Since the creation of Chinese words in ancient times, Chinese calligraphy has existed in a rich myriad of scripts, many of which are still being practised today.  The following is a brief introduction to the evolution of the different types of scripts through the history of the Chinese civilisation.

Before the invention of paper, Chinese characters were recorded as engravings on different types of surfaces.  The earliest recognized form of Chinese characters, known as Jiaguwen (甲骨文) or the Oracle Bone script, dated to the Xia-Shang Dynasties era (1700 B.C.).  The characters were found engraved on tortoise plastrons and animal bones (typically ox spatulas) which were mostly used for divination purposes in the imperial courts, hence its name.

Jiaguwen
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With the advent of the Bronze Age in the Zhou Dynasty (ca. 1046–256 B.C.), a more refined form of engraved script evolved from Jiaguwen.  Known as Jinwen (金文) or the Bronzeware script, this type of script was found on cast bronze vessels.  The Jinwen script boasted rounder strokes, unlike that of Jiaguwen which were long and narrow in form, and had sharp edges.  The stylistic difference between the two scripts was attributed to the finer and smoother bronzeware surface (as compared to animal bones).  Furthermore, given that the bronze vessels from this period were largely used for ceremonial and ritual purposes, more efforts were also put into embellishing the Chinese characters.

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During this same period, another form of script, Dazhuan (大篆) or the Greater Seal script, coexisted with Jinwen.  In fact, both Jinwen and Dazhuan are often regarded as sub-branches of each other since the two forms of characters overlapped.

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In the early stages of Chinese civilization up till the Warring States period, different states and kingdoms had their own forms of Chinese characters.  It was not until the Qin Dynasty (221 – 206 B.C.) when the Chinese empire was unified by Emperor Qin Shihuangdi that Chinese characters were standardized.  Pursuant to this development, a more elegant script, known as Xiaozhuan (小篆) or the Lesser Seal script, was derived.  This script is recognized as the origin of the modern, unsimplified Chinese script which we see in use today in places such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and Malaysia.  Compared to the earlier scripts, Xiaozhuan characters are more stylized and less "pictographic".  In fact, it is from Xiaozhuan script that Chinese characters start exhibiting the systematic and extensive use of radicals.

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However, the Xiaozhuan script was considered complex and cumbersome.  As a result, Lishu (隶书) or the Scribe script, was created.  As the name suggests, this script was used by the court mandarins.  Its origin could be traced to the period of late Qin and early Han Dynasties (206 B.C. - 220 A.D.) when court officials needed a fast and efficient script to record and process state matters. The marked difference between this script and Xiaozhuan is that Lishu characters have less strokes and boast a more flowing style, and are therefore easily adaptable to calligraphy brushes.  In addition, Chinese characters were further standardized under the Lishu script to remove regional variations, and these characters are for the most part the same ones written today.  Hence, it is widely acknowledged that the Lishu script laid the foundation for present-day Chinese writing.

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After the Lishu script, the evolution of Chinese calligraphy took on a cursive trend.  Caoshu (草书) or the Cursive script first appeared in the latter part of the Han era when calligraphers began to inject artistic styles into their writing.  Typically, the shape of the Chinese characters in the cursive script do not resemble the corresponding standard Lishu character as some strokes are either being merged or simply omitted.

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Kaishu (楷书) or the Formal script emerged at around the same time as Caoshu.  While very similar to Lishu, Kaishu contains serif-like (hook- or anchor-like) elements at the turn and end of each stroke.  This form of writing was being continually refined and standardized until the mid-Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) when a uniform script was agreed upon. 

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Meanwhile, also at the latter part of the Han Dynasty, a more cursive variant of Kaishu, known as Xingshu (行书) or the Running script, also took shape.  Again, several strokes, especially sequential dots, are being merged, or two perpendicular strokes deliberately curved up.  Given its relatively simple and fast execution, Xingshu easily became the most popular script in use during its time.

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Picking up Chinese Calligraphy

All newcomers to Chinese calligraphy are initiated through the basic brushstrokes in the formal and neat style of Kaishu.  The beginner learns by imitation through a template of strokes called tie, usually a reproduction of a manuscript by a renowned ancient calligrapher.  As the learner tries to reproduce each line and dot that forms each character, he is forced to examine and appreciate the proper way of writing and placing each stroke in the character. 

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Notably, there is no fixed way of writing any character as the style and form would depend on the period of origin of the template.  For instance, if the learner picks up a Kaishu tie from the Tang Dynasty, the style which he learns will be more regimented than say, that from the Song Dynasty.  As one progresses in the mastery of Chinese calligraphy, one may choose to branch into practicing the other more demanding or stylistic scripts such Xingshu or Caoshu.  And with confidence and practice, the learner can also try to inject personal styles into the writing.

Appreciating Chinese Calligraphy

While there is no fixed set of rules or standards by which to judge or define beauty in Chinese calligraphy, enthusiasts usually refer to the following general points in their appreciation of calligraphy masterpieces.  A good calligraphy work would display a sublime balance of strength and gentleness behind the different strokes and the appropriate amount of ink used for each character.  Furthermore, the placement and alignment of each character across the piece of paper, thus making up the visual composition of the artwork, is just as important a factor in defining a masterpiece.