Chinese language developed over a period of 5,000 years and creation myths served as the first documentation of the written form. In the Legendary Period, a time before recorded history, there were three emperors: Fu Hsi, Shen Nung and Huang Ti. Fu Hsi, the “ox-tamer,” created the bagua, more commonly known as “the eight trigrams.” The symbols consist of both continuous and broken lines. Three continuous lines symbolize heaven, three broken lines symbolize earth, and six variations of broken and continuous lines describe wind, water, mountain, thunder, fire, and lake. The trigrams represent more than 1,471 ideas and objects, but there is no concrete evidence that Chinese language was founded on this system. In Chinese Calligraphers and Their Art, the author Chih-Mai Ch’en speculates that the literal representation of objects and ideas preceded abstraction. It is likely that pictograms existed before the bagua. The second emperor, Shen Nung, created a numerical system using knotted string. It is possible that the brush technique of “return” was inspired by knots, but, without proof, these assertions remain conjectures. On the other hand, the third emperor, Huang Ti or the “Yellow Emperor,” is considered the ancestor of the Chinese. While Fu Hsi and Shen Nung are mythical figures, Huang Ti may have actually ruled between 2697-2597 BC. Furthermore, his minister, Ts’ang Chieh, is often credited as the inventor of the first writing system. Ch’en describes how Ts’ang Chieh developed his system:
After studying the celestial bodies and their formations and the natural objects surrounding him, particularly the footprints of birds and animals, he came to realize that things could be told apart by devising different signs to represent them.
This story of origins shows an evolution that is an essential part of the history of Chinese calligraphy. And yet, the earliest concrete evidence of a literate culture came from a period between 2205-1766 BC, a period in Chinese history known as the Shang Dynasty. The Shang “Oracle Bones” consist of 100,000 artifacts engraved with pictograms. The writing is arranged vertically, but each word differs in orientation and size. Collectively, 1,300 characters make up this language, Chia Ku Wen, and they reveal a first attempt at pictorial abstraction. A period of disunion followed the Shang Dynasty; this was a time when feudal states and principalities operated independently. Written language, like the state of governance itself, developed in a scattered way until the Qin Dynasty that ruled from 221-207 BC. Under the unified rule of Emperor Qin Shih Huang, a standardized writing system evolved and came into use. All the characters were reconfigured to follow a uniform orientation, size and rectangular shape. This system became the first calligraphic style, known as Hsiao Chuan.
With the beginning of a new system for writing, the preferred tool changed from a stylus to a brush. Writing Hsiao Chuan with a brush took time and patience. The stroke composition was complex, and yet, at the same time, the character needed to have the appearance of a carved line. The process of calligraphic writing hid the tip of the brush inside the stroke so that a new writing instrument was not necessary. In this way, Chinese calligraphy created a new style of writing that suited the flexibility of the brush. Li Shu was first used by clerks within Emperor Qin Shih Huang’s court. This style reduced the number of strokes in a word, allowed for fluid brush movements and added emphasis on the points, both entry and exit, in a stroke. When the Han people succeeded Emperor Qin Shih Huang, they adopted Li Shu as the official court script. However, because Li Shu restricted brush and hand movements, Tsao Shu evolved as a script whose characters keep “the basic structure of the character in Li Shu, compromise on its formality, allow it to run wild and free, meet the demands of time.” Since Tsao shu traded legibility for speed, it necessitated a compromise in the form of a new style, Chen Shu. Chen Shu is a culmination of Hsiao Chuan, Li Shu and Tsao Shu: it buries the brush tip inside the stroke and adopts a simplified pictographic form with exaggerated line variation. Chen Shu also exploded the Chinese figure into eight stroke types. T’se, lo, nu, yo, tse, lueh, cho, and chih are aesthetic variations on horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines. T’se and yo describe the most pleasing ways for writing short strokes, lo and nu for horizontal and vertical lines, and tse, lueh, cho, chih for different kinds of diagonal lines. The word yong or “eternity” is comprised of all eight strokes. A manual, titled The Eight of Laws of Yong, described the requisite movements needed for each stroke. Today, when a student begins calligraphy training, the first character he or she learns is yong. Chen Shu is presently the standard Chinese script. The last calligraphic style invented is Tsing Shu, a style which in large part resembles Chen Shu, but which occasionally links brushstrokes together. Chinese calligraphers today practice the five major styles, Hsiao Chuan, Li Shu, Tsao Shu, Chen Shu and Tsing Shu.