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
Traditional Chinese
Simplified Chinese
Chữ Hán
Chữ Nôm
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
Chinese characters for "Clerical Script", in regular script (left) and clerical script (right).
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese隸書
Simplified Chinese隶书
Literal meaningclerical script[ft 1]
Vietnamese name
Vietnamese alphabetlệ thư
chữ lệ
Chinese characters Written ChineseKanjiHanjaChữ Hán Scripts and style Precursors Oracle-bone Bronze Seal (Bird-wormLargeSmall) Clerical libian Cursive Semi-cursive Regular Flat brush Typefaces Imitation Song Ming Sans-serif Properties and classification ComponentsStrokes (order)Radicals Collation and standards Character-form standards Jiu zixingXin zixing Kangxi Dictionary forms (1716) General Standard Chinese Characters (mainland China, 2013) Graphemes of Commonly-used Chinese characters (Hong Kong, 2007) Standard Form of National Characters (Taiwan, 1982) Grapheme-usage standards General Standard Characters (PRC, 2013) Jōyō kanji (Japan, 2010) Other standards Standardized Forms of Words with Variant Forms (PRC, 2002) Nan Min Recommended Characters (Taiwan, 2009) Previous standards Commonly-used Characters (PRC, 1988) Tōyō kanji (Japan, 1946) Reforms China Clerical reforms Traditional characters Simplified characters (first roundsecond round) Debate Japan Kyūjitai Shinjitai Ryakuji Korea Yakja Singapore Table of Simplified Characters Homographs and readings Literary and colloquial readings Variants Graphemic variants Zetian characters Derived systems Slavonic transcription Nüshu Kana (HiraganaKatakana) Man'yōgana Jurchen script Khitan large scriptKhitan small script Idu script Bopomofo Sawndip Chữ Nôm Chinese family of scripts (Transliteration of Chinese).mw-parser-output .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; Japanese: 隷書体, reishotai; Korean: 예서 (old spelling 례셔); Vietnamese: lệ thư), sometimes also chancery script, is a style of Chinese writing which evolved from the late Warring States period to the Qin dynasty, matured and became dominant in the Han dynasty, and largely remained in active use through the Wei-Jin periods.[1][2][3] In its development, it departed significantly from the earlier scripts in terms of graphic structures (a process named libian, or "clerical change"),[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 (simplified Chinese: 汉隶; traditional Chinese: 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 uptilted at the end.[5][6]



Historical accounts, including the Book of Han and the postface of Shuowen Jiezi, often mistakenly attribute the clerical script to the Qin dynasty clerks, claiming that the clerks had devised the script to cope with the heavy workload.[7] 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 (Chinese: 程邈; pinyin: Chéng Miǎo), who was said to have invented it at the behest of Qin Shi Huang.[8]

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.[9] 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.[10]

The clerical script was developed from the local script varieties in the state of Qin in the Warring States period.[ft 2] These scripts are said to belong to the Qin-state script system (Chinese: 秦系文字; lit. 'Qin-branch scripts'), and were the basis on which the Qin-dynasty small seal script was standardized.[11] 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.[12] Examples include the Shuihudi Qin bamboo slips (circa 217 BCE), and the Qingchuan wooden slips (circa 309 BCE).[13][14]


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.[15] 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 "the wavy downward strokes" (波磔). Additionally, the leftward-falling strokes and anticlockwise curves also tend to have upward tilted ends.[16]

Clerical scripts before the formation of these features are often called Qin clerical script (simplified Chinese: 秦隶; traditional Chinese: 秦隸) or old clerical script (simplified Chinese: 古隶; traditional Chinese: 古隸),[ft 3] 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 clerical script (simplified Chinese: 汉隶; traditional Chinese: 漢隸) or bafen (八分) script.[5] The style of Bafen script is the basis of most of the later clerical-style calligraphy.

The most mature form of the bafen script can be found in the late Eastern Han dynasty, with "carefully and neatly executed"[17] inscriptions on stelae. These stelae are regarded as calligraphic works of great significance, and are often used as models of clerical-style calligraphy.[18] Some important inscriptions include:

Transition to the neo-clerical script

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 Wei-Jin period.[19]

By the Northern and Southern dynasties, the regular script had succeeded the clerical script and become the principal script in use.[19]

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 (Chinese: 韓擇木; pinyin: Hán Zémù), Shi Weize (Chinese: 史惟則; pinyin: Shǐ Wéizé), Li Chao (Chinese: 李潮; pinyin: Lǐ Cháo) and Cai Youlin (Chinese: 蔡有鄰; pinyin: Cài Yǒulín) were renowned for their clerical calligraphy.[20] From the Tang to the Ming dynasties, calligraphers occasionally wrote in clerical style as well.[21]

The Qing dynasty saw a revival in clerical-style calligraphy, with notable calligraphers such as Jin Nong, Deng Shiru, Yi Bingshou (Chinese: 伊秉綬; pinyin: Yī Bǐngshòu) and Zheng Fu (Chinese: 鄭簠; pinyin: Zhèng Fǔ).[22]

Modern use

See also: List of CJK fonts § Clerical script

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.[23][24]

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 隸人 ("convict; official of a particularly 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.[25]

Clerical script is also known as "clerical characters" (隸字), "assistants' writing" (佐書), "historical writing" (史書),[26] and "official script".[27]

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 (simplified Chinese: 今隶; traditional Chinese: 今隸). The Han-dynasty clerical script might accordingly be called the old clerical script, 古隸, which, as has been pointed out, is now also the name for the early clerical scripts before the bafen development.[28]

See also


  1. ^ See the "Names" section for more details.
  2. ^ Not to be confused with the Qin dynasty.
  3. ^ Note that the term old clerical might be referring to another concept. See the subsection "Historical nomenclature" in the section "Names" below.


  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. ^ a b Qiu (2000), p. 121.
  6. ^ Fang, Chuanxin; 方传鑫 (2003). 隸書十講 [Ten Courses on the Clerical Calligraphy] (in Chinese) (1 ed.). Shanghai Shi: 上海書畫出版社. pp. 1–6. ISBN 7-80672-700-0. OCLC 54470488.
  7. ^ Qiu (2000), p.103.
  8. ^ Cai Yong; 蔡邕. 聖皇篇[On the Illustrious Emperor] (in Classical Chinese), cited in Qiu (2000), p.103.
  9. ^ Qiu (2000), p.107.
  10. ^ 唐兰 (2005). 中國文字學 [Chinese Grammatology]. 四川出版集團. ISBN 7-5325-3903-2. OCLC 62389821. Cited in Qiu (2000), p. 107.
  11. ^ Qiu (2000), p. 97.
  12. ^ Qiu (2000), p. 106.
  13. ^ Qiu (2000), pp. 106–107.
  14. ^ Fang (2003) pp. 1–2.
  15. ^ Qiu (2000), pp. 111–112.
  16. ^ Qiu (2000), pp.120–121.
  17. ^ Qiu (2000), p. 120.
  18. ^ Fang (2003).
  19. ^ a b Qiu (2000), pp. 138–149.
  20. ^ "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。”
  21. ^ Fang (2003), pp. 8–9.
  22. ^ Fang (2003), p. 10.
  23. ^ 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.
  24. ^ 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)
  25. ^ Qiu (2000), pp. 111, 125–126.
  26. ^ 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.
  27. ^ Gao, James Z. (2009), Historical Dictionary of Modern China (1800–1949), Scarecrow Press, p.41.
  28. ^ Qiu (2000). pp. 121, 147–148.