Lishu (隸書), the clerical script of the Eastern Han (東漢) was preserved on stelae (石碑) and on cliffs (摩崖). Characters engraved on stone can be ‘traced’ or ‘printed’ onto paper by ink rubbing (墨拓). This is practically a negative image of the writings – white characters on a black background. For some time during the Eastern Han dynasty, it became fashionable for people to raise funds for the erection of stelae in memory of superiors and officials. Shi Chen Bei (史晨碑), Cao Quan Bei (曹全碑), Zhang Qian Bei (張遷碑) are good examples. Also popular were other kinds of stone inscriptions, some of which were engraved on cliffs to praise the achievements of projects. Kaitong bao xie dao ke shi (開通褒斜道刻石 ), Shimen Song (石門頌), Xi Xia Song (西狹頌) are typical examples. Some stelae were written for the adoration of mountains and mother nature. Feng Long Shan Song (封龍山頌) and Hua Shan Bei (華山碑) are good examples. Many of these writings are breathtakingly beautiful.
Besides inscriptions of Lishu on stelae or on cliffs. Ink writings on bamboo slips, wooden slips, silk, paper and pottery have been unearthed from Han tombs in various places, such as Juyan, Inner Mongolia (內蒙古居延) in 1930s, Wuwei, Gansu (甘肅武威) in 1950s, Mozuizi, Zhuanshan Village, Xinhua Township (新華鄉纏山村磨嘴子), Wuwei City (武威) in 1959, Mawangdui, Changsha, Hunan (湖南長沙馬王堆) in 1973, etc.
The style of ink writings on those media are quite different from those engraved on stone. Those ink writings are more lively or casual whereas those clerical scripts engraved on stelae are more regular, uniform and formal. The ink writings on bamboo and wooden slips might be impromptu works whereas writings to be engraved onto stone might be better planned. To illustrate this we can compare the clerical scripts on Li Qi Bei (禮器碑) (156 CE) with the writings on a urn dated the same year.
Ink writings on earthenware (陶器墨迹)
The ceramic urn was discovered at a Han tomb in Xian, Shaanxi Province (陝西省西安) in 1914. The inscription begins with ‘The third month of the second year of Yongshou (永壽二年三月)(156 CE). The text is believed to a report of the burial of the deceased to an underground (posthumous world) official. The urn is now kept at Taito City Calligraphy Museum (書道博物館) in Japan.
The urn was dated as the third month of second year of Yong Shou) (永壽二年) (156 CE) which is the the same year as dated in Li Qi Bei. We can compare the clerical scripts of the two artefacts written in the same year.
Ink Writings on Wooden and Bamboo Slips (木簡竹簡墨迹)
Shi jianguo Tian feng Yuan Nian Du (始建國天鳳元年牘) (Slip of the first year of Tian Feng )(14 CE).
It was written in the First year of Shi jianguo Tian feng (始建國天鳳元年) of Wang Mang (王莽), the founder and the only emperor of the short-lived Chinese Xin dynasty (新朝)(9 – 23 CE). Xin Dynasty was followed by Eastern Han (東漢) Dynasty (25-220 CE). The slip is writing in ink on wood at that time.
Some scholars suggest that this is the Label of ‘Arms status record book’ (兵器狀况記錄簿的標籤) or ‘Label of the soldiers record book’ (士兵狀况記錄簿的標籤).
‘完堅’ means completely firm and in good shape. ‘折傷’ means damaged.
Silkworm head (蠶頭) and swallow tail (燕尾) is the shape feature of the clerical script strokes. ‘Silkworm head’ refers to the head of a stroke which looks like the round head of a silkworm. This is done by reversing the tip of the brush at the start of the stroke (起筆多逆入). At the end of the stroke the tip of the brush is pressed down creating a thick end, like the ‘ the tail of a swallow’. In those ink writings the silkworm head and swallow tail are usually exaggerated. The strokes are fluttering and natural (筆勢飄揚而自然).
Wang zhang shi jian (王杖十簡) , the ten wooden slips of the Emperor sceptor
In July 1959, archaeologists from the Gansu Provincial Museum (甘肅省博物館) discovered a group of wooden slips (10 pieces in total) during the excavation of the Han Tomb No. 18, Mozuizi, Zhuanshan Village, Xinhua Township (新華鄉纏山村磨嘴子), Wuwei City (武威). These 10 wooden slips could have been bundled and tied to the dove sceptre or cane (鳩杖). The string was broken and the 10 wooden slips were scattered. Scholars tried to arrange them into order.
The dove sceptre is about 2 meters long, and the top is decorated with wooden dove birds (鳩鳥). It was regarded as the Emperor sceptre (王杖). The 10 wooden slips are brief texts which describe the honour and the significance of being awarded the dove sceptre over the age of 70 in the Han Dynasty. People generally believed in life after death. The probable purpose of burying the sceptre and the 10 wooden slips is to show the underground world the glory of the tomb owner in his life.
- 制詔御史曰: 年七十受王杖者，比六百石，入官廷不趨；犯罪耐以上，毋二尺告劾，有敢徵召侵辱
- 者, 比大逆不道, 建始二年九月甲辰下。
- 制詔丞相、御史: 高皇帝以來至本二年，勝甚哀老小。高年受王杖，上有鳩，使百姓望見之。
The writings on Slips 1 and 2 were copied from an imperial decree issued in the second year of Jianshi (建始), while the writings on Slips 3-9 were copied from an imperial decree issued in the second year of Heping (河平). ‘Jianshi’ was the first era name of Emperor Xiaochengdi (孝成皇帝) of the Western Han Dynasty. ‘Heping’ (河平) was the second era name of Emperor Xiaochengdi of the Han Dynasty, and the first year of Heping’ was 28 BCE.
According to the last wooden slip, the owner of the tomb was named ‘Youbo’ (幼伯). He was born in the fifth year of Yuanshi (元始)(6 CE) of Emperor Xiaoping (孝平皇帝) of the Western Han Dynasty. He received the sceptre in the fifteenth year of Yongping (永平)(72 CE) of Emperor Xiaoping (孝明皇帝), the second emperor of the Eastern Han Dynasty. Youbo was not even seventy years old when he received the sceptre. It can be seen that the stipulation of the imperial edict of ‘taking the sceptre rod at seventy’ may not be strictly implemented.
For further information of Wang zhang shi jian, please visit my webpage :
Ink writings on silk (帛書)
Laozi Daode Jing (老子道德經) written in ink on silk in the Western Han (西漢) Dynasty was unearthed in 1973 from Mawangdui Han tomb No 3, Changsha, Hunan province (湖南長沙馬王堆漢墓). The invaluable artefact is now kept in Hunan Provincial Museum, Changsha. It is a Taoist classic written on silk in the older clerical script and arranged in columns separated by red straight borderlines. Some of the characters use the structure of the seal script (篆書) but have a transitional form that falls between the seal and clerical scripts.
Artefacts of bamboo and wood, especially artefacts of silk and paper can hardly be kept in good condition for hundreds of years. They will rot or be eaten by worms and insects. These artefacts from the Han Dynasty are about two thousand years old. They were miraculously kept in Han tombs under extremely dry and probably air free conditions. More than 30,000 bamboo / wooden slips have been discovered during the past 100 years.
The contents of these ink writings on Han jian (漢簡) are rich and informative. Many are archival documents from military border garrisons of the northwestern region of the Han Empire. Some are government document, public documents, chronicles, inventories and private correspondence. Some recorded classical texts like Lunyu (論語), the Confucian Analects, Laozi Daode Jing (老子道徳經), Yiyaofang (醫藥方), medical treatises, etc. All this are important firsthand information of the Han Dynasty Literature (漢代文學) and reliable information of Pre-Qin Literature (先秦文學) as well. Above all, these Han jian are real treasures of Chinese Calligraphy.
I would like to thank Mr K.C. Wong (黄繼昌先生), my good friend and mentor for his consistent guidance and encouragement. K.C. inspires me to write this page.
俞丰 (2009) 經典碑帖釋文譯注, 上海書畫出版社 , ISBN 978-7-80725-846-9
戴蘭村翻譯 (1975), 書道全集第2卷 – 漢, 大陸書店
黄逖 (1980) 馬王堆漢墓帛書, 文物出版社. 统一书号： 7068-380
Ouyang Z S, W C Fong, Y F Wang (2008) Chinese Calligraphy, Yale University, ISBN 978-0-300-12107-0