Chinese Calligraphy in Zuan Shu (Seal Style)      

Updated: 11/02/2015


            Features of Zuan Shu

            Revolution & Changes

            Resurrection of Zuan Shu

            Guide to Start Zuan Shu

            Masters & Works of Zuan Shu

            Video Demo of Zuan Shu

            Comparisons of Zuan Styles

            Summary of Learning






Pre-Chin Period Characters and Seals


The unification of Zuan Shu was in the Chin Dynasty when Lee Si (  李  斯  ) simplified and standardized the earlier Zuan Shu characters. The structure of each Zuan Shu character looks solid and stable and brings to the viewers an interesting mood and artistic feeling. The Zuan Shu standardized by Lee Si is called Small Seal Style (Shiao Zuan ), as opposed to Great Seal Style (Da Zuan ). Great Seal Style refers to those Zuan Shu characters existed in the pre-Chin Dynasty period. Da Zuan is also known as “Zo Wen  .”



Lan Ye Tai ( ) & Tai San ( ) Tablets                           Yi Shan (  ) Tablet by Lee Si


Great Seal Style is not very different from Ancient Script (Gu Wen  ). It is a synthesis of the variants of Ancient Script. The most famous example of Great Seal Style is Stone Drum Inscriptions (Thu Gu Wen  石 鼓 文 ). It has been the subject of Chinese calligraphy, linguistics, and archaeology for centuries. The famous Tang Dynasty writer, Han Yu, published a long poetic eulogy in praise of these characters. The drums were discovered in the province of Shang Xi. Unfortunately, only two hundred characters remain, and many versions of rubbings of them taken by scholars has left even these in a very worn condition.


Small Seal Style is also known as “Jade Ligament Seal Style  ” because it resembles ligaments in its twisting and symmetric strokes without showing expression in each stroke. Each Zuan character also renders a beautiful structural design for everlasting appreciation. However, Zuan Shu specialists were fewer in number in each dynasty compared with Hsin and Kai Shu specialists. One of the reasons was that a Zuan Style practitioner must also study linguistics concerning the origin and evolution of Chinese characters.


Most calligraphers and linguists agree that Small Seal Style is suitable for beginners. Because of the frequent irregularities found in Great Seal Style, the rules in Small Seal Style are easier to follow. This is due to the fact that the characters from the Shang and Zhou Dynasties to the Spring Autumn and Warring States Periods were in chaos -- each character could be written in a complete different way in each area and era. The founder of Small Seal Style thus spent countless efforts to standardize the writing. So the writing rules of Small Seal Style can be analyzed and followed in an easier way than those of Great Seal Style.


Li Style was very popular in the Han Dynasty. Zuan Style was used in ceremony and important occasions to show respect at that time. Most tablets in Li Shu during the Han Dynasty had titles written in Zuan Shu. Hsing Mon Liang ( 新  莽 量 ), Yuan An Bei ( 袁 安 碑 ) and Yuan Tsun Bei (   ), and various tablet titles were full of feelings and grandeur; they were all sources of Deng Thu-Ru’s ( ) study. 



                                               Hsing Mon Liang                                                  Various Titles in Zuan Shu for Li Shu Tablets



                                                Yuan An Bei                                                                            Yuan Tsun Bei


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Features of Zuan Shu


Basic features of Small Seal Style include:

·           A character has to be tall. The ratio of length of height to width is about 3 to 2.

·           Symmetric. Left and right sides of a character are usually symmetric.

·           Vertical strokes are straight. Horizontal strokes are flat.

·           Curves and circles are smooth, not rugged.

·           Spacing between strokes is adequately and delicately designed

·           Strokes don’t usually vary in thickness and thinness.


Tall Symmetric Vertical Straight / Horizontal Flat Smooth Curves / Circles Delicate Spacing
Tall 1.jpg (36121 bytes) Symmetric 1.jpg (50376 bytes) Straight Flat 1.jpg (24268 bytes) Smooth 1.jpg (45779 bytes) Spacing 1.jpg (51105 bytes)
Tall 2.jpg (44776 bytes) Symmetric 2.jpg (46375 bytes) Straight Flat 2.jpg (46692 bytes) Smooth 2.jpg (68083 bytes) Spacing 2.jpg (67965 bytes)
Tall 3.jpg (44576 bytes) Symmetric 4.jpg (47320 bytes) Straight Flat 3.jpg (30106 bytes) Smooth 3.jpg (30483 bytes) Spacing 3.jpg (53093 bytes)

Approximate ratio is 

3 : 2

Mirror image but not mechanically precise

Not mathematically and mechanically precise

Lively and naturally smooth; not mechanically measured

Do not focus only on “black” strokes; white space can be considered “strokes”


With all of those features combined, each character will render a sense of stableness in structure.


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Revolution & Changes of Zuan Shu


Small Seal Style became the officially approved script following the unification of Chinese languages in the Chin Dynasty. It is also known as Chin Seal Script (“Chin Zuan  ”). It contrasts with the previous seal character script called Great Seal Style (     ). The Chin Dynasty used Small Seal Style to engrave inscriptions on stones extolling the merits of persons or things, to engrave seals or marks of authenticity or emblems or to write imperial edicts. It replaced Great Seal Style, marking tremendous historical progress. For a country the size of China, where dialects are more numerous than in the European countries, a unified written language plays an important link between various nationalities to cement national solidarity and achieve national unification. It was the “Chin Zuan” that served as a link and deserves much credit. And it’s Lee Si (    ) that exerted a profound influence on the seal character script for calligraphers and seal makers of later generations.


Small Seal Style is also known as Jade Ligament Seal Style ( ) for its rigid and emotionless strokes that don’t vary in thickness or thinness. (The term “Jade Ligament Seal Style” appeared in Su Yuan-Yu’s book in the Tang Dynasty while he was referring to Lee Yang-Bing’s work.) The strokes resemble jade chopsticks or lead threads and the style is kind of boring and strict in making curves, turning and circles. Later people view the Small Seal Style of Lee Yang-Bing’s (    ) as an ideal type. To sum up, the Jade Ligament Seal Style was not affected by Han Zuan. It traces back directly to Chin Zuan and it is a more condensed form. People usually refer to Lee Si and Lee Yang-Bing as "the Two Lees" in Chinese calligraphy history.


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Resurrection of Zuan Shu


“San Te Thu Jing  ” of the Three Kingdoms Period inherited Zuan Shu of the Han Dynasty. It was neatly arranged and characteristic for the “hanging needles  ” feature. However, this tablet was erected by the government and the calligraphy looked very solemn. Then during the South and North Dynasties era, there were many derivatives for Zuan Shu writing. And it was until Lee Yang-Bing (    ) of the Tang Dynasty that resurrected Zuan Shu. Lee was a contemporary of Yen Jen-Ching. He was a proficient linguist and he reedited “Suo Wen Je Zu   ” (a book that exemplifies revolution of Chinese characters.)   He was very satisfied with his work and said he was the successor of Lee Si.


SanTeThuJing.jpg (170789 bytes)                                   

                                          San Te Thu Jin                                                       “San Fen Gee  ” by Lee Yang-Bing


Later in the Ching Dynasty, Deng Thu-Ru (1743-1805) devoted his lifetime effort to study Small Seal Style of Chin. He was the most outstanding Zuan Shu specialist in the Ching Dynasty. He resurrected Small Seal Style and instilled into it vital force and represented it in a grand manner. Thus, it’s widely recognized to start learning Zuan from Deng Thu-Ru’s work and then trace to his followers such as Wu Run-Chih (    ) and / or Zhao Chih-Chian (     ). 



Deng Thu-Ru's Works


In the Ching Dynasty, Bao Shu-Cheng (    ) published a famous calligraphy book “Yi Zo Thuan Ji  .” His deep admiration for Deng Thu-Ru and his method gave a revelation to Wu Run-Chih and Zhao Chih-Chian. In this book, Bao emphasized the importance of holding a brush as adopted by his teacher Deng Shu-Ru. Bao's theory had a great influence on Ching Dynasty's emphasis on Li and Zuan Styles and calligraphy works on monuments.


Bao Shu-Cheng's Method of Holding A Brush


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Guide to Start Zuan Shu


A lot of calligraphy teachers prefer students to start from Wu Run-Chih's Zuan Shu. Then the students may continue learning Deng Thu-Ru's and Zhao Chih-Chian's Zuan Shu. Wu had more condensed strokes while Deng had more expressive strokes while Zhao had inherited the Kai Shu of Wei Bei into his Zuan Shu strokes. However, none of them followed the traditional rules strictly set by the Zuan Shu of the Chin Dynasty. Those three Zuan Shu specialists were close in styles and system. After we are familiar with practicing their work, we may move up to Li Si and Li Yang-Bing or directly start learning Stone Drum Inscriptions, Jin Wen and then finally Gia Gu Wen.


It is quite common that we can refine our Li Shu by practicing more Zuan Shu, or vise versa. They share some mutual aspects in theory.


As we are getting more familiar with Zuan Shu, we also need to study linguistics. It’s a tedious job. However, we may understand the origin and changes of each character better from this study and it will reward us abundantly later. It can also help us to prevent making mistakes in writing.


There have been laymen trying to coin Zuan Style characters themselves. They make up their own ways of writing without reliable sources and principles. For example, it’s quite popular to write “100 tigers”, “100 longevity”, or “100 good luck” in a single work just to show that they have collected 100 different ways to write a single character and cater the public. However, a sincere calligrapher should check the legitimacy and avoid flattering the audience.


The change from Zuan Shu to Li Shu and then to Kai Shu has a long history. Later, in dynasties when Kai and Li were popular, people still used Zuan Shu for titles of tablets to show respect. And it’s also a good way to learn Zuan Shu by emulating a tablet’s title in Zuan Style.


A scholar of the Sung Dynasty wrote that Hsu Shian (    ) was good at Small Seal Style. When his work was taken under sunshine for a closer look, they found tiny but darker lines inside each stroke. This is exactly the Center Tip Theory “Zong Fong   ” (literally, brush pen tip at the middle of hairs) that is the core of all Chinese calligraphy theories. It was mentioned by every prominent calligrapher. When Yen Jen-Ching stated how his teacher Zhang Shui passed to him the secrets of using a brush, he pointed out that the calligraphy should look like drawing on sand with awl (“Zuei Hwa Sa  .”) The principle requires keeping our brush and brush hair as straight and vertical as possible. It’s different from painting or the Western way to hold a pen. According to this principle, we should never ever bend the brush and the hair. We may rotate the brush when necessary with fingertips (knuckles not recommended). Bending a brush outward or toward oneself is a very common defect and is seen among laymen. By strictly obeying this principle, the sharpness or tip of hairs are hiding inside during brush motions rather than going scattered and collapsed. Hsu Shian’s method was also a supportive evidence that most Zuan Shu specialists were inheriting Lee Yang-Bing’s method.


The two pictures below show the sequence of strokes and the direction of brush tip at beginning and ending of each stroke. When going down, for example, we don’t go down directly at first. In stead, we move our brush tip upward for a little bit and then downward. This “opposite direction movement” is called “hiding the sharpness of hairs” (“Tsun Fong   .”) It is the most basic principle in writing a Zuan or Li character. Without knowing this, we won’t be able to produce enough strength and stableness in each stroke. 





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Masters & Works of Zuan Shu


Lee Si (?-208 BC)  

After Chin Shu Huan (   ) demolished the Six Nations and united the ancient China in 221 BC, he asked the Prime Minister Lee Si (   ) to unify characters based on previous styles. The official standardized characters are called “Zuan Shu”, or known as “Small Seal Style (Shiao Zuan)." Lee Si was the founder of "Shiao Zuan." 


Lan Ye Tai ( ) & Tai San ( ) Tablets                           Yi Shan (  ) Tablet



Lee Yang-Bing (?-?) 

He specialized in a very skinny Zuan Style. He considered his Zuan Shu only after the Prime Minister Lee Si  (  ) of the Chin Dynasty.


LeeYangBing1.jpg (131699 bytes)   



Hsu Shian (917-992)  

An expert in ancient characters. He and his brother, Hsu Kai, were working together to correct and add comments to “Suo Wen Je Zu   ” written by Hsu Seng ( ) in the Tang Dynasty.



Deng Thu-Ru (1743-1805)  

Other names: Deng Won-Bai, Deng Won-Bo

(Click here for Chinese bio)

His family was poor when he was young and he could not attend school. He learned calligraphy and seal making from his father and literature from older men in town. When he was after twenty years old, he earned his living by making seals. He traveled widely to make friends with scholars.

When he was twenty-seven, a chief lecturer of an academy who appreciated his intellect referred him to Mae Mio. He was a big collector of ancient calligraphy works since the Chin and Han Dynasties. While staying at Mae Mio’s house for eight years, Deng Thu-Ru treasured every moment of his time to practice emulating ancient calligraphy pieces. He learned up to Stone Drum Inscriptions “Thu Gu Wen” and Lee Yang-Bin’s work, and down to all Li Shu in the Han Dynasty.

Then he began to travel again when Mae Mio was not rich any more. We he was forty-eight, he visited Beijing but was not satisfied there. He traveled again and received recognition from other scholars.

Because of his poverty and lack of instruction, his works around age thirty was not highly regarded.

His works around forty were almost Jade Ligament Seal Style. In his later life, he was regarded as the greatest Zuan Shu specialist after Lee Si and Lee Yang-Bing.

D_BTTTG (3).jpg (637902 bytes) D_BTTTG (2).jpg (682593 bytes) D_BTTTG(1).jpg (770909 bytes)

           D_CDF (2).jpg (562681 bytes)

     D_CDF(1).jpg (571704 bytes)

DengThuRu39.jpg (35241 bytes)




Wu Run-Chih (1799-1870)  

He learned from Bao Shu-Cheng (  ) and Deng Thu-Ru. He was highly regarded for calligraphy, painting, and seal making. He was also considered to be mature at a younger age than Deng Thu-Ru. The condensed beauty of his strokes was different from Deng Thu-Ru’s lively and interesting strokes.




Yang Yi-Son (1813-1881)  

A highly esteemed Zuan Shu specialist. 

YangYiSon1.jpg (974893 bytes)    YangYiSon2.jpg (922584 bytes)    YangYiSon3.jpg (1042314 bytes)




Zhao Chih-Chian (1829-1884) 

He learned Yen Jen-Ching’s calligraphy at first. Then he also learned Huei Nan-Tien’s painting. He failed exams at the capital Beijing five times. Later he decided not to be confined by Yen Jen-Ching’s Kai Shu rules for government exams. He began to focus on Wei Bei as promoted by Bao Shu-Cheng. He studied various works of Zuan Shu in the Chin and Han Dynasties and created his unique style. Yet his work was criticized as lacking masculine power.



Wu Da-Cheng (1835-1902)  

A highly regarded linguist and collector of Jin Wen.

WuDaCheng1.jpg (455867 bytes)


Sun Shim-Yen  

SunHsimYen1.jpg (93124 bytes)




Wu Tsun-Shuo (1844-1927)  

Famous for his emulation of Stone Drum Inscriptions and seal making.

WuTsunShuo1.jpg (552696 bytes)


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Video Demo of Zuan Shu





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Comparisons of Zuan Styles


The features of Great Seal Style (including the Stone Drum Inscriptions & Jin Wen) contain more irregularities. The following chart shows the “standardized” Small Seal Style characters and their predecessors in Great Seal Style from which they were possibly derived. The predecessors were a lot more irregular than the standardized Small Seal Style. 


Small Seal Style Predecessor 1 Predecessor 2 Predecessor 3







The readers now should have a brief idea about different writings of ancient Chinese characters. Due to the geography and population sizes of China, such differences in ancient China were inevitable. However, the similarities are mostly the artistic design and spiritual beauty that the ancient Chinese people adored in their daily life – even in just writing characters.


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Summary of Learning


Most calligraphers agree that beginners of Small Seal Style start from the three calligraphers in the Ching Dynasty: Deng Thu-Ru, Wu Run-Chih, or Zhao Chih-Chian. Each of them has unique structure, brushstroke, and style that are suitable for beginners. However, their levels may not be the ultimate goals of serious learners. We may learn more deeply by diving into the works of Chin and Han Dynasties and even Gia Gu Wen and Jin Wen in the Shang & Zhou Dynasties. Once we are familiar with the brush motions and strokes for Chin Zuan or other Small Seal Styles, the way to understand Jin Wen, Gia Gu Wen, Thu Gu Wen will be clearer. The basic principles of brushwork will be the same. Only the character structures differ. Good copies of masterpiece of Chin Zuan, Jin Wen, or Shu Gu Wen are always our best lifetime teachers. Those masterpieces were the ultimate achievement of the ancient wise men. Their condensed and unsurpassed beauty will always guide us for lifetime and generations.

After being familiar with Small Seal Style, we may proceed to Jin Wen or Gia Gu Wen.

Jin Wen( 金 文)& Gia Gu Wen samples: click icons to view complete pictures


Helpful Resources to Study Zhuan Shu:

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Center Tip Theory   – Holding a brush vertically but not bent; never let hairs collapse. 

Chin Zuan    – Standardized and simplified Zuan Shu in the Chin Dynasty derived from Great Seal Style. 

Great Seal Style (Da Zuan) – Characters in pre-Chin periods.

Han Zuan   – Zuan Shu in the Han Dynasty.

Jade Ligament Seal Style     Nickname for Small Seal Style.

Jin Wen    金   文 – Inscription on bells or bronze tripods in the Shang and Zhou Dynasties. The bronze insriptions appreared in the Shang Dynasty (ca. 16th -11th century BC) and fully developed in the Western Zhou Dynasty (11th century - 771 BC).

Gia Gu Wen (Oracle Bone Inscription  甲  骨  文) – Characters inscribed on the turtle shells and animal bones of over 3000 years ago. They are the earliest systematic Chinese written language extant today. Most of them are divinatory in content and were found at the Shang capital city of Yin (Shiao-Tun Village, An-Yang County, Honan Province).

Lee Si  李  斯 – Prime minister who standardized Small Seal Style in the Chin Dynasty.

Lee Yang-Bing   – Small Seal Style specialist in the Tang Dynasty.  

Reverse In Flat Out – A brush technique generally required for writing Seal Style strokes.

Small Seal Style  (Shiao Zuan)  – As opposed to Great Seal Style; the Zuan Shu simplified from Great Seal Style.

Thu Gu Wen (Stone Drum Inscriptions ) – The earliest Chinese characters inscribed on ten stones.



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