Chinese Calligraphy in Tsao Shu (Running Style)   

Updated: 02/15/2013


            Features of Tsao Shu

            Revolution & Changes

            Resurrection of Tsao Shu

            Guide to Start Tsao Shu

            Masters & Works of Tsao Shu

            Video Demo of Tsao Shu

            Comparisons of Tsao Styles

            Summary of Learning




Tsao Shu (also known as Grass Style, Running Script, Caoshu, Cao Shu, or Cursive Script) is the most simplified but abstract and difficult form of writing in Chinese calligraphy. Among all Chinese calligraphy styles, Tsao Shu usually demands the highest levels of techniques while expressing the maximum freedom (in conformity with many complex rules.) Tsao Shu was developed almost at the same time with Li Shu. Since the Han Dynasty, Li Shu and Tsao Shu were developed and established. From the Han Dynasty to the Jin and Tang Dynasties, there were many famous Tsao Style calligraphers. Tsao Shu reached one of its peaks during the Jin Dynasty when Wang Hsi-Chih and his son, Wang Hsian-Chih, were both good at this style. The father and son are referred as "the Two Wangs"  ( ) in the Chinese calligraphy history. They influenced later calligraphers in each dynasty, especially for Hsin and Tsao Styles.  Later in the Tang Dynasty, two great calligraphers, Zhang Hsui (  ) and Huai Su ( ), were both reaching another peak in Tsao Shu.  

Tsao Style is generally considered the most difficult style among all five major Chinese calligraphy styles. Calligraphers specializing in Tsao Style decreased in number since the Tang Dynasty.


Back to Top

Features of Tsao Shu

The main feature of Tsao Shu is to simplify the left sidepiece (radical) of a character and focus on the right sidepiece (“Yi Zuo Yang Yu   ,” literally simplify the left and focus on the right.) Thus a calligraphy work in Tsao Style will look more smooth, connecting and faster with abrupt turning and dramatic effects.

The following is a chart that lists each character in Kai Style and three ways of writing that character in Tsao Style. Like Zuan Style, a character can be written in many ways in Tsao Style.


So 1.jpg (149776 bytes) Ran 1.jpg (60226 bytes) Shiung 1.jpg (90194 bytes) Wei 1.jpg (75112 bytes) Zu 1.jpg (63524 bytes)
So 2.jpg (258581 bytes) Ran 2.jpg (86684 bytes) Shiung 2.jpg (67350 bytes) Wei 2.jpg (75592 bytes)

Wei #2

Zu 2.jpg (66191 bytes)
So 3.jpg (254170 bytes) Ran 3.jpg (98809 bytes) Shiung 3.jpg (77883 bytes) Wei 3.jpg (76897 bytes) Zu 3.jpg (74084 bytes)

Zu #3

So 4.jpg (143160 bytes) Ran 4.jpg (39387 bytes) Shiung 4.jpg (63994 bytes) Wei 4.jpg (65153 bytes) Zu 4.jpg (73548 bytes)


From the above examples, we may know that “simplifying the left and focusing on the right” is a major rule for creating a Tsao Style character by different ancient calligraphers. The calligraphers obey the prototype more strictly on the left side while they have leeway for artistic design on the right side. If a laymen tries to coin his way of creating a Tsao Style character without learning and basis, he may end up making mistakes. Adding or removing a single dot in one position can turn a Tsao character into another one. For example, “Wei #2” and “Zu #3” are just different in one dot.  There are innumerous close differences or similarities like this since the total number of Chinese characters is so large.

If art does not impose some norms or standards, everybody can do it in his own way without learning and practicing. Consequently, people won’t appreciate or recognize each other’s efforts and contribution. Just as languages and music have their own grammars, Chinese calligraphy has sets of strict rules, especially for Tsao and Zuan Styles.


Back to Top

Revolution & Changes of Tsao Shu

During the Emperor Zhang’s (    ) reign in the Han Dynasty, calligrapher Du Du (  ) was allowed to present documents in Tsao Style to the emperor. Thus his Tsao Style was called “Zhang Tsao   .”   



Emperor Zhang’s calligraphy


After Du Du, there were Tsui Yuan, Tsui Shu, Zhang Chih, and Zhang Tsun. Among them, Zhang Chih (    ) was the first calligrapher to earn the title “King of Tsao Shu  ” and he taught many students. He was the founder of the modern school of Tsao Shu (“Jin Tsao  ”, "Jin" means today or modern.)  He had a great influence on Wang Hsi-Chih and especially Wang Hsiang-Chih. During this era, there were many schools of Tsao Shu and Tsao Shu became very, very popular in all walks of life and had a great impact on the whole nation and society.


ZhangChih_A.jpg (555249 bytes)    ZhangChih_B.jpg (427962 bytes)

Tsao Style works by Zhang Chih


During the late Han Dynasty and the Wei and Jin Dynasties, almost every scholar could write Tsao Shu. The royal members of the Jin Dynasties were even writing letters in Tsao Shu and exchanged their insights and skills. Those royal calligraphers included Wang Hsi-Chih ( ), Yu Yi ( 庾翼 ), Wang Hsian-Chih (    ), Hsieh An (  ), and so on. Thus, Tsao Shu took a quantum leap in the Jin Dynasty.


WangHsiChih1.jpg (596929 bytes)

 Tsao Style works by Wang Hsi-Chih


Back to Top

Resurrection of Tsao Shu

In the Tang Dynasty, both Zhang Shui ( ) and Huai Shu ( ) liked to write calligraphy after getting drunk. They would yell, stride, and show weird behaviors during their creation. They were peered as “Crazy Zhang & Weird Monk .” They established a Tsao Style commonly referred as Wild Cursive "Kwun Tsao  ” (“Kwun” means crazy and bold.)

Huai Su’s Autobiography (Click for complete picture)


From the Han Dynasty to the Tang Dynasty, Tsao Shu had three major changes in styles and structures. The way a character was written in Tsao Shu was already established in the Han Dynasty; the following changes in the Jin and Tang Dynasties were only for the strokes and character structures for the sake of art. So there are three main styles of Tsao Shu: Zhang Tsao (    ), Jin Tsao ( ), and Kwun Tsao ( ).

In early 1900s, Yu You-Ren (  ,1879-1964) promoted standardized Tsao Shu due to the drastic irregularities and differences between each Tsao Shu calligrapher and character in different dynasties. He founded the “Society of Standardization of Tsao Shu.” He studied ancient calligraphy works in Tsao Shu and revitalized and promoted Tsao Shu to the modern society based on the four principles - “easy to read, easy to write, accurate, and beautiful.” 



Back to Top

Guide to Start Tsao Shu

Among the five major styles of Chinese calligraphy, Tsao Style is probably the most difficult due to technical requirements and foundation. Only after one has mastered Kai and Hsin Styles can he or she begin to learn Tsao Style. A lot of calligraphy teachers prefer students to start from Jin Tsao (   ). A proper sequence of learning is very important to build a good foundation.

Since the sidepiece or radical (“Bu So  ”), derivatives, alternatives, borrowing, mixture, and various rules can be very confusing, a student may resort to Tsao Shu manuals or dictionaries to better understand the writing principles and avoid errors. A beginner may choose to start from “The 1000 Characters in Tsao Shu  ” by Zu Yong ( ), Huai Su (  ) or other calligraphers.


Click for a list of recommended readings in Chinese: Reference 1   Reference 2   Reference 3


After the student has mastered the rules, requirements, structures, stroke sequences, and connections between several characters, s/he may proceed to Kwun Tsao or Zhang Tsao from Jin Tsao.


Please also remember the Center Tip Theory “Zong Fon   ” (literally, brush pen tip at the middle of hairs) is very important for Jin Tsao and Kwun Tsao writing. 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 a calligraphy stroke should look like drawing on sand with awl (“Zuei Hwa Sa  .”) The principle requires keeping our brush handles 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 handle and the hair. We may rotate the brush when necessary with fingertips (knuckles not recommended). Bending a brush outward, sideways or toward oneself is a very common defect and is seen among laymen. By strictly obeying this principle, the hairs (or the sharpness of hairs) of a brush are hiding inside during brush motions rather than going scattered and collapsed.


Back to Top

Masters & Works of Tsao Shu

Du Du (?-?) 

He was allowed to present reports to the Emperor Zhang (  ) in running style calligraphy. Thus his Tsao Style was called “Zhang Tsao  .” Even the King of Tsao Style, Zhang Chih, admitted that his work was inferior to Du Du’s and Tsui Yuan’s works.


Tsui Yuan (77-142) 

He was good at Zhang Tsao. His book "Tsao Shu Postures  " was valued by later calligraphy theorists. His Tsao Shu was not as ingenious in structures as his teacher Du Du but was more charming than Du Du's. He was peered with Du Du. His style was masculine and vigorous.

TsuiYuan1.jpg (1419233 bytes)

Zhang Chih (?-193) 

He won the title ”King of Tsao Shu  .” He practiced calligraphy by a pond and it became black because he washed his brushes and ink plate there. He studied Zhang Tsao from Du Du and Tsui Yuan and then established the modern style of Tsao Shu. He had a great influence on Wang Hsi-Chih and Wang Hsiang-Chih. 










Wang Hsi-Chih (303-361)  (Pinyin: Wang Xizhi)

He earned the titles of "The King of Calligraphy   " & "The Dragon of Hsin Shu    . "



Search results on Yahoo:

Stories and life of Wang Hsi-Chih:

Calligraphy theories by Wang Hsi-Chih:


WHC4.jpg (100877 bytes)WHC7.jpg (83354 bytes)WHC6.jpg (74636 bytes)

快雪時晴帖 (



Wang Hsian-Chih (344-386) 

The 7th son of Wang Hsi-Chih. He studied his father's calligraphy earlier and studied Zhang Chih's calligraphy later. He reformed bravely. His style was brilliant and heroic.  

WangHsianChih(MiddleMoon).JPG (209733 bytes)        WangHsianChih5.jpg (225435 bytes)



Sun Guo-Ting (684-702?) 

Famous Tsao Shu calligrapher and theorist in the Tang Dynasty. He inherited the Two Wangs’ method. His work shown here (    ) is an important essay about Tsao Shu.



Zhang Shui (?-?) 

He also won the title "King of Tsao Shu " after Zhang Chih. Every time he was drunk, he was inspired and did a terrific work. He was nicknamed “Crazy Zhang.”  Zhang Shui's calligraphy, Lee Bai's poem, and Pei Ming's sword playing were the “three exquisite talents in the Tang Dynasty”.  Zhang Shui was a nephew of Lu Jian-Chih’s son. Lu Jian-Chih ( ) was a nephew of Yu Shi-Nan ( ). From the family lineage, Zhang Shui inherited the secrets and system from Tsui Yuan, Zhong Yao, Wang Hsi-Chih, Wang Hsian-Chih, and Yu Shi-Nan; however, he represented calligraphy strokes in a brand-new look and invention. His followers included Hsu Hao, Yen Jen-Ching, and Tsui Miao.


ZhangShui1.jpg (788059 bytes)

ZhangShui2.jpg (538414 bytes)    


Huai Su (725-785) 

He became a monk at ten years old. He was very fond of wine, just like Zhang Shui. He would write beautifully and quickly whilst he became drunk and inspired. His calligraphy was like a running snake or a flying dragon and also resembled strong wind, violent storm and thundering. His Tsao Shu was peered with Zhang Shui’s. He called his writing "The calligraphy of an intoxicated immortal." He was highly regarded by Yen Jen-Ching, Lu Xian and Zhang Wei. Being very poor, and lacking money to buy paper, he planted many banana trees in his backyard and used the leaves for practice. It is said that he practiced so hard that he had piles of bad brushes like a tomb and most of his banana leaves were black.

HuaiSu1.jpg (802171 bytes)

HuaiSu_EatFish.JPG (2784865 bytes)

HuaiSu(1000).jpg (729383 bytes)

Free Download (


Xien-Yu Su (1257-1302) 

He studied Zhang Tien-Si’s work first, then Jin & Tang Dynasties’ calligraphy to establish his style. Inherited the Two Wangs’ spirit.

XienYuSu2.jpg (738531 bytes)



Back to Top

Video Demo of Tsao Shu & Hsin Shu


Back to Top

Comparisons of Tsao Styles



Back to Top

Summary of Learning

Most Chinese calligraphers agree that a beginner in Tsao Style starts learning Jin Tsao before Kwun Tsao and Zhang Tsao. Each of them has unique underlying principles to write a character. However, Kwun Tsao is more metaphysical and abstract and looks crazy. It sometimes does not follow strictly the rules and principles as set by Jin Tsao. However, this does not mean one can create his own way of writing a Tsao Shu character randomly without following any rules. If so, there will not be any standard to appreciate each other's work and achievement.

We may learn more broadly and deeply by collecting and appreciating ancient masterpieces.  From analyzing each masterpiece and master, we may eventually realize their learning sources, creation processes and why their immortal works have remained famous for thousands of years. Learn and we will know our insufficiency; study abroad then we may specialize.



Back to Top


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

Jin Tsao   – Founded by Zhang Chih in the Han Dynasty.

Kwun Tsao    – Founded by Zhang Shui in the Tang Dynasty.

Yi Zuo Yang Yu    – Simplify left sidepiece and focus on right sidepiece in a Tsao Shu character.

Zhang Tsao   – Founded by Du Du in the Han Dynasty.


Back to Top

Appendix: More calligraphy works in Tsao Style

Sun Lu-Tang (1861–1933)  祿

Famous Ba Gwa Zhang and Hsing Yi Chuan martial artist. Founder of Sun Style Tai Chi Chuan. At his youth, he learned to make calligraphy brushes from his relatives. Later, he gave up making brushes and devote himself to martial arts. He was the very first person to publish books of Chinese internal martial arts theories.

SunLuTang.jpg (44712 bytes)

(Back to Styles Menu)            (Back to Home)