Beauty playing go

Ideas and art flowed into China on the Silk Road along with commercial goods during the Tang period (A.D. 607-960). Art produced in China at this time reveals influences from Persia, India, Mongolia, Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East. Tang sculptures combined the sensuality of Indian and Persian art and the strength of the Tang empire itself. Art critic Julie Salamon wrote in the New York Times, that artists in the Tang dynasty “absorbed influences from all over the world, synthesized them and a created a new multiethnic Chinese culture."

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “In plastic art there are fine sculptures in stone and bronze, and we have also technically excellent fabrics, the finest of lacquer, and remains of artistic buildings; but the principal achievement of the Tang period lies undoubtedly in the field of painting. As in poetry, in painting there are strong traces of alien influences; even before the Tang period, the painter Hsieh Ho laid down the six fundamental laws of painting, in all probability drawn from Indian practice. Foreigners were continually brought into China as decorators of Buddhist temples, since the Chinese could not know at first how the new gods had to be presented. The Chinese regarded these painters as craftsmen, but admired their skill and their technique and learned from them. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

Proto-porcelain evolved during the Tang dynasty. It was made by mixing clay with quartz and the mineral feldspar to make a hard, smooth-surfaced vessel. Feldspar was mixed with small amounts of iron to produce an olive-green glaze. Tang funerary vessels often contained figures of merchants. warriors, grooms, musicians and dancers. There are some works that have Hellenistic influences that came via Bactria in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Some Buddhas of immense size were produced. None of the tombs of the Tang emperors have been opened but some tombs of the royal family members have excavated, Most of them were thoroughly looted. The most important finds have been murals and paintings in lacquer. They contain delightful images of court life.

Tang- and Five Dynasties-era paintings in collection at National Palace Museum, Taipei include: 1) "Emperor Ming-huang's Flight to Sichuan", Anonymous; 2) "Mansions in the Mountains of Paradise" by Tung Yuan (Five Dynasties); and 3) "Herd of Deer in an Autumnal Grove", Anonymous. Works of calligraphy from the same period in the museum include: 1) "Clearing After Snowfall" (Wang Hsi-chih, Chin Dynasty); and 2) "Autobiography" by Huai-su, (T'ang Dynasty).

Good Websites and Sources on the Tang Dynasty: Wikipedia ; Google Book: China’s Golden Age: Everday Life in the Tang Dynasty by Charles Benn books.google.com/books; Empress Wu womeninworldhistory.com ; Good Websites and Sources on Tang Culture: Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org ; Tang Poems etext.lib.virginia.edu enter Tang Poems in the search; Chinese History: Chinese Text Project ctext.org ; 3) Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization depts.washington.edu ; Chaos Group of University of Maryland chaos.umd.edu/history/toc ; 2) WWW VL: History China vlib.iue.it/history/asia ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia Books: “Daily Life in Traditional China: The Tang Dynasty”by Charles Benn, Greenwood Press, 2002; "Cambridge History of China" Vol. 3 (Cambridge University Press); "The Culture and Civilization of China", a massive, multi-volume series, (Yale University Press); "Chronicle of the Chinese Emperor" by Ann Paludan.

Tang Dynasty Painting

Zhang Xuan, Palace Ladies Pounding Silk

During the Tang Dynasty both figure painting and landscape painting reached great heights of maturity and beauty. Forms were carefully drawn and rich colors applied in painting that were later called "gold and blue-green landscapes." This style was supplanted by the technique of applying washes of monochrome ink that captured images in abbreviated, suggestive forms.

During the late Tang dynasty bird, flower and animal painting were especially valued. There were two major schools of this style of painting: 1) rich and opulent and 2) "untrammeled mode of natural wilderness." Unfortunately, few works from the Tang period remain.

Lovely murals were discovered in the tomb of Princess Yongtain, the granddaughter of Empress Wu Zetian (624?-705) on the outskirts of Xian. One shows a lady-in-waiting holding a nyoi stick while another lady holds glassware. It is similar to tomb art found in Japan. A painting on silk cloth dated to the A.D. mid-8th century found in the tomb of a rich family in the Astana tombs near Urumqi in western China depicts a noblewoman with rouge cheeks deep in concentration as she plays go.

Famous Tang dynasty paintings include Zhou Fang's “Palace Ladies Wearing Flowered Headdresses,” a study of several beautiful, plump women having their hair done; Wei Xian's The Harmonious Family Life of an Eminent Recluse, a Five Dynasties portrait of a father teaching his son in a pavilion surrounded by jagged mountains; and Han Huang's Five Oxen, an amusing depiction of a five fat oxen.

Celebrated painters included Han Gan, Zhang Xuan, and Zhou Fang. The court painter Wu Daozi (active ca. 710–60) was famous for his naturalist style and vigorous brushwork. Wang Wei (701–759) was admired as a poet, painter and calligrapher. who said "there are paintings in his poems and poems in his paintings."

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “The most famous Chinese painter of the Tang period is Wu Tao-tzu, who was also the painter most strongly influenced by Central Asian works. As a pious Buddhist he painted pictures for temples among others. Among the landscape painters, Wang Wei (721-759) ranks first; he was also a famous poet and aimed at uniting poem and painting into an integral whole. With him begins the great tradition of Chinese landscape painting, which attained its zenith later, in the Song epoch. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

Examples of Tang Painting

“Ode on Pied Wagtails” by Tang Emperor Xuanzong (685-762) is a handscroll, ink on paper (24.5 x 184.9 centimeters): According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “In the autumn of 721, about a thousand pied wagtails perched at the palace. Emperor Xuanzong (Minghuang) noticed pied wagtails give out a short and shrill cry when in flight and often wag their tails in a rhythmic manner when walking about. Calling and waving to each other, they seemed to be especially close, which is why he likened them to a group of brothers demonstrating fraternal affection. The emperor ordered an official to compose a record, which he personally wrote to form this handscroll. It is the only surviving example of Xuanzong's calligraphy. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

Jing Hao, Mount Kuanglu

“The brushwork in this handscroll is steady and the use of ink rich, having a force of vigor and magnanimity in every stroke. The brushwork also clearly reveals pauses and transitions in the strokes. The character forms are similar to those of Wang Xizhi's (303-361) characters assembled into "Preface to the Sacred Teaching" composed in the Tang dynasty, but the strokes are even more robust. It demonstrates the influence of Xuanzong’s promotion of Wang Xizhi's calligraphy at that time and reflects the trend towards plump aesthetics in the High Tang under his reign.” \=/

“Traveling Through Mountains in Spring” by Li Zhaodao (fl. ca. 713-741) is a hanging scroll, ink and colors on silk ( 95.5 x 55.3 centimeters): According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “The landscape paintings of Li Zhaodao, the son of the painter and general Li Sixun, followed in the family tradition and equaled those of his father, earning him the nickname "Little General Li." The compositions of his paintings are tight-knit and skillful. When painting rocks, he first drew outlines with fine brushwork and then added umber, malachite green, and azurite blue. Sometimes he would even add highlights in gold to give his works a bright, luminous feeling. \=/

“Using fine yet strong lines, this archaic work is actually a later "blue-and-green" landscape painting in the manner of Li Zhaodao. Furthermore, despite the title, this work actually portrays the escape of the Tang emperor Xuanzong (685-762), also known as Minghuang, to Sichuan during the An Lushan Rebellion. To the right figures and horses descend from the peaks to the valley, while the man before a small bridge is probably the emperor. Clouds coil, peaks rise, and mountain paths wind, emphasizing precarious plank paths using the composition of "Emperor Minghuang’s Flight to Sichuan” as a model.” \=/

“A Palace Concert” by an anonymous Tang dynasty artist is hanging scroll, ink and colors on silk (48.7 x 69.5 centimeters). According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “This painting depicts ten ladies of the women's quarters from the inner palace. They are seated around the sides of a large rectangular table served with tea as someone is also drinking wine. The four figures at the top are playing a Tartar double-reed pipe, pipa, guqin zither, and reed pipe, bringing festivity to the figures enjoying their banquet. To the left is a female attendant holding a clapper that she uses to keep rhythm. \=/

“Although the painting has no signature of the artist, the plump features of the figures along with the painting method for the hair and clothing all accord with the aesthetic of Tang dynasty ladies. Considering the short height of the painting, it is surmised to have originally once been part of a decorative screen at the court during the middle to late Tang dynasty, later being remounted into the hanging scroll seen here.” \=/

Emperor Minghuang Playing Go by Zhou Wenju (ca. 907-975) is a Five Dynasties period (Southern Tang), Handscroll, ink and colors on silk (32.8 x 134.5 centimeters): According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “ The subject here is attributed to the Tang emperor Minghuang’s (Xuanzong, 685-762) fondness of playing "weiqi" (go). He sits on a dragon chair by a go board. A man in red goes to discuss a matter, his back adorned with a jester, suggesting that he is a court actor. The coloring here is elegant, the drapery lines delicate, and the figures’ expressions all fine. The Qing emperor Qianlong's (1711-1799) poetic inscription criticizes Minghuang for his infatuation with the concubine Yang Guifei, attributing his eventual neglect of state affairs for the calamities that befell the Tang dynasty. Scholarly research also suggests this handscroll may depict Minghuang playing go with a Japanese monk. The old attribution is to the Five Dynasties figure painter Zhou Wenju, but the style is closer to that of the Yuan dynasty artist Ren Renfa (1254-1327).

Song Era Paintings on Tang Themes

“Leaving Behind the Helmet: by Li Gonglin (1049-1106) from the Song dynasty is handscroll, ink on paper (32.3 x 223.8 centimeters). According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “ In 765, the Tang dynasty was invaded by a large army headed by the Uighurs. Guo Ziyi (697-781) was ordered by the Tang court to defend Jingyang but was hopelessly outnumbered. When the advancing army of Uighurs heard of Guo's renown, their chieftain requested a meeting with him. Guo thereupon took off his helmet and armor to lead a few dozen cavalry and meet the chieftain. The Uighur chieftain was so impressed by Guo's loyalty to the Tang and his bravery that he also discarded his weapons, dismounted, and bowed in respect. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

“This story is illustrated using the "baimiao" (ink outline) method of painting. In it, Guo Ziyi is shown leaning over and holding out his hand as a mutual sign of respect at the meeting, reflecting the composure and magnanimity of this famous general at the time. The lines in the drapery patterns here flow with ease, having much of the pure and untrammeled quality of literati painting. Although this work bears a signature of Li Gonglin, judging from the style, it appears to be a later addition.”\=/

A Palace Concert

“Beauties on an Outing” by Li Gonglin (1049-1106) is handscroll, ink and colors on silk (33.4 x 112.6 centimeters): According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “ This work is based on the poem "Beauties on an Outing” by the famous Tang poet Du Fu (712-770), who described therein the opulent beauty of noble ladies from the states of Qin, Han, and Guo. The figures of the ladies here are plump and their faces done with white makeup. The horses are muscular as the ladies proceed on horseback in a leisurely and carefree manner. In fact, all the figures and horses, as well as the clothing, hairstyles, and coloring method, are in the Tang dynasty style. \=/

A late Northern Song copy of a Tang rendition on this subject by the Painting Academy ("Copy of Zhang Xuan's 'Spring Outing of Lady Guo'") is very similar in composition to this painting. Though this work bears no seal or signature of the artist, later connoisseurs attributed it to the hand of Li Gonglin (perhaps because he specialized in figures and horses). However, judging from the style here, it was completed probably sometime after the Southern Song period (1127-1279). “ \=/

“My Friend” by Mi Fu (151-1108) is an album leaf rubbing, ink on paper (29.7x35.4 centimeters): According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Mi Fu (style name Yuanzhang), a native of Xiangfan in Hubei, once served as an official in various localities when younger, and the court of Emperor Huizong employed him as an Erudite of Painting and Calligraphy. He was also gifted at poetry, painting, and calligraphy. With a keen eye, Mi Fu amassed a large art collection and became known along with Cai Xiang, Su Shi, and Huang Tingjian as one of the Four Masters of Northern Song Calligraphy. \=/

“This work comes from the fourteenth album of Modelbooks in the Three Rarities Hall. The original work was done between 1097 and 1098, when Mi Fu was serving in Lianshui Prefecture, representing the peak of his career. In this letter, Mi Fu gives a recommendation for cursive script to a friend, saying that he should select from the virtues of Wei and Jin calligraphers and pursue an archaic manner. The brushwork throughout this work is sharp and fluent. Though unbridled, it is not unregulated. Marvelous brushwork emerges from the dots and strokes as the characters appear upright and leaning in an agreeable composition of line spacing. Creating a maximum effect of change, it overflows with the vigor of straightforward freedom. The “tang” character chosen for the Tang Prize comes from Mi Fu’s calligraphy.” \=/

Tang Calligraphy

According to art-virtue.com: “Chinese calligraphy reached the highest peaks both in the Jin and Tang Dynasties. When people talk about the Tang Dynasty as the golden age of Chinese culture, they praise calligraphy as one of the Tang's crowning achievements. In the Tang Dynasty the government set up academies for studying calligraphy. Calligraphy was used to evaluate a person and was considered as a way in selecting talents. There were six subjects in the National Academy and calligraphy was one of them. The whole society, from the emperors to ordinary people, treated calligraphy passionately.” In the early Tang Dynasty, Emperor Taizong “loved Wang Hsi-Chih's calligraphy and spent money to buy his works from the populace. Because of his favor, most calligraphers at that time studied Wang Hsi-Chih's styles. [Source: art-virtue.com ]

From the Wei and Jin to the South and North Dynasties, the popular scripts included Kai (regular script) Hsin (walking), and Tsao (running, semi-cursive) Styles. All calligraphy styles were widely seen in the Tang Dynasty. Calligraphers specializing in Tsao Shu included Zhang Shui, Huai Su, and Sun Guo-Ting. (Zhang Shui had instructed monk Huai Su. People often peered their achievements and referred them as “Mad Zhang & Crazy Monk” for their unrestrained personalities and calligraphy styles.) As for Kai Shu, many calligraphers in the Tang Dynasty reached another peak after Wei Bei and set standards for generations to follow.”

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “During the Tang period, the predominant script was the regular or standard script, with a stylistic emphasis on brush methods or structure. The regular script was believed to have reached its maturity during the early Tang, representing a culmination of previous regional developments. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=]

Calligraphy of a Bai Juyi poem

“Tang calligraphy has been noted for its solidity and strength, which were also believed to demonstrate the author's irreproachable moral character. Although the majority of calligraphers during the Tang period made their most distinctive contributions to the development of a mature standard or regular script, the cursive script type would in time be the most favored for its ability to express the individual calligrapher's aesthetic preferences and inner character.” /=\

Tang calligraphy is discussed here in terms of four main directions of its development: 1) the court and the styles it favored, 2) the adoption of other styles by literati, 3) the continuing importance of copying religious texts, and 4) the development of individualist styles. In later writings on Chinese calligraphy, each historical period would be associated with a particular script type and the attitudes attributed to it. For example, the Six Dynasties period is associated with the cursive and running scripts, with a primary emphasis on "resonance" and harmony, likely because of the close relationship between calligraphy and lyric expression in poetry during this era. /=\

History of Calligraphy in China

Maxwell Hearn of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: Chinese ideographs evolved from “their earliest appearance on bronzes, stones, and bones about 1300 B.C. (known today as "seal" script, after its use on the red seals of ownership); their gradual regularization, culminating with the bureaucratic proliferation of documents by government clerks during the second century A.D. ("clerical" script); their artful simplification into abbreviated forms ("running" and "cursive" scripts); and the fusion of these form-types into "standard" script, in which the individually articulated brushstrokes that make up each character are integrated into a dynamically balanced whole...The practice of calligraphy became high art with the innovations of Wang Xizhi in the fourth century. [Source: Maxwell Hearn, Department of Asian Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

After the Northern and Southern dynasties (386-589), standard and running scripts were the most common forms of calligraphy, widely used in practical, everyday affairs. During the Tang dynasty (618-906), standard script prevailed and the methods and rules were firmly established so that Tang dynasty standard script became the model for later generations.

During the Tang dynasty, calligraphers experimented with free, liberated forms of cursive script. In the Sung Dynasty (960-1279), calligraphers experimented with running script and developed a multitude of styles in which they expressed their ideas and feelings in their writing. In the Yuan (1279-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911), calligraphers returned to the past for inspiration.

Pioneering calligraphers in the Han dynasty created styles that became models for later calligraphers.Wang Hsi-chih (Wang Xizhi AD 321-379), the Sage of Calligraphy, is often regarded as master of the flowing semi-cursive script. His original manuscripts were greatly coveted by a the 7th century Tang Emperor Taizong who tried to obtain them by trickery from monk who was sworn to destroy them. Taizong so admired Wang's work he took the calligrapher's famous “Preface to the Gathering at the Orchid Pavilion” with him to his grave. Wang's son Wang Hsien-chih (Wang Xianzhi, 344-386) was also a great calligrapher.

Tang Calligraphy Aesthetics

Li Po calligraphy

Tang era calligraphy is known for both its powerful court styles and experimental new styles. Although the Tang period is closely associated with the standard script as a result of its being adopted by the court, other types continued to be in use.

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “Between the time of Wang Xizhi and the beginning of the Tang dynasty, calligraphy had come to be seen as a vehicle for expressing one's social status and learning. There was also a very close relationship between poetry and calligraphy as practiced by the educated elite from this time forward. More and more people who practiced calligraphy sought to develop facility with a variety of styles and script types. One of the means by which they did so was copying familiar texts that contained a wide range of simple and complicated characters.” [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=]

Dawn Delbanco of Columbia University wrote: “Consider two Tang-dynasty texts that describe calligraphy in human terms, both physical and moral. Here, the properly written character assumes the identity of a Confucian sage, strong in backbone, but spare in flesh: 1) "[A written character should stand] balanced on all four sides... Leaning or standing upright like a proper gentleman, the upper half [of the character] sits comfortably, while the bottom half supports it." (From an anonymous essay, Tang dynasty). 2) "Calligraphy by those good in brush strength has much bone; that by those not good in brush strength has much flesh. Calligraphy that has much bone but slight flesh is called sinew-writing; that with much flesh but slight bone is called ink-pig. Calligraphy with much strength and rich in sinew is of sagelike quality; that with neither strength nor sinew is sick. Every writer proceeds in accordance with the manifestation of his digestion and respiration of energy." (From Bizhentu, 7th century). [Source:Dawn Delbanco, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

Other writings on calligraphy use nature metaphors to express the sense of wonder, the elemental power, conveyed by written words: 1) "[When viewing calligraphy," I have seen the wonder of a drop of dew glistening from a dangling needle, a shower of rock hailing down in a raging thunder, a flock of geese gliding [in the sky], frantic beasts stampeding in terror, a phoenix dancing, a startled snake slithering away in fright. (Sun Guoting, 7th century). 2) A dragon leaping at the Gate of Heaven. (Description of the calligraphy of Wang Xizhi by Emperor Wu [r. 502-49]). \^/

“And so, despite its abstract appearance, calligraphy is not an abstract form. Chinese characters are dynamic, closely bound to the forces of nature and the kinesthetic energies of the human body. But these energies are contained within a balanced framework—supported by a strong skeletal structure—whose equilibrium suggests moral rectitude, indeed, that of the writer himself.” \^/

Tang Calligraphy, Buddhism and the Art of Copying

Du Fu calligraphy

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “Although the style of calligraphy developed by Wang Xizhi and Wang Xianzhi was widely admired and practiced during their lifetimes, its continued influence on later calligraphers depended on the dissemination of original writings or reliable facsimiles to practitioners in other locales and to later generations. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=]

“During the Sui Dynasty (A.D. 589-618) the monk Zhiyong, a seventh-generation descendant of Wang Xizhi, produced many copies of traditional Wang style writings for distribution among various temples throughout (modern day) Zhejiang province. Zhiyong was also the teacher of Yu Shinan, an assistant in the Palace Library at the Sui court who went on to hold more senior academic positions at the early Tang court under Taizong. The Tang emperor appreciated Yu's steadfast personality and extensive learning as well as his excellence as a calligrapher. /=\

“It is important to note here that copying, in the history of both Chinese painting and calligraphy, does not carry the same pejorative connotation that it does in the European tradition, where the copy invariably stands in a subsidiary and inferior relationship to its original. Copying in China, on the other hand, was seen as a valuable educational tool, allowing the writer to model his writing stylistically, and more importantly, himself, on the character and intellect of the master calligrapher whose mode of writing he practiced.” /=\

“Religious calligraphy continued to be of great importance during the Tang. Until the widespread use of printing in China after the Tang dynasty, religious texts were copied by hand. Buddhist texts in particular were copied in great numbers by monks or by individuals. Copies of the entire Buddhist canon were undertaken by imperial decree, and often the work of many individual calligraphers went into the completion of various sutra texts, which could be quite long. When sutra texts were commissioned, it was common practice to have the most talented calligraphers do the first and last scrolls, with the work parceled out to other scribes in between. The brush used for sutra copying was different in shape from a regular calligraphy brush, with a much shorter tip. Decorative refinements, such as the use of specially made papers and gold or silver inks, were employed in the copying of religious texts, but rarely occur in secular examples.” /=\

Calligraphy and the Tang Emperor Taizong

Taizong calligraphy

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “Calligraphy is an art form that has been closely associated with political power throughout China's history. Tang Taizong (r. A.D. 626-649) himself was an avid collector of Wang Xizhi calligraphy during his day, and went to extreme lengths to gather up all the known extant Wang Xizhi works. He commissioned professional copyists to do careful reproductions of the works in the imperial collection and patronized Wang-style calligraphers at his court, many of whom held high-ranking posts. Taizong took Wang Xizhi as the model for his own writing, which he practiced using copies provided by Yu Shinan (who because of his teacher Zhiyong was believed to be the closest Tang dynasty practitioner to the original Wang style). [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=]

Taizong reportedly tried to obtain the original manuscripts of Wang Xizhi by trickery from monk who was sworn to destroy them. Taizong so admired Wang's work he took the calligrapher's famous “Preface to the Gathering at the Orchid Pavilion” with him to his grave.

Of the more prominent academicians at Taizong's court, Yu Shinan and Ouyang Xun were valued as keepers of the calligraphic tradition, serving as tutors to the sons of nobility and as scholars of rank in the Palace library and Institute for the Advancement of Literature, respectively. /=\

Famous Tang Calligraphers

Chang Hsu from the mid-Tang period is famous for his "tipsy" cursive that provided an alternative to the classic style of Wang His-chih. Whenever Chang painted when he was drunk it was said that his brushes flied and danced with unbridled emotion. Huai Su was even less restrained than Chang Hsu. He was famous from his extremely fluid and spontaneous "wild" cursive. Wang Wei (701–759) was admired as a poet, painter and calligrapher. who said "there are paintings in his poems and poems in his paintings."

Yu Shinan and Ouyang Xun were famous calligraphers in Taizong’s court. They served as tutors to the sons of nobility and as scholars of rank in the Palace library and Institute for the Advancement of Literature, respectively. The characters in their calligraphy was regular script. Both precision and spontaneity were required to make high-quality works.

Chu Suiliang (A.D. 596-658) is well-known early Tang calligrapher. The style used in his early life was said to be solid and firm. The sensitive, delicate style of his later years has been described as "a frail lady unable to bear the weight of her own garments." [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=]

Gao Xian is famous for his “Thousand character essay,” which displays alternating lines of regular and running script. Born in Wucheng (present-day Huzhou, Zhejiang Province), he was an eminent monk who lived during the mid-Tang Dynasty. Only 243 characters of the original one thousand characters are left. “Thousand character essay,” is regarded as a great calligraphic achievement of the mid-Tang Dynasty and is known for the charming vitality of its free and spontaneous brushstrokes. The Handscroll is Cursive Script, Ink on paper (length: 30.8 centimeters, Width: 311.3 centimeters). [Source: Cultural China]

Individualist Styles of Tang Calligraphy

20080303-cursive script Zhu Yunmingf, Ming shnag M.jpg
Cursive script
Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “Individualism became an important strain in painting, calligraphy, and poetry during the middle to later years of the Tang dynasty. As the central political sphere declined, there was an upsurge in localized unorthodox creative activity which seemed to stand outside all previous traditions. Daoist painters got drunk and painted with their hair or dragged each other across the paper’s surface, and their Chan counterparts sought similar release from societal constraints in calligraphy through the use of a new style of writing aptly named "wild cursive." [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=]

“The moral and civic value attached to modeling oneself on the great early Tang masters of the standard script from Taizong's court was still recognized, but the new emphasis on individuality, the spontaneous, and the uninhibited marked a profound shift in calligraphic practice from an ultimately conservative tradition to one that favored self-expression and change. /=\

As court calligraphers throughout the Tang period were engaged in setting and maintaining a standard for elegant writing in the Wang tradition, the actual forms of calligraphy championed by the court became increasingly conventionalized and stagnant. Wild cursive, a radically modified version of the draft cursive script of the Han dynasty, can be seen as a reaction against the atrophied writing styles of later Wang tradition calligraphers. /=\

Zhang Xu and Wild Cursive Calligraphy

20080303-Can Zheng Tie runnings cript, northern soing, shang M.jpg
Running script
Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “Zhang Xu (active A.D. 710-750) was said to be the originator of the wild cursive script. He enjoyed considerable fame in his own day, and is counted among the Tang poet Du Fu’s "Eight Drunken Immortals." Although wild cursive seems to break radically from all past traditions, Zhang Xu did base his writing style on one of the more prominent earlier calligraphers. It is believed that he was further influenced by the Daoist practice of automatic writing in sand. Zhang Xu's calligraphic style is widely praised, especially by later scholars, yet one of the by-products of his style is a pronounced deformation of word structures.[Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=]

Zhang Xu was also the teacher/model of two calligraphers of the following generation who were revered for their unorthodox and highly individualistic styles. The monk Huaisu (735?-800? AD) was a man of letters; also known as the "Drunken Monk," he followed Zhang Xu's wild cursive mode of writing. In one of the extant examples of his calligraphy, Huaisu complains about eating bitter bamboo shoots, and also admits his unbounded passion for liquor and fish. The sample of Huaisu's writing below is an autobiographical essay that includes comments on his own study of calligraphy./=\

Yan Zhenqing and His Strong, Moralistic Calligraphy

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “Yan Zhenqing (A.D. 709-785) was a leading figure among loyalists to the Tang throne during the politically turbulent eighth century. He was a dedicated and brilliant military figure who suffered great personal loss at the hands of aspirants to the throne yet remained unswerving in his loyalty to the legitimate ruling house. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=]

“Because of his reputation as a staunchly moral and principled individual, Yan Zhenqing's forceful and majestic individual style assumed the heroic proportions of his own life. One of the requisite techniques of Chinese calligraphy is maintaining the brush's upright position in order to transfer more directly and powerfully the flow of energy from hand to paper. From Yan Zhenqing's time forward, saying someone wrote with an "upright brush" carried an especially strong tone of moral approbation. His calligraphy was particularly influential among literati of the Northern Song, including Su Dongpo and Huang Tingjian. /=\

“Evaluative writings on calligraphy often equate the structure ("architecture") and line quality of the written word with the physical human self. Some examples are criticized for being too "fleshy" while lacking in bone structure. Yan Zhenqing's regular script inscriptions contrasts with the more orthodox court tradition that favored the elegance and ease of Wang Xizhi style calligraphy, represented by Chu Suiliang from the time of Taizong and Li Yong, the foremost Wang tradition calligrapher of the first half of the eighth century. Although some of Yan Zhenqing's calligraphy is riddled with mistakes and corrections, his writing has been especially valued by connoisseurs.” /=\

Mogao Caves

Mogao Grottoes (17 miles south of Dunhuang) — also known as Thousand Buddha Caves — is a massive group of caves filled with Buddhist statues and imagery that were first used in the A.D. 4th century. Carved into a cliff on the eastern side of Singing Sand Mountain and stretching for more than a mile, the grottoes are one of the largest treasure house of grotto art in China and the world.

Outside Mogao Caves

All together there are 750 caves (492 with art work) on five levels, 45,000 square meters of murals, more than 2000 painted clay figures and five wooden structures. The grottoes contain Buddha statues and lovely paintings of paradise, asparas (angels) and the patrons who commissioned the paintings. The oldest cave dates back to the 4th century. The largest cave is 130 feet high. It houses a 100-foot-tall Buddha statue installed during the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-906). Many caves are so small they can only can accommodate a few people at a time. The smallest cave is only a foot high.

Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic, “Within the caves, the monochrome lifelessness of the desert gave way to an exuberance of color and movement. Thousands of Buddhas in every hue radiated across the grotto walls, their robes glinting with imported gold. Apsaras (heavenly nymphs) and celestial musicians floated across the ceilings in gauzy blue gowns of lapis lazuli, almost too delicate to have been painted by human hands. Alongside the airy depictions of nirvana were earthier details familiar to any Silk Road traveler: Central Asian merchants with long noses and floppy hats, wizened Indian monks in white robes, Chinese peasants working the land. In the oldest dated cave, from A.D. 538, are depictions of bandits bandits that had been captured, blinded, and ultimately converted to Buddhism."Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, June 2010]

“Carved out between the fourth and 14th centuries, the grottoes, with their paper-thin skin of painted brilliance, have survived the ravages of war and pillage, nature and neglect. Half buried in sand for centuries, this isolated sliver of conglomerate rock is now recognized as one of the greatest repositories of Buddhist art in the world. The caves, however, are more than a monument to faith. Their murals, sculptures, and scrolls also offer an unparalleled glimpse into the multicultural society that thrived for a thousand years along the once mighty corridor between East and West.

“The Chinese call them Mogaoku, or "peerless caves." But no name can fully capture their beauty or immensity. Of the almost 800 caves chiseled into the cliff face, 492 are decorated with exquisite murals that cover nearly half a million square feet of wall space, some 40 times the expanse of the Sistine Chapel. The cave interiors are also adorned with more than 2,000 sculptures, some of them among the finest of their era. Until just over a century ago, when a succession of treasure hunters arrived across the desert, one long-hidden chamber contained tens of thousands of ancient manuscripts.

"The caves are a time capsule of the Silk Road," says Fan Jinshi, director of the Dunhuang Academy, which oversees research, conservation, and tourism at the site. A sprightly 71-year-old archaeologist, Fan has worked at the grottoes for 47 years, ever since she arrived in 1963 as a fresh graduate of Peking University. Most other Silk Road sites, Fan says, were devoured by the desert or destroyed by successive empires. But the Mogao caves endured largely intact, their kaleidoscope of murals capturing the early encounters of East and West. "The historical significance of Mogao cannot be exaggerated," Fan says. "Because of its geographical location at a transit point on the Silk Road, you can see the mingling of Chinese and foreign elements on nearly every grotto wall."”

A total of 243 caves have been excavated by archaeologists, who have unearthed monk's living quarters, meditation cells, burial chambers, silver coins, wooden printing blocker written in the Uighar and copies Psalms of written in the Syriac language, herbal pharmacopoeias, calendars, medical treatises, folk songs, real estate deals, Taoist tracts, Buddhist sutras, historical records and documents written in dead languages such as Tangut, Tokharian, Runic and Turkic.

History of Mogao Caves

Mogao Cave 249

Mogao was a major center of Buddhist scholarship and a trading post on the Silk Road for more than a thousand years, until 1372 when the Chinese withdrew their garrisons and the area was taken over by the Mongols. The caves were largely abandoned after that.

Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic, “The caves began as a vision of light. One evening in A.D. 366, a wandering monk named Yuezun saw a thousand golden Buddhas blazing in a cliff. Inspired, he chiseled a small meditation cell into the rock; others quickly followed. The first caves were no larger than coffins. Soon, monastic communities began carving out larger caverns for public acts of devotion, adorning the shrines with images of the Buddha. It is these early grottoes that inspired the nickname the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas. [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, June 2010]

“Their canvases consisted of nothing more than river mud mixed with straw, but Dunhuang's artists would, over the centuries, record on these humble surfaces the evolution of Chinese art---and the transformation of Buddhism into a Chinese faith. One of Mogao's creative peaks came during the seventh and eighth centuries, when China projected both openness and power. The Silk Road was booming, Buddhism was flourishing, and Dunhuang was paying fealty to the Chinese capital. The Tang cave painters displayed a fully confident Chinese style, covering whole walls with minutely detailed Buddhist narratives whose color, movement, and naturalism made the imaginative landscape come alive. The Middle Kingdom would later turn inward, finally shutting itself off from the world during the Ming dynasty in the 14th century.

"Unlike Indian Buddhists, the Chinese wanted to know in detail all the forms of the afterlife," says Zhao Shengliang, an art historian at the Dunhuang Academy. "The purpose of all this color and movement was to show pilgrims the beauty of the Pure Land---and to convince them that it was real. The painters made it feel like the whole universe was moving."

“More earthly tumult periodically swept through Dunhuang. Yet even as the town was conquered by competing dynasties, local aristocracies, and foreign powers---Tibet ruled here from 781 to 847---the creative enterprise at Mogao continued without pause. What accounts for its persistence? It may have been more than a simple respect for beauty or Buddhism. Rather than wiping out all traces of their predecessors, successive rulers financed new caves, each more magnificent than the last---and emblazoned them with their own pious images. The rows of wealthy patrons depicted on the bases of most murals increased in size over the centuries until they dwarfed the religious figures in the paintings. The showiest patron of all may have been Empress Wu Zetian, whose desire for divine projection---and protection---led her to oversee, in 695, the creation of the complex's largest statue, a 116-foot-tall seated Buddha.

“By the late tenth century the Silk Road had begun to fade. More caves would be dug and decorated, including one with sexually charged tantric murals that was built in 1267 under the Mongol Empire founded by Genghis Khan. But as new sea routes opened and faster ships were built, land caravans slipped into obsolescence. China, moreover, lost control over large portions of the Silk Road, and Islam had started its long migration over the mountains from Central Asia. By the early 11th century several of the so-called western regions (part of modern-day Xinjiang, in China's far west) had been converted to Islam, and Buddhist monks placed tens of thousands of manuscripts and paintings in a small side chamber adjoining a larger Mogao grotto. Were the monks hiding documents for fear of an eventual Muslim invasion? Nobody knows for sure. The only certainty is that the chamber---now known as Cave 17, or the Library Cave---was sealed up, plastered over,and concealed by murals. The secret cache would remain entombed for 900 years.”

In 1900, the priest Wang Yuanku discovered the famous Hidden Library, a trove of 50,000 documents, including the Diamond Sutra, the world's oldest book. In 1907, the British-Hungarian archeologist Sir Aurel Stein paid Wang four silver pieces and hauled off thousands of manuscripts, silk scroll paintings and wood slips, and the Diamond Sutra out of China. These are now housed in the British Museum, the British Library and the National Museum in New Delhi.

Mogao Cave 148 (Tang, A.D. 705-781)

According to the Dunhuang Research Academy: “This cave has a transverse rectangular layout (17x7.9m) and a vaulted roof. The interior looks like a big coffin because its main theme is the Buddha’s nirvana (his demise; the liberation from existence). Because of the special shape of this cave, it has no trapezoidal top. The Thousand-Buddha motif is painted on the flat and rectangular ceiling. This motif is original, yet the colours are still as bright as new. On the long altar in front of the west wall is a giant reclining Buddha made of stucco on a sandstone frame. It is 14.4m long, signifying the Mahaparinirvana (the great completed nirvana). More than 72 stucco statues of his followers, restored in the Qing, surround him in mourning. [Source: Dunhuang Research Academy, March 6, 2014 public.dha.ac.cn ^*^]

Mogao Cave contains “the largest and best painting about Nirvana in Dunhuang....The Buddha is lying on his right, which is one of the standard sleeping poses of a monk or nun. His right arm is under his head and above the pillow (his folded robe). This statue was later repaired, but the ridged folds of his robe still retain the traits of High Tang art. There is a niche in each of the north and south walls, although the original statues inside were lost. The present ones were moved from somewhere else. ^*^

“On the west wall, behind the altar, is the beautifully untouched jingbian, illustrations of narratives from the Nirvana Sutra. The scenes are painted from south to north, and occupy the south, west and north walls with a total area of 2.5x23m. The complete painting consists of ten sections and 66 scenes with inscriptions in each; it includes more than 500 images of humans and animals. The inscriptions explaining the scenes are still legible. The writings in ink read from top to bottom and from left to right, which is unconventional. However, the inscription written in the Qing dynasty on the city wall in one of the scenes is written from top to bottom and from right to left, the same as conventional Chinese writing. Both of these writing styles are popular in Dunhuang. ^*^

“In the seventh section, the funeral procession is leaving town on the way to Buddha’s cremation. The casket in the hearse, the stupa and other offerings, which are carried by several dharma protectors in front, are elaborately decorated. The procession, including Bodhisattvas, priests and kings carrying banners and offerings, is solemn and grand. ^*^

removing teeth from Cave 148

“In the ninth section, Indra (one of the gods) is depicted in two continuing scenes. In the first, he stands beside the casket and is removing Buddha’s teeth. In the next, he travels on a cloud to bring the teeth back to heaven to be worshipped (top-left). On the other side (top-right), two asuras (a kind of celestial being) are escaping on a cloud after stealing two of the Buddha’s teeth. The contents of the painting are substantial and the depictions are very detailed and magnificent. The architecture and costumes in this mural are of Chinese style. Interestingly, a rooster is on top of the casket, which is a typical Chinese funeral custom for dispelling evil spirits. ^*^

“In Dunhuang, mural content with Vajrayana (the last phase of Indian Buddhism) first appears in the Sui caves. Vajrayana flourished in High Tang, thus it is called the Tang-mi (literally, the Vajrayana in the Tang dynasty). In this cave were the earliest examples of Vajrayana art in Dunhuang. It includes jingbian on the thousand-armed and thousand-eyed Guan-yin (Avalokitesvara) on the east wall above the entrance, and statues of his other forms — Amoghapasa in the north niche and Cintamanichakra in the south niche. Although the two original statues are now missing (the present ones were made in the Qing), the content of this cave is recorded on a stele, built in 776 or earlier, in the antechamber. Also in the antechamber are two devaraja (Heavenly Kings), two vajrapani (dharma protectors) and two lions made in Middle Tang and restored in the Qing. ^*^

“On the east wall, at each side of the entrance, other jingbian are painted — Amitabha is on the south side while the Medicine Buddha is on the north. Both of them have vertical margins on both sides to provide additional information on the sutra. They were painted in the High Tang and partly altered in the Western Xia. The magnificent depictions still represent Tang art. The main halls, corner buildings, cloisters, pavilions on water, etc. provide very good information on Tang architecture. In the corridor is the illustration of the Sutra of Requiting Blessing Received, which emphasizes filial piety and is believed to be written by the Chinese to conform with Confucius’ teachings. This is the first time the sutra is illustrated in Dunhuang.” ^*^

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons: Mogao caves: Dunhuang Research Academy, public.dha.ac.cn ; Digital Dunhuang e-dunhuang.com

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu ; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021

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