The Richness of Kanji: Unveiling the Five Font Styles

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There are 5 styles as Kanji (Chinese characters) styles: “楷書 (Square style)”, “行書 (Running style)”, “草書 (Cursive style)”, “隷書 (Clerical style)”, and “篆書 (Seal style)”. Even one character can be written in a variety of styles.

The style which is most commonly used are Square and Running styles, which are very similar character forms. This article introduces all the 5 styles so that you can experience the richness of Kanji character expression.

Square Style

What is Square Style?

Square style is characterized by a neat, straight, square shape. Each Kanji characters has a fixed number of stroke and a fixed stroke order. In square style, the strokes are not connected by lines, but are written the strokes one by one. The character shape is square. Starting, sending, and stopping strokes are usually clear. The character layout is evenly spaced between characters in Square style.

This style is the most basic style and the foundation style for writing Japanese Characters accurately and beautifully. This style is essential to the study of Kanji characters. The style is often taught as a basic style, and it is widely used as a style which is beautiful and easy to read, today. On the other hand, it is considered the most basic yet most difficult style of calligraphy because of its beauty.

There are Mincho, Gothic, and Textbook styles as print styles. Mincho style is based on a Kanji dictionary, “康熙字典 (Koki-jiten, Kangxi dictionary), which is somewhat different from the traditional Square style established in the early Tang Dynasty.

Origin of Square Style

Square style originated in China. It became the standard style from the Northern and Southern Dynasties to the Sui and Tang Dynasties, instead of the previous standard style, Clerical style, which was the standard in the Han Dynasty. Square style was established later than Running style although it is often assumed that the 3 styles of calligraphy originated in this order, Square style, Square style and Running style,

Square Style calligraphy was established in the Tang Dynasty. “王羲之 (Oh gishi/Wang Xizhi) from the Eastern Jin Dynasty, “欧陽詢 (Ohyo Jun/Ouyang Xun) from the Tang Dynasty, “虞世南 (Gu Seinan/Yu Shinan)”, “褚遂良 (Cho Suiryo/ Chu Suiliang)”, and 顔真卿 (Gan Shinkei/Yan Zhenqing) are representative calligraphers in Square style. These calligraphers established the basic style of Square style and had a profound influence on later generations.

Square Style Masters and Square Style Works

  • 王羲之 (Oh gishi/Wang Xizhi): 楽毅論 (Gakki-ron/Yue Yi lun)
  • 欧陽詢 (Ohyo Jun/Ouyang Xun): 九成宮醴泉銘 (Kyuseikyu-reisenmei/Jiu cheng gong Liyuan Ming)
  • 虞世南 (Gu Seinan/Yu Shinan): 孔子廟堂碑 (Koushi-byoudo-hi/Confucius Temple Monument)
  • 褚遂良 (Cho Suiryo/ Chu Suiliang): 雁塔聖教序 (Ganto-shokyo-jo)
  • 顔真卿 (Gan Shinkei/Yan Zhenqing): 多宝塔碑 (Taho-Toh-hi)

Running Style

What is Running Style?

Dots, lines and strokes are connected to the next by a line continuously unlike Square style. In addition, strokes may be omitted or strokes order may be changed.

In addition, the end shape of the strokes may be changed. On the other hand, unlike cursive, the character forms are very similar with Square style. Therefore, it not difficult for the reader to decipher. Running style characters are more rounded and consist of softer lines than Square style. It is more short-hand than Square style. It is widely used in modern Japan as an everyday handwriting style. In the field of modern education, students in Japan study Running style in Japanese language classes when they are junior high school students.

Origin of Running Style

Running style is a style derived from Clerical style, like Cursive style did from Clerical style. It was perfected by Wang Xizhi, who was called the “Sage of Calligraphy” from the Eastern Jin Dynasty. Running style was the standard style in the Sui and Tang Dynasties.

Running style has the both advantages of fast writing and easy to read. Running style is often thought that it was created after Square style and before Cursive style, but it was created in about the same era or slightly before Square style. In ancient China, Cursive style was a more informal writing style used for letters. On the other hand, Running style was used for more solemn occasions, such as official documents and ritual documents.

Running Style Masters and Running Style Works

  • 王羲之 (Oh gishi/Wang Xizhi): 蘭亭序 (Rantei-jo/ Lantingji Xu)
  • 顔真卿 (Gan Shinkei/Yan Zhenqing): 祭姪文稿 (Saitetsu-bunko)”
  • 空海 (Kukai): 風信帖 (Fushinjo)
  • 最澄 (Saicho): 久隔帖 (Kyukakujo)

Cursive Style

What is Cursive style?

Cursive style is the most shorthand style among Square, Running, Cursive, Clerical, and Seal styles. Some of the dots and strokes are omitted in Cursive style. The character forms vary widely, and multiple characters are written in succession. In contrast to the Square style which most characters are written in one fixed number of stroke and one fixed stroke order, Cursive style has several ways of writing. Since it is allowed to devise the character forms and strokes, the style has a high degree of freedom of expression.

The knowledge acquired through general modern Japanese schooling is not sufficient to decipher the characters Cursive style. The simplified Chinese characters used in modern China are based on the Cursive style. In modern Japan, cursive writing can be seen on the signs of traditional stores and in product designs.

Origin of Cursive Style

Cursive style originated in the process of writing Clerical style and Seal style quickly. In the Tang Dynasty, the calligraphers, “張旭 (Zhang Xu)” and “懐素 (Huai Su)” wrote an unrestrained cursive style called “狂草(Wild Cursive)“. In the late Ming Dynasty, other calligraphers, “王鐸 (Wang Taku)” and ”傅山 (Fu Zhan)” wrote cursive with extreme succession called “連綿草 (Renmen-so/Successive cursive)”, a style in which many cursive strokes are written one after another in succession.

Cursive Style Masters and Cursive Style Works

  • 王羲之 (Oh gishi/Wang Xizhi): 十七帖 (Jushichi-jo)
  • 張旭 (Cho Kyoku/Zhang Xu): 自言帖 (Jigen-jo)
  • 懐素 (Kai So/Hui Su): 自叙帖 (Jijo-jo/Autographs)
  • 王鐸 (Oh Taku/Wang Baku): 詩巻 (Shi-kan/Poem Scrolls)
  • 傅山(Fu Zan/Fu Shan): 草書五言律詩軸 (Sosho-gogonrisshi-jiku/Poem of Eight Lines Each of Five characters in Cursive Style)

Clerical Style

What is Clerical Style?

Clerical style is the second oldest style among Square, Running, Cursive, Clerical, and Seal styles. The character shape is horizontal, and the style consists of many very horizontal and vertical lines. The initial of strokes are written with reverse strokes and with hidden brush top strokes. The brush tip runs in the center of the width of lines.

The end of strokes is a wavy triangular shape, “波磔 (Hataku)”. In current Japan, you can see in the characters on Japanese paper money, signboards, book titles, nameplates on houses’ doors. In addition, it can be found on stone monuments and tombstones in Japan.

Origins of Clerical Style

Seal style was the standard style before the invention of Clerical style. Seal style has a large number of strokes and it takes time to write. Therefore, Clerical script was created by simplifying and straightening Seal style. Although Seal style was used as the official style until the Qin Dynasty, Seal style became the official style during the Han dynasty (B.C.202-A.D.220) and the style reached its climax.

Clerical Style Works

The following are representative classical works in Clerical style. The author of all of them is unknown. All of the original stone monuments still exist in China.

  • 曹全碑 (Sozen-pi/Cao Zhan Stele)
  • 礼器碑(Reiki-hi/Ritual Instrument Stele)
  • 乙瑛碑Itsuei-hi/Yuei Stele)

Seal Style

What is Seal Style?

It is the oldest style among Square, Running, Cursive, Clerical, and Seal styles. The character form is vertical. The initial of strokes are written with reverse strokes. The brush tip runs in the center of the width of lines. The horizontal strokes are very horizontal, and the vertical stroke is very vertical. The bending line is rounded. In current Japan, you can see Seal style on seals and the titles of Japanese passports.

Origin of Seal Style

About 3,300 years ago, characters were engraved on animal bones for divination. This is the beginning of Seal style. Later, Seal style was also engraved on bronze vessels. Once Clerical style was established, Seal style decreased, but Seal style did not disappear completely in China or Japan.

Seal style Works

  • 李斯 (Ri Shi/Li Si): 泰山刻石 (Taisan-kokuseki/Taishan carved stone)
  • Author unknown: 石鼓文 (Sekko Bun/ Shi gu wen)


If you study Japanese as a foreign language may be tempted to give up on learning Japanese because of imagining to master the 5 different style Kanji. Do not worry. You don’t need to master the all 5 styles. Even native Japanese people or even people from other countries where Kanji is the official language also usually don’t master all of the styles.

The first style to learn, whether as a first or second language, is Square style. Your Japanese textbooks and the website page must display the sentences in Square style. When writing by hand, some people use Running style to write quickly. However, Running style has very similar shape with Square style. If you know a character in Square style, it is not difficult to read the character in Running Style.

If you engage with Japanese culture, you will probably see the other styles as designed characters. This article introduced all 5 styles. I hope you discovered the richness of expression in Kanji.

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