The early form of Chinese writing may be traced back to the inscriptions found on oracle bones, which date back to the Shang dynasty. These were simple questions posed to an oracle or to a divinity and written on a sheep or ox scapula or a tortoise's shell. During this period, almost all of the examples of Chinese words are monosyllabic, that is, comprised of a single character. At this point, the pictographic elements of the language are evident. In the Western Zhou and the Spring and Autumn Period, the chief sources of Chinese writing are the surviving bronze inscriptions. The style and form of the characters are derived from the Shang, but characters become increasingly regular through to the end of the Spring and Autumn Period. Certain formal modifications like the straightening and squaring of formerly rounded strokes first appear at this point.

The Qin dynasty is the central moment in which the Chinese script underwent standardization. There are two main Qin scripts: (1) the seal script (zhuanshu), which was used for official documents, and may be traced directly back to the bronze inscriptions of the Zhou; and (2) the clerical script (lishu), which was a much simplified, demotic form of the seal script. Lishu derived its name from its usage by lower-level clerks in the government. It is this second form of Chinese writing that is the ancestor to modern Chinese script, as it was this form that the Han dynasty adopted as its universal script.

During the latter part of the Han, a variation on the clerical script emerged: this would become the form called "the standard script" or "kaishu." The standard script does not emerge fully until the time of the great Eastern Jin calligrapher, Wang Xizhi (A.D. 321-379). Kaishu replaces lishu as the official during the Northern and Southern Dynasties Period, and remains the orthodox script to this day.

In addition to these script-forms, there were also various cursive forms, or "caoshu." The earliest date to the 3rd century B.C., and were associated with the emerging clerical script. However, cursive script still followed certain orthographic norms. The form of writing which was used in more personal writings (letters, for example) was called "running script" or "xingshu." This form shares many characteristics with the caoshu forms, but maintains a fidelity to the form of the kaishu form. Contemporary Chinese use this form in personal correspondence, which often poses difficulties to those who can only read the printed kaishu script.

the written vs. the spoken
history of written forms