Together with the fall of the Western Zhou dynasty to a nomadic clan called the Quan Rong (犬戎, lit. “Dog Rong”), followed by three hundred years of struggle during the Eastern Zhou dynasty for supremacy over other feudal states (東周, 770 – 256 B.C.), two trends emerged. One aimed at more accurate and distinctive writing methods, cultivating the tradition of great seal script, which eventually led to standardizing it under small seal script (小篆, shouten) in 221 B.C. The other one took a more practical approach, simplifying character forms, allowing for faster and easier writing, and eventually led to the emergence of clerical script (隷書, reisho).
There is much more to great seal script than “just” oracle bone inscriptions and kinbun. The Spring and Autumn Period (春秋時代, 722 – 476 B.C.) was also a time when highly decorative, yet rather troublesome to read, scripts were created, with animal motifs (snakes, dragons, birds, worms, fish, etc) inter-woven into the designs. The script is generally called chouchuuten (鳥蟲篆, lit. bird and worm seal script). Zoomorphic motifs were inspired by nature, specifically the swamps and wetlands surrounding human dwellings along the Yellow River. They were used mainly on weapons, musical instruments and bronze vessels. Such decorative markings had a sacred meaning pointing at strong beliefs in the supernatural, magic and occult practices in ancient China. Those magic and lavishly decorative scripts had many forms. One of them (a celestial bird script) can be observed on King Gou Jian’s Sword (越王勾踐劍) inscription, from the early 5th century B.C.
The main characteristic features of great seal script are the irregular shape of the characters and line thickness, differences in stroke number (characters of the same meaning may have additional strokes), and non-uniform size. Characters are usually oblong, and in some cases they seem stretched out to the extreme edge of our sense of “balance”.
Engravings done in great seal script, and especially in kinbun, are absolutely fantastic. The first time I saw it, I was bewitched by its cosmic and, in a way, alien beauty. It felt as if the characters had descended from space as a gift from an unknown civilization. They are of rich and complex yet well thought out form, are unpredictable in a way, and display the incredible artistic creativity of our ancestors.
The oldest scripts also show how close to nature people once lived, and how inspired they were by it. Most people these days are increasingly removed from nature and we are obsessed with our technological innovations. If you ever happen to have a chance to admire these works, written in one of the oldest scripts on Earth, try to open your inner eyes and forget yourself for a moment. You may just find out that time travel is possible, and that the time machine is not a mythical creation, but is a cleverly concealed concept behind the gates of our very soul.
Today, knowledge of great seal script is all but forgotten, known only to a chosen few. Not many dare to enter its mysterious realm with a brush. We can take you there.