Calligraphy is such an exquisite art form that it’s hard to imagine someone inventing it per se, but at some point, the letters and characters had to be created and someone had to think of inscribing them or painting them onto a surface.
If you are just starting out with learning calligraphy you may be wondering who invented it. How far back does the history of calligraphy really spread and can anyone really claim to be the first to use it?
Chinese calligraphy and East Asian influences
Many believe that it was the Chinese that invented calligraphy. It is certainly difficult to pinpoint the origin in East Asian culture due to the nature of the art form.
Long before calligraphy pens came along, people were engraving characters and words on to objects for centuries. The brushwork of ancient Eastern calligraphy came before Qin Shi Huang established character unification, where he essentially created a standardized alphabet of 3300 characters.
The reign also saw the creation of the Lishu style of clerical script. If this isn’t the beginning of calligraphy in China, it is certainly when the letters and approaches came into their own. This era of calligraphy is attributed to 220BC onwards.
As the dynasties and eras continued, the art form developed with new styles of scripts and methods, with the Kaishu style – still used today – appearing between 303-361. Many of these stroke patterns and shapes continue into Kangxi, and subsequently Kanji and other East Asian scripts that are in use today.
Other forms of calligraphy across India and Central Asia
The development of calligraphy and writing styles across China, Japan and other East Asian civilizations follows a fairly clear path. Around the same time that Qin Shi Huang brought in his own unification and calligraphy standardized in China, a whole other style was emerging in India. Kharosti and Brahmi scripts developed in India in the 3rd century, with evidence of Asoka’s edicts on stone between 265-238-BC. Kharosti was then adopted across Central Asia until around the 8th century.
The history of the script in India also shows an interesting progression of techniques. It is easy for some to mistakenly place India’s calligraphy latter in the history because ink and paper examples are more modern, around the 13th. Yet, this is simply due to a preference for other materials like palm leaves, which are more durable.
Western calligraphy in Europe is another sub-genre that developed independently and while the best examples of calligraphy on paper and artwork are not seen until the first century, the Latin script alphabet appeared in 600BC.
It all began as a simple of basic capital to be inscribed on buildings and developed into the more elaborate, artistic religious scripts we think of today. Therefore we can say that the basic ideas originated early than those of China, but they were less expressive. The style remained popular as a way of celebrating bible passages and stretched across the continent. Over the centuries the styles developed and diversified, included the popular Gothic script that would later become a typeface.
However, an earlier form actually originates in what was once Persia.
Islamic scripts and calligraphy styles are celebrated for the spiritual meaning and artistic beauty, with many artists continuing the approaches in modern work and elaborate texts and designs still in use. These Islamic texts are one of the more ancient texts of the area, but not the first. Zoroastrianism of ancient Persia saw another script developed between 600-500 BC, much earlier than the Chinese and before the written Latin texts of the Romans. It is the most simplistic form of lines, but they are still written characters with important meanings. Today the modern Nasta’liq script offers a whole new approach with a strict system.
Calligraphy is still developing with modern revivals and each of these influences still has its place.
There is no singular form of calligraphy and no linear timeline of development. Each culture and civilization independently developed their own way of creating letters and making a mark that would last. Modern revivals in calligraphy have altered the methods and materials, but there is still appreciation and love for the original scripts and a vast number of styles are being revived. It doesn’t matter who was first, as long as they all survive.