What Is Chinese Cursive?

What does Chinese cursive look like? Check out how 草书 (cǎo shū), "rough script”, is written here, and how it's different from calligraphy.

As a native speaker of Mandarin, a question I often get from my foreign friends is “What does Chinese cursive look like?”

We don’t really have a word for “cursive” in Mandarin. The closest is 草书 (cǎo shū), literally means “rough script.” The character 草 also appears in the phrase “rough draft”, 草稿, however it is also the character for “grass.” Thus, you may notice that sometimes Chinese cursive is mistranslated into “grass script.” If someone’s handwriting is messy or rough, you can use the word “草” as an adjective.

Note: Chinese cursive is different from Chinese calligraphy. Calligraphy is the art of putting ink on paper in words. Chinese cursive is merely a style of penmanship. There are Chinese calligraphers that choose to write in print.

Below is an example of Chinese cursive side by side with normal Chinese typography.

As you can see, the number of strokes diminishes and the strokes merge together. To put it quite simply, Chinese cursive to us looks like English cursive does to you.

Most modern Chinese is written from left to right, however calligraphers usually write the traditional way – up to down and right to left.

Cursive Chinese handwriting is extremely difficult for beginners at Chinese to read. In order to read Chinese handwriting, you need to know the strokes. Especially the order of the strokes, and which way they are written. 

Related: 7 Basic Rules of Chinese Stroke Order

But with those who write with very languid strokes, even native speakers have those “what the heck is that supposed to say?” moments. That is partially why Chinese cursive is no longer as commonly used. It can be difficult to read, and in the digital age, many people type on a computer instead of writing things by hand.

Handwriting is sometimes considered as a representation of that person. In fact, people have once used these interpretations to compare the handwriting of two opposing leaders in China’s history:Mao Zedong and Chiang-Kai-shek.

From Mao’s handwriting (left) we can see that it is very script-like. People have said that his handwriting “has no frame”, just like that of a poet’s, which they say represent his style of thinking.

Chiang’s writing, on the other hand, looks extremely neat and orderly. Each character would fit into a perfect square. People say that it looks like the writing of a military man, which perhaps represented his philosophy.

What do you think? If you learn Chinese, would you attempt 草书?


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