Tag Archives: Cheng Miao

Cheng Miao and the Clerical Script

[Translated from Mandarin]

The clerical script, or lìshū (隸書), is a form of Chinese calligraphy that is said to have been invented by Chéng Miǎo (程邈), who had somehow offended the emperor Qín Shǐ Huáng (秦始皇) of the Qin dynasty. Qín Shǐ Huáng threw Chéng Miǎo into prison. However, during his time in prison, Chéng Miǎo was able to simplify Chinese script. You see, before the clerical script was invented, Chinese characters were written in seal script, or zhuànshū, which had many curving strokes that were complicated to write.

The prison guards discovered that Chéng Miǎo’s clerical script was much more efficient to write than seal script, and they showed Qín Shǐ Huáng. Qín Shǐ Huáng was very pleased with Chéng Miǎo’s new script and decided to change the Chinese kingdom’s writing to clerical script. Because of this, Chéng Miǎo was released from prison and rewarded with a high governmental position.

The informant is a calligrapher and had learned this legend from friends from whom he first learned calligraphy. Though Chéng Miǎo’s feats sound realistic, there are people who doubt that Qín Shǐ Huáng would be so lenient on someone who changed a writing system that the emperor had just unified shortly before. Recent evidence has also suggested that clerical script may have been invented by a team of people, as opposed to one single person. It is interesting that even the development of Chinese calligraphy has such debatable folklore.