Clerical script
Stele of Huashan Temple, written in the clerical script from the late Eastern Han dynasty
Script type
Time period
Bronze Age China, Iron Age China
DirectionTop-to-bottom Edit this on Wikidata
LanguagesOld Chinese, Eastern Han Chinese
Related scripts
Parent systems
Child systems
Regular 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
Chinese characters for 'clerical script' in regular (left) and clerical script (right).
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese隸書
Simplified Chinese隶书
Literal meaningclerical script
Vietnamese name
Vietnamese alphabet
  • lệ thư
  • chữ lệ
  • 隸書
  • 𡨸隸
Korean name
Alternative Japanese name
Chinese characters Chinese family of scripts Written Chinese Kanji Hanja Chữ Hán Evolution of script styles Neolithic symbols in China Oracle bone Bronze Seal Large Small Bird-worm Clerical Cursive Semi-cursive Regular Flat brush Typefaces Fangsong Ming sans-serif Properties and classification Components Strokes order Radicals Collation and standards Kangxi Dictionary forms (1716) General Standard Characters (PRC, 2013) Commonly-Used Characters (Hong Kong, 2007) Nan Min Recommended Characters (Taiwan, 2009) Standard Form of National Characters (Taiwan, 1982) Jōyō kanji (Japan, 2010) Reforms Simplified characters second round Traditional characters debate Japanese script reform kyūjitai Homographs and readings Literary and colloquial readings Kanbun Idu Variants Zetian characters Derived systems Kana man'yōgana hiragana katakana Jurchen script Khitan large small Nüshu Bopomofo Slavonic transcription Transliteration of .navbar{display:inline;font-size:88%;font-weight:normal}.mw-parser-output .navbar-collapse{float:left;text-align:left}.mw-parser-output .navbar-boxtext{word-spacing:0}.mw-parser-output .navbar ul{display:inline-block;white-space:nowrap;line-height:inherit}.mw-parser-output .navbar-brackets::before{margin-right:-0.125em;content:"[ "}.mw-parser-output .navbar-brackets::after{margin-left:-0.125em;content:" ]"}.mw-parser-output .navbar li{word-spacing:-0.125em}.mw-parser-output .navbar a>span,.mw-parser-output .navbar a>abbr{text-decoration:inherit}.mw-parser-output .navbar-mini abbr{font-variant:small-caps;border-bottom:none;text-decoration:none;cursor:inherit}.mw-parser-output .navbar-ct-full{font-size:114%;margin:0 7em}.mw-parser-output .navbar-ct-mini{font-size:114%;margin:0 4em}vte

The clerical script (traditional Chinese: 隸書; simplified Chinese: 隶书; pinyin: lìshū), sometimes also chancery script, is a style of Chinese writing that evolved from the late Warring States period to the Qin dynasty. It matured and became dominant in the Han dynasty, and remained in active use through the Six Dynasties period.[1][2][3] In its development, it departed significantly from the earlier scripts in terms of graphic structures (a process known as libian),[4] and was characterized by its rectilinearity, a trait shared with the later regular script.

Although it was succeeded by the later scripts, including the regular script, the clerical script is preserved as a calligraphic practice. In Chinese calligraphy, the term clerical often refers to a specific calligraphic style that is typical of a subtype of the clerical script, the Han clerical (汉隶; 漢隸) or bafen (八分) script. This style is characterized by the squat character shapes, and its "wavy" appearance due to the thick, pronounced and slightly downward tails that are up-tilted at the ends.



Historical accounts, including the Book of Han (111 CE) and the postface of Shuowen Jiezi (c. 100 CE), mistakenly attribute the clerical script to Qin dynasty clerks, claiming that the clerks had devised the script to cope with the heavy workload.[5] There are also historical traditions dating back to the Han dynasty which attributed the creation of clerical script specifically to a Qin-dynasty prison officer, Cheng Miao (程邈), who was said to have invented it at the behest of Qin Shi Huang.[6] However, archaeological findings have shown that the clerical script was not the invention by a certain person or certain people, but was evolved naturally from the earlier scripts.[7] It has also been argued that, rather than being established by government scribes, clerical script was already in popular use, and its use by clerks in the Qin dynasty merely reflects this trend.[8]

The clerical script was developed from the local script varieties in the state of Qin in the Warring States period. These scripts are said to belong to the Qin-state script system (秦系文字; 'Qin-branch scripts'), and were the basis on which the Qin small seal script was standardized.[9] The folk varieties of the Qin-state scripts can be seen to already have employed shapes that are more rectilinear in the more orthodox scripts, with less long, sinuous lines and more readily segmented strokes, and are closer to the later clerical script than to the small seal script in both style and structure. In particular, some scripts discovered on bamboo and wooden slips are stylistically distinct from the earlier and even contemporary Qin-state scripts, and thus are often seen as a form of early clerical script.[10] Examples include the Shuihudi Qin bamboo texts (c. 217 BCE), and the Qingchuan wooden slips (c. 309 BC).[11]


In the Qin dynasty, the official script was the small seal script. The clerical script was associated with low social status, and, although allowed as a sort of auxiliary writing style for clerks, was generally not used in formal occasions. However, it gradually assumed dominance over the small seal script over time, and had become the main script in use in the Han dynasty.[12] Over the course of the Han dynasty, the clerical scripts continued to mature and stabilize, finally arriving at a visually unique style. This style is characterized by the following points:

The last two features above are sometimes called the 'wavy propensity' (simplified Chinese: 波势; traditional Chinese: 波勢) or 'wavy downward strokes' (波磔). Additionally, the leftward-falling strokes and anticlockwise curves also tend to have upward tilted ends.[13]

Clerical scripts before the formation of these features are often called Qin clerical script (秦隶; 秦隸) or 'old script' (古隶; 古隸), which include the early clerical scripts from the late Warring States period to the early Han dynasty. Clerical scripts with these features are called 'Han script' (汉隶; 漢隸) or bafen (八分) script. The style of bafen script is the basis of most of the later clerical-style calligraphy.[14]

The most mature form of the bafen script can be found in the late Eastern Han dynasty, with "carefully and neatly executed"[15] inscriptions on stelae. These stelae are regarded as calligraphic works of great significance, and are often used as models of clerical-style calligraphy.[16] Some important inscriptions include:

Transition to neo-clerical

A new type of clerical script, for which Chinese palaeographer Qiu Xigui termed the name "neo-clerical" (simplified Chinese: 新隶体; traditional Chinese: 新隸體), arose in the Eastern Han dynasty. The script, for convenience, abandoned the heavy tails present in the bafen script, while taking influence from the contemporaneous cursive script. Influenced by this new script style, the semi-cursive script would then arise, which would in turn give rise to the regular script. The neo-clerical form, or an intermediate form of the neo-clerical and the semi-cursive forms, is said to have become the way the common people wrote by the Six Dynasties period. By the Northern and Southern dynasties, the regular script had succeeded the clerical script and become the principal script in use.[17]

As a calligraphic practice

After the Northern and Southern dynasties, the clerical script was no longer actively in use,[citation needed] but its style survived in calligraphy.

In the Tang dynasty, calligraphers including Han Zemu (韓擇木), Shi Weize (史惟則), Li Chao (李潮) and Cai Youlin (蔡有鄰) were renowned for their clerical calligraphy.[18] From the Tang to the Ming dynasties, calligraphers occasionally wrote in clerical style as well.[19]

The Qing dynasty saw a revival in clerical-style calligraphy, with notable calligraphers such as Jin Nong, Deng Shiru, Yi Bingshou (伊秉綬) and Zheng Fu (鄭簠).[20]

Modern use

See also: List of CJK fonts § Clerical script

Beijing South Railway Station, which uses a clerical-style font

Due to its high legibility to modern readers, the clerical-style calligraphy is still used for artistic flavor in a variety of functional applications such as headlines, logos, signboards, and advertisements.[21][22]

There are a number of computer fonts that display CJK characters in the clerical style.[citation needed]


The etymology of the Chinese name for the clerical script (隸書) is uncertain. has been explained as 徒隸 ('prisoner-in-servitude") or Chinese: 隸人 'convict', 'official of a low rank'. Some infer that the script was used in recording the affairs related to such prisoners, while others infer that it was used by prisoners conscripted as scribes.[23]

Clerical script is also known as 'clerical characters' (隸字), 'assistant writing' (佐書), 'historical writing' (史書),[24] and "official script".[25]

Historical nomenclature

From the Northern and Southern dynasties to the Tang dynasty, the regular script was still sometimes referred to as 隸書 instead of 楷書. To distinguish from the Han-dynasty clerical script proper, it was also referred to as the 'recent clerical script' (今隶; 今隸). The Han-dynasty clerical script might accordingly be called the 'old clerical script' (古隸), which is now also the name for the early clerical scripts before the bafen development.[26]

See also



  1. ^ Xigui, Qiu (2000). Chinese writing. Society for the study of Early China. pp. 103–112, 118–126, 138–147. ISBN 1-55729-071-7. OCLC 470162569.
  2. ^ "Clerical Script (隸書) · Chinese Calligraphy". Retrieved 2023-12-02.
  3. ^ "Categories of Calligraphy - Clerical Script". Retrieved 2023-12-02.
  4. ^ Zhao, Ping'an; 赵平安 (1993). 隸變研究 [Studies on Libian] (in Chinese) (1 ed.). Baoding: 河北大學出版社. p. 8. ISBN 7-81028-118-6. OCLC 36942746.
  5. ^ Qiu (2000), p. 103.
  6. ^ Cai Yong (蔡邕). 聖皇篇 [On the Illustrious Emperor] (in Literary Chinese)., cited in Qiu (2000), p. 103.
  7. ^ Qiu (2000), p. 107.
  8. ^ Tang Lan (唐兰) (2005). 中國文字學 [Chinese Grammatology]. Sichuan chuban jituan. ISBN 7-5325-3903-2. Cited in Qiu (2000), p. 107.
  9. ^ Qiu (2000), p. 97.
  10. ^ Qiu (2000), p. 106.
  11. ^ Qiu (2000), pp. 106–107; Fang (2003), pp. 1–2.
  12. ^ Qiu (2000), pp. 111–112.
  13. ^ Qiu (2000), pp. 121–122.
  14. ^ Qiu (2000), p. 121.
  15. ^ Qiu (2000), p. 120.
  16. ^ Fang (2003).
  17. ^ Qiu (2000), pp. 138–149.
  18. ^ "集古錄跋尾十卷02 第131頁 (圖書館) – 中國哲學書電子化計劃". (in Chinese (Taiwan)). Retrieved 2022-02-06. “唐世名能八分者四家,韓擇木史惟則世傳頗多,而李潮及有鄰特為難得。”
  19. ^ Fang (2003), pp. 8–9.
  20. ^ Fang (2003), p. 10.
  21. ^ Winston, Su (October 25, 2013). "Untitled". Flickr. In the photograph are three signboards. Top: 大同服務處 and 擁護政府 written in the periphery of the board, in clerical-style calligraphy. Middle and bottom: 美容院 written in clerical-style calligraphy.
  22. ^ Li, Jianming; 李健明 (2020). 你看港街招牌 [Look! The Hong Kong Street Signs] (in Chinese) (增訂版 ed.). Hong Kong. pp. 168–173. ISBN 978-988-8675-48-7. OCLC 1200804402.((cite book)): CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  23. ^ Qiu (2000), pp. 111, 125–126.
  24. ^ 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.
  25. ^ Gao, James Z. (2009), Historical Dictionary of Modern China (1800–1949), Scarecrow Press, p.41.
  26. ^ Qiu (2000), pp. 121, 147–148.

Works cited

  • Qiu Xigui (裘锡圭) (2000) [1988]. Chinese Writing. Translated by Mattos, Gilbert L.; Norman, Jerry. Berkeley: Society for the Study of Early China and The Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California. ISBN 978-1-557-29071-7.
  • Fang Chuanxin (方传鑫) (2003). 隸書十講 [Ten Courses on the Clerical Calligraphy] (in Chinese). Shanghai: 上海書畫出版社. pp. 1–6. ISBN 7-80672-700-0. OCLC 54470488.