu, acc. to Táng Lán (唐蘭) 1979.《中國文字學》(上海:上海古籍出版社)。Zhōnggúo Wénzìxué (Chinese Linguistics). Shànghǎi Gǔjí Publishing, p.165, and Qiu 2000, p.107
  5. ^ a b Qiu 2000, p.107
  6. ^ Táng Lán 1979, p.165, cited in Qiu 2000, p.107; this does not, however, preclude influence by those scribes and even Cheng Miao in the process; as Qiu notes, Cheng Miao may have played a role in systematizing the script, thus leading to the mistaken tradition of his inventing it (Qiu p.107), much as Li Si's standardization of the already extant small seal script led to misperceptions that he had invented it.
  7. ^ Qiu 2000; p.59 & p.104
  8. ^ Qiu 2000, p.108
  9. ^ a b Qiu 2000, p.104
  10. ^ Qiu 2000, p.104-5; others were similar or identical to the forms of cursive script and were instrumental in its formation -- Qiu p.108-9
  11. ^ Qiu 2000, p.104-6
  12. ^ Qiu 2000, p.111
  13. ^ Kroll, Paul K. (2017), A Student's Dictionary of Classical and Medieval Chinese, rev. ed., Brill, p. 265.
  14. ^ Creamer, Thomas B. I. (1992), "Lexicography and the history of the Chinese language", in History, Languages, and Lexicographers, ed. by Ladislav Zgusta, Niemeyer, p. 110.
  15. ^ Gao, James Z. (2009), Historical Dictionary of Modern China (1800-1949), Scarecrow Press, p.41.
  16. ^ a b Qiu 2000, p.113
  17. ^ "The Stele of Mount Hua Temple at The West Alp". Vincent's Calligraphy. Retrieved 2017-05-16.