20080303-Can Zheng Tie runnings cript, northern soing, shang M.jpg
Running script

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei:“In China, the art of writing characters (calligraphy) has a long history that can be traced back to remote antiquity in the late Neolithic period. At that time pictographic images engraved on pottery already reveal the rudimentary beginnings of Chinese characters. Through the vicissitudes of time, the ancients developed various principles to create characters based on form, pronunciation, and meaning, gradually establishing a system of writing. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

There are basically five categories of calligraphy: seal, clerical (official), cursive, standard, and running. All five categories are still used today. 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 \^/]

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.

Websites and Sources on Chinese Painting and Calligraphy: China Online Museum chinaonlinemuseum.com ; Painting, University of Washington depts.washington.edu ; Calligraphy, University of Washington depts.washington.edu ; Websites and Sources on Chinese Art: China -Art History Resources art-and-archaeology.com ; Art History Resources on the Web witcombe.sbc.edu ; ;Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC) Visual Arts/mclc.osu.edu ; Asian Art.com asianart.com ; China Online Museum chinaonlinemuseum.com ; Qing Art learn.columbia.edu Museums with First Rate Collections of Chinese Art National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw ; Beijing Palace Museum dpm.org.cn ;Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org ; Sackler Museum in Washington asia.si.edu/collections ; Shanghai Museum shanghaimuseum.net

Early History of Chinese Calligraphy

The first examples of calligraphy are found on Shang Dynasty (1766-1122 B.C.) on oracle bones and bronze inscriptions. The writings that appeared on bronze vessels before 200 B.C. consisted of rigid, complex characters with many strokes. The complexity was reduced somewhat with the invention of seal script which was engraved on stone and on bamboo and silk.

Seal script was the first form of calligraphy. Clerical script, which developed from seal script, was very complex and laborious to write. It was used mainly in official documents. A short hand form of clerical script known as "rough draft" script evolved into the cursive form. Before the Qin Dynasty (221 B.C.-206 A.D.) there were no names for script forms and calligraphy was referred to simply as "writing (“wen") or "characters" (“tzu"). The first Qin emperor standardized the Chinese writing system, absorbing different regional forms, into "large seal script" (“ta-chian") which was later simplified into more regular, flowing "small seal script" (“hsiao-chuan). During the late Qin and early Han dynasties, "clerical script" (“li-shu") evolved out of small seal script. Clerical script was characterized by simplified, squarer and more angular brush strokes. By the eastern Han period clerical script featured thickening and thinning brush lines, energetic slanting strokes, and wavelike forms.

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei:“Judging from the characters in oracle bone and bronze inscriptions as well as on wood and bamboo slips, the formation of Chinese characters was already more or less complete by the Qin dynasty (221-207 B.C.). With meaning not departing from the form (whether written, engraved, or cast), all characters reveal a pursuit of aesthetic strokes and shapes, demonstrating that calligraphy and the origins of writing are two aspects of the same thing. To unify writing, small seal script was promulgated in the Qin dynasty. Though not lasting for very long, Chinese calligraphy was able to nonetheless enter a new stage in the evolution of script forms. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

“The dynasties of the Qin (221-206 B.C.) and Han (206 B.C.-220 CE) represent a crucial era in the history of Chinese calligraphy. On the one hand, diverse forms of brushed and engraved "ancient writing" and "large seal" scripts were unified into a standard type known as "small seal." On the other hand, the process of abbreviating and adapting seal script to form a new one known as "clerical" (emerging previously in the Eastern Zhou dynasty) was finalized, thereby creating a universal script in the Han dynasty. In the trend towards abbreviation and brevity in writing, clerical script continued to evolve and eventually led to the formation of "cursive," "running," and "standard" script. Since changes in writing did not take place overnight, several transitional styles and mixed scripts appeared in the chaotic post-Han period, but these transformations eventually led to established forms for brush strokes and characters.

Rubbings of Engraved Stelae and Modelbook Calligraphy

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “In China, surviving works of calligraphy are generally divided into two categories; the actual objects themselves and rubbings made of engravings carved after them. Even a single work ascribed to a certain calligrapher may have a host of copies and imitations, all of which belong to the tradition surrounding it. With the actual object itself, the beauty of the rhythm and emotion of the brush and ink can be appreciated directly. When it comes to rubbings, there are a number of ways to appreciate calligraphy. Since antiquity, characters have been engraved on various media, including stone, jade, pottery, metal, bone, bamboo, wood, and tile. When copies of characters are made by laying paper on an object and rubbing it with an inked pouch, they are called rubbings. Such copies also form an integral part of the tradition associated with a particular work. Since a rubbing is an exact copy (only with the black and white reversed), the beauty of the original calligraphy is equally apparent as the beauty of the carving itself. The force and strength of the engraving, however, offers another dimension to the pliant use of the brush in calligraphy. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

“The custom of erecting stelae (stone tablets) inscribed with characters appears from the Eastern Han period (25-220). In prior times, stelae served as sundials, or to determine when to round up the flock, or for burying a coffin — all of which were practical considerations having little to do with calligraphy. As soon as the carving of characters on stelae became popular, their use gradually expanded, including for tomb, palace, and temple architecture as well as for recording the deeds, actions, or words of individuals. In response to their popularity, they appeared with increasing frequency in historical records, especially as seen in imperial prohibitions and restrictions on their use. Such attention reflects the eternal classicism and cultural values with which stelae are associated, a belief that has lasted down to the present day in China.

“The content of some inscribed stelae, especially those transcribing ancient texts also found in printed versions, is important as first-hand material for comparison and study. Other stelae may document seemingly mundane information, but they nonetheless provide evidence for adding to or correcting later official histories. For this exhibition, however, the characters themselves serve as lasting reminders of the beauty of Chinese calligraphy through the ages. Considering the value of engraved stelae, the significance of making and preserving rubbings is all the more apparent.

“The production of modelbooks developed as a complement to the actual works of calligraphy. Although it is unknown when modelbooks began to be compiled, they became popular in the Song Dynasty (960-1279). "Modelbook Calligraphy of the Ch'un-hua Pavilion," considered by many as the origin of later compilations, was completed in 992. In early days, it was difficult for original works of calligraphy to be seen by many, so the custom of making rubbings from engraved copies allowed greater circulation. In making an engraving, the outlines of the strokes and dots are first traced onto a piece of wood or stone and then carved out. Covered with a piece of paper, the engraving is tapped with an inked pouch (like a stele) to make a copy. Thus, hundreds of rubbings can be made from the master plate.

“Modelbooks represent rubbings from engraved copies of the original works. If the original should disappear or be destroyed over time, at least some rubbings are bound to survive, providing important reference material for scholars and calligraphers. The best modelbooks are rubbings taken from engravings done directly from the actual works. Therefore, the skill of the engraver is crucial in preserving not only the appearance but also the inflections of style, such as the delicate movements of the brush and the emotional charge of the calligrapher. If not from the original, some rubbings are taken from recuttings of later engravings. However, the further one is removed from the original, the more is usually lost in terms of detail and style. Furthermore, if the quality of the engraving is inferior, the rubbing may reflect little of the original beauty.

Oracle Bone and Bronze Vessel Writing

Inscriptions on oracle bones in the Shang dynasty (16th-11th century B.C.) represented the earliest written system in China. These inscriptions were engraved on ox shoulder bones or tortoise shell over 3,000 years ago to record the divination practices and sacrificial activities of the Shang royal court. Oracle writing is the most ancient Chinese character font known so far, notable for its simplicity and dignity. They were first marked by a brush then engraved by knife. They displayed initial characteristics of Chinese calligraphy. Typical ox scapula inscriptions records a king worshipping his ancestors and nature gods, praying for a good harvest by sacrificing sheep and cattle. [Source: Shanghai Museum]

According to the Shanghai Museum: Bronze inscriptions refer to those characters cast onto ritual bronze vessels. They appeared in the Shang Dynasty and developed Western Zhou period (11th century -771 B.C.) The brush strokes of such inscriptions held basic calligraphic elements. In the early Western Zhou period, the bronze inscriptions were of random layout and vigorous strokes.

Bronze inscriptions were the documents cast on bronze vessels for ceremony. Their brush strokes resembled original written characters and displayed rich calligraphic flavor. These can be regarded as the inscriptions preceding the calligraphy of Big Seal Script. By the middle of the Zhou period the inscription style became delicate and graceful. Towards the later periods, the style became simpler and smoother in line. During the Eastern Zhou period, the diversity of script styles had developed, such as the simple script, stone engraved script, the characters on seals, the characters on coins, and so on. The bronze inscriptions of the Western Zhou period represented the beginning of Big Seal Script.

Qin Standardized Calligraphy and Seal and Clerical Scripts

The First Emperor of Qin dynasty, who unified all smaller states and ruled over the whole of China in 221 B.C., standardized Chinese characters and simplified. According to the Shanghai Museum: Small Seal script, known in Chinese history as the ‘unification of scripts and character’ was popular and became the universal script. The Small Seal script was graceful in shape and standard in stroke. There was a emphasis on regularity and symmetry illustrated in the stone inscription of Tai Shan and inscriptions on standard weight measurements. [Source: Shanghai Museum]

The bronze inscriptions of the Western Zhou period represented the beginning of Big Seal Script. The inscriptions showed random space in style. After first Emperor of the Qin unified China in 221 B.C., the Small Seal Script became the foundation of universal script for Chinese written system, which replaced diversified scripts utilized previously. This is described as the "unification of written system" in Chinese history.

Clerical (official) script can be traced to the closing years of Warring States period (3rd century B.C.). It was used during the Qin Dynasty and came into vogue in the Eastern Han Dynasty. The clerical script writing system matured during the Qin and Han dynasties. By the late Western Han, it reached a stage of great prosperity. Clerical script rejected the composing rule of "Six Scripts" for Chinese characters and set up a new foundation for Chinese written system. Inscriptions of stone tablets during the Eastern Han dynasty represented the most outstanding example of clerical script. Clerical script transformed the round linear turns of Chinese characters into squarish characters. The emphasis on heavy-down and light-up brushstrokes laid a good foundation for the later emergence of regular script.

Early Cursive Script appeared in the late Western Han. It developed out of clerical style (Official Script) in the early Han period. It was preferred over other forms of calligraphy because it was easier and faster to write. In the late Han dynasty cursive style was simplified and standardized into smooth, flowing "draft cursive." The modern style of cursive in which many strokes were connected developed out of "draft cursive." By the late Western Han, clerical script had reached an unprecedented stage of maturity. The clerical script reform the standard ‘Six Script’ rules for composing Chinese characters and its innovative expressive style became a foundation for the Regular Script. It is in the Eastern Han period when one can find, on the stele inscriptions, outstanding examples of the clerical script. The appearance of Running Cursive was the outcome of the practical use of clerical script.

Great Chinese Calligraphers

20080303-Wang Hsi chih, Chin dynatsy 4th c ad tapei.jpg
4th century work by Wang Xizhi

Pioneering calligraphers in the Han dynasty created styles that became models for later calligraphers. Wang Xizhi (Wang Hsi-chih, A.D. 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 Emperor Taizong who tired to obtain them by trickery from monk who was sworn to destroy them. One Tang Emperor 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 Xianhi, (Wang Hsien-chih, 344-386) was also a great calligrapher.

Wang Xizhi was reportedly inspired by the flight of geese: the bend of their wings, the curves of their necks and they way they held up before landing in a river. According to a well-known legend in China, Wang once met a monk with a flock of lovely geese. Wang offered to buy the geese but the monk refused to sell. After a log bargaining session, punctuated with arguments and tense words, the monk relented and told Wang he would trade the geese for two chapters of a Taoist scripture by Laozi in Wang’s calligraphy. After devoting an entire afternoon to the project, Wang finished the work and received the geese which one is led to believe he set free on a mountaintop.

Zhang Zhi is regarded as the sage of cursive script. Zhang Xu from the mid-Tang period is famous for his "tipsy" cursive that provided an alternative to the classic style of Wang Xizhi. Whenever Chang painted when he was drunk it was said that his brushes flied and danced with unbridled emotion. Huaisu was even less restrained than Zhang Xu. He was famous from his extremely fluid and spontaneous "wild" cursive. Zhu Yunming, a very emotional and extroverted person, stressed the emotive side of calligraphy. The Qing calligraphy master Wang To is known for his skill in numerous styles and his attention to detail.

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “A number of men became famous for their fine calligraphy, and examples of their styles were preserved through carvings, which traced their brushstrokes in stone. These carved examples were circulated through ink rubbings of the stone that replicated the brushwork in intaglio (blank-and-white reverse), and over time, collections of exemplary styles became the basis for educating the young in calligraphic skill. Here is an example from the Tang era calligrapher Yan Zhengqing (709-85), a man whose "upright" formal style resonated with accounts of his exemplary Confucian conduct during the difficult times of the An Lushan Rebellion. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/]

“Over time, men of literary learning tried to master one or more of these classical styles, and bring to them also a unique individuality. Thus the medium of writing — handwriting, so to speak — became an important way of expressing one's nature and of reading the character of others. Here are some interesting examples of the art of calligraphy, dating from later eras: The refined and regular style of Zhao Ji (1082-1135), who ruled as Emperor Huizong of the Northern Song Dynasty (ending his life as a captive of the Jurchen Jin court, which drove the Song court out of northern China in 1127), shows individual creativity within the confines of standard character forms (right). /+/

“Personal expressiveness in calligraphy led to wild and eccentric examples of writing. This type of calligraphy, often using dramatic character forms called "grass" script, was sometimes intended more for aesthetic power than legibility. The wild style was pioneered by Zhang Xu (c. 675-759) during the Tang era - a portion of his handscroll inscription of four poems illustrates this style. Beneath it is a scroll by the eccentric Ming literatus Xu Wei (1521-1593) of the Ming [1368-1644], known equally for wild calligraphy and art and for his bizarre personal conduct:

“A more restrained style of calligraphy could express a sense of creativity, unconstrained by the "grid" of formal characters, while retaining legibility - a balance of individuality and conformity that suggests the complex components of the literati persona. This type of calligraphy often employs an intermediate style known as "running script." Here are examples by Mi Fu (1051-1107), an unconventional painter and calligrapher of the Northern Song [960-1127] (below, left), and the Qing [1644-1911] calligrapher, Zheng Xie (1693-1765), who developed an aesthetically pleasing, uneven style that continues to be a model for some calligraphers today.

Calligraphy Before the Tang Dynasty

The cursive script is the most abstract and culturally simple of Chinese scripts. Its natural fluidity and charm made it attractive to scholars for personal correspondence and artistic expression. Cursive calligraphy later developed into an art form that so captivated some of its practitioners they forgot to eat or sleep. Standard calligraphy, which slightly resembles clerical script, appeared in the late Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.) and early Wei-Chin (265-420 A.D.). Running script, a combination of standard and cursive styles, developed shortly afterwards. 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.

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “In Chinese calligraphy, the third century CE — corresponding to the Three Kingdoms (220-280) and Western Jin (265-316) period — witnessed the maturation of various script forms. Thereafter, applications for regular, running, and cursive scripts became increasingly widespread, flourishing to form a new trend. During the fourth century in the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420), calligraphers thereupon strove to forge writing as an art form as they explored how to make brush strokes more natural and aesthetically pleasing. Pursuing the dual beauties of “skill” and “naturalness,” both ancient and modern forms of writing were combined to achieve a realm of utmost beauty and perfection in calligraphy. The most typical representative of this trend was Wang Xizhi (303-361), who was praised as the “Sage of Calligraphy” by later generations. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

The cursive script was started in the late Western Han. At that time people developed a simpler form of clerical script by linking together the lines of characters, for quick writing. This was known as Zhang’s Cursive,” the earliest form of cursive script. Later it broke free from the conventions of clerical script, producing a cursive script with a distinctive aesthetic appeal. From this emerged the Running script and Regular script. The period also saw the prominence of master calligraphers such as the father and son: Wang Xizhi (321-379) and Wang Xianzhi (344-386) — often called the Two Wangs. They were the most famous exponents of this historical transition from the clerical to the cursive script. They are ranked very high in Chinese calligraphic history for their contributions to the development of Regular, Cursive and Running Script. [Source: Shanghai Museum]

Calligraphy of the Six Dynasties Period (A.D. 220-589)

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “Some of the most famous calligraphers in all of Chinese history lived during the Six Dynasties period (A.D.220 -589). At this time a wide appreciation for expressive writing styles also led to the first collecting and cataloguing of examples of the writings of individual calligraphers, even though some of these were merely fragments of personal correspondence preserved by chance.[Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv]

“During the Six Dynasties period, calligraphy became an art form closely associated with the literate elite. Many members of the aristocratic class were like the Wang family, who had fled the political turbulence of the north and established new private estates in the south. The political and cultural center of the Southern Dynasties was situated in Jiankang (present-day Nanjing). The educated man developed his individual writing style as a means to express his inner self and to distinguish himself socially. The factors thought to contribute most to the maturation of a good calligrapher were his natural ability, a literary background, family connections, and exposure to a variety of written models, as the only way to master calligraphy was through practicing the major styles, basing innovations firmly on previous examples.

“Because of the political division of north and south during the Six Dynasties period, a very different type of calligraphy flourished in the north. Almost all examples that exist today come in the form of memorial writings on stone tablets or steles. During this period as well, important texts like the Confucian Classics and the Buddhist canon were engraved on the rock faces of sacred mountains like Mount Tai. Colossal in size, these writings make use of highly simplified character shapes.

Two Wangs: Wang Xizhi and His Son Wang Xianzhi

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “Wang Xizhi (A.D. 307?-365?) was the foremost among the calligraphers of the Eastern Jin period, and is revered today as the Sage of Calligraphy. He is best known for writings in cursive and running scripts. (Running script is a close variation of the standard script which features connections between individual characters and slightly abbreviated forms). “Wang Xizhi's seventh son, Wang Xianzhi, was also renowned as a calligrapher. In his own time, his reputation even eclipsed that of his father. By the end of the Six Dynasties period, however, Wang Xizhi was reinstated as China's foremost calligrapher, displaying what was considered to be the most classical and sophisticated style. Although his calligraphy was valued and collected from early on, few original works survive, and those that do are letters and notes. Because even as early as Tang times authentic handwritten examples of Wang Xizhi's calligraphy were rare, copies circulated, both legitimate reproductions and forgeries. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington]

Wang Xizhi was a native of Shandong and his family and ancestors came from there. Like other Eastern Jin scholars, he leaned towards Taoism and enjoyed the landscape. His calligraphy has a poetic sense and a spiritual quality that precisely reflects the individual freedom sought by artists. According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: Wang Xizhi was born into a scholarly aristocratic family. Fleeing south at the end of the Western Jin (265-316) during conflicts at the time, he settled down in Shaoxing (Kuei-chi), Zhejiang. He rose to the positions of General of the Right Army and Administrator of Shaoxing but left office in the Yung-ho period (345-356) of the Eastern Chin, traveling the land with renowned fellow gentlemen. Pouring out his heart in poetry and ballads, he also delved into music and especially calligraphy.

Wang Xizhi received early instruction from a Madame Wei and then studied the cursive script of Zhang Zhi and the standard script of Chung Yu. Excelling at all the script types and combining the virtues of each into a graceful style, Wang Xizhi long has been revered as the "Sage of Calligraphy" in China. His study of calligraphy began with contemporary writers and extended back to the ancients as he learned from the styles of many masters, picking and choosing the best for an in-depth and extensive manner. He was particularly gifted in creating forceful characters, fusing the brush methods of various Qin (221-206 B.C.) seal and Han (206 B.C.-220 CE) clerical scripts into his own ideal renditions of regular, running, and cursive script forms. Consequently, later writers in the Tang dynasty (618-907) praised him for “bringing the best methods together to form a style of his own to become a master for all ages.”

Ebrey wrote: “Wang Xizhi's most famous work was the "Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Manuscript". In A.D. AD, one year before his official retirement, Wang invited forty individuals to pass the Purification Rites festival with him at a famous pavilion in the Guiji area (modern day Zhejiang province) where he was serving as governor. A poetry contest was held alongside a stream, down which cups of wine were floated; anyone of the forty-two in attendance who could not finish his composition by the time the cup arrived would have to pay the forfeit and drink. This gathering soon achieved legendary status, and references to it occur throughout the poetry and painting of later eras. The handwriting of the preface that Wang Xizhi wrote to accompany the poems collected from this event is praised for its spontaneity, lively rhythmic energy, and variation. The internal construction of his characters and his overall use of space is also highly admired. During this period, the theory that a reader could see qualities of the man behind the brush arose.

Wang Xizhi Calligraphy

“P'ing-an, Ho-ju and Feng-chu” by Wang Xizhi (307-365) are three pieces on an ink on paper handscroll, measuring 24.7 x 46.8 centimeters. According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “These three works are all tracings copied onto a single scroll before the Tang, but they still reveal the speed and variety of brushwork where the brush turned and was lifted. The lines appear to have a life of their own. They depart from the formal qualities of clerical script and take the art of calligraphy to a realm of freedom that clearly expresses the individuality of the artist. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

The National Palace Museum, Taipei possesses “three renowned Tang copies of Wang Xizhi classics — “Timely Clearing after Snowfall,” “P'ing-an, Ho-ju, and Feng-chu,” and “Yuan-huan” “Timely Clearing after Snowfall” is ink on paper album leaf, measuring 23 x 14.8 centimeters. “This is a short letter written in semi-regular script bearing the writer's and recipient's names at the front and end, the contents dealing with a greeting to a friend after a snowfall. The Ming dynasty connoisseur Chan Ching-feng (1528-1602) pointed out that the brushwork here is rounded yet strong and ancient yet elegant, bearing a lofty and leisurely manner that had a major influence on the running script of the great Yuan dynasty calligrapher Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322). Judging from the strokes, this work indeed mainly reveals the use of a rounded and blunt brush, with none of the dots and hooks revealing the brush tip, creating an overall even and steady form. The elegant manner here also reveals a simple and introverted harmony. In the Qing dynasty, the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-1795) admired this work so much that he praised it as “Alone under the Heavens, a rare match with the ancient today.” In 1746, he referred to this work along with Wang Xianzhi's (344-386) “Chung-ch'iu (Mid-Autumn)” and Wang Hsun's (349-400) “Po-Yuan” as the “Three Rarities,” storing them in the “Three Rarities Hall” (San-hsi Tang). “Timely Clearing after Snowfall” is generally considered a rare and fine tracing copy made in the Tang dynasty.

“Yuan-huan” by Wang Xizhi is an ink on paper handscroll, measuring 24.8 x 21.5 centimeters. Because this work begins with the two characters “Hsing-pieh,” it is also known as such. This is a copy using outlines filled with ink, in which the outlines of the individual strokes are carefully delineated with brushstrokes and then filled with ink. It was the most faithful method of making a copy in ancient times, hence the saying that it “ranks second only to the original itself.” The separate piece of yellow silk at the front bears a title in “slender gold” script of Emperor Huizong ( Hui-tsung, r. 1100-1125) of the Song Dynasty along with seal impressions of the imperial household. It was also recorded in Huizong's Hsuan-ho Calligraphy Catalogue and also includes seal impressions for “Ch'un-yu chung-pi” and “Ming-ch'ang yu-lan” of the Chin emperor Chang-tsung (r. 1190-1208) as well as collections of later (Yuan, Ming, and Qing) dynasties. Judging from the contents of the letter, we know that the recipient was the Prefect of I-chou, Chou Fu (293-365), and that this is a late work by Wang Xizhi. This letter also appears in the compilation “Shih-ch'i” surviving from the Tang dynasty (618-907), but the lines there are stiffer and do not reflect the delicate touches of the brush, completely lacking the style of Wang Xizhi's calligraphy. Thus, it is much inferior to the faithfulness of outline copies such as this work.

“"Seventh Month" and "The Capital, attributed to Wang Xizhi, are mounted on ink on paper handscrolls, measuring 27.7 x 25.8 and 27.9 x 25.2 centimeters. “These two models of Wang's calligraphy were mounted together into a single handscroll. "Seventh Month" is said to be a Tang (618-907) tracing copy. Judging from the "Shao-hsing" and "Ming-ch'ang pao-wan" seal impressions, we know that this work was once in the imperial collections of Emperor Kao-tsung (r. 1127-1161) of the Southern Song and Emperor Chang-tsung (r. 1190-1208) of the Chin, respectively. Although the brushwork flows, it appears slightly lacking in force. Judging from the contents of this letter, however, Wang appears to have been in a good state of mind and body. The other work here is entitled "The Capital," but several of the characters at the end are now illegible. Comparison with an earlier rubbing indicates that this model was once part of a longer original that was done in 356, after Wang Xizhi had retired from official life.

Tang Dynasty Calligraphy

Chinese calligraphy reached its peak during Jin Dynasty (266–420) and the Tang Dynasty (618-906), which was also a golden age for poetry and art. During the Tang Dynasty the government set up academies for studying calligraphy and calligraphy was one the six subjects studied at the National Academy. It seemed that the whole society — from the Emperors down ordinary people — passionately embraced calligraphy. In the early Tang Dynasty, Emperor Taizong loved Wang Xizhi's calligraphy and spent government money to acquire his works. This led to many calligraphers studying Wang Xizhi's styles and trying to cash in on forging his pieces. Popular scripts in the Jin period included Kai (regular script) Xin (walking), and Tsao (running, semi-cursive) Styles. All calligraphy styles were widely seen in the Tang Dynasty. Calligraphers specializing in Tsao Shu included Zhang Xu, Huaisu, and Sun Guoting. [Source: art-virtue.com ]

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei “The dynasties of the Sui (581-618) and Tang (618-907) represent another important period in Chinese calligraphy. Unification of the country brought calligraphic styles of the north and south together as brushwork methods became increasingly complete. Starting from this time, standard script would become the universal form through the ages. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

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 /=]

“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.” /=\

Song Dynasty Calligraphy

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “In the Song dynasty (960-1279), the tradition of engraving modelbook copies became a popular way to preserve the works of ancient masters. Song scholar-artists, however, were not satisfied with just following tradition, for they considered calligraphy also as a means of creative and personal expression. Attention was paid to organizing and expounding traditions in the study of calligraphy, with the engraving of modelbooks becoming increasingly important. Song calligraphers promoted ancient styles and simultaneously pursued the raising of artistic realms in calligraphy, tending towards expressions of personal character and cultivation.

According to the Shanghai Museum: The calligraphy of the early Northern Song was the continuation of the Tang tradition. During the middle and late periods, new skills and artistic flavors emerged in large number. So called "Four Masters of the Song Dynasty" were represented by Su Shi, Huang Tingjian, Mi Fu and Cai Xiang. In addition, Zhao Ji invented his own unique style named "Slim Jin". Zhang Jizhi, a calligrapher of the Southern Song, was well known for his vigorous and imposing works. [Source: Shanghai Museum]

The flowering of the early Northern Song calligraphy resulted from the introduction of new techniques and the artistic appeal of the tradition of Tang style calligraphy. It was in the middle and late Song that the ‘Four Maters of the Song Dynasty’ emerged: Su Shi, Huang Tingjian, Mi Fu and Cai Xiang. They all excelled at the Running Script, which they embellished with their individual styles. Their greatness can be attributed to an emphasis on individual aesthetics. Zhao Ji, on the other hand, also invented his own unique ‘Shou Jin’ Style. Southern Song calligrapher, such as Zhang Jizhi, were noted for their vigorous and imposing works. The scholar officials, Sima Guang, Wang Anshi and others were novel but simpler in calligraphic expression.

The Song Dynasty (960–1279) is divided into the Northern Song (960-1127) and the Southern Song (1127-1279) periods. According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “In terms of calligraphy, the rise of scholar-calligraphers in the Northern Song resulted in the closer relationship between this art form and the artist, making it an ideal form for further expressing ideas and feelings. Many masters of Northern Sung calligraphy were quite knowledgeable and talented intellectuals, as calligraphers used the establishment of personal styles that came into fashion to write their own poetry and give expression to the main contents, with the exception of official documents, of course. In addition, textual verification through colophons, calligraphy theory, and casual letters became increasingly popular and also fully reflected the rich culture of life at the time. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/]

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: In his early years the first Southern Song Emperor Gaozong (personal name Zhao Gou) studied the calligraphy of his father, Emperor Huizong of the late Northern Song, specializing somewhat in the styles of such famous Northern Song scholar-calligraphers as Huang Tingjian and Mi Fu. Later, Gaozong traced his studies back to the "Sage Calligrapher," Wang Xizhi, copying the brush methods of ancient masters from the Wei and Jin up to the Six Dynasties period. Gaozong consequently had an enormous impact on the practice of calligraphy at the Southern Song court. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/]

Yuan Dynasty Calligraphy

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: ““Calligraphy has remained a potent force in Chinese life up to the present. During the Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties, calligraphy continued to be a central art of the literati, closely associated both with painting and with the social and cultural life of the educated elite. The Chinese landscape came to reflect the appreciation of calligraphy, as stones inscribed with the calligraphy of admired artists were erected at famous sites. Calligraphy could also be seen on temple name plaques, on shop signs, and on couplets pasted by the doors of even very modest homes. Calligraphy, thus, formed an ever-present part of China's visual culture. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington]

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “In the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), calligraphers made revivalism their goal, going one step further in tracing back to the brush methods of the Jin and Tang, at the same time making breakthroughs in traditional ideas and concealing it “Revivalist calligraphers of the Yuan dynasty), in turning to and advocating revivalism, further developed the classical traditions of the Jin and Tang dynasties. At the same time, notions of artistic freedom and liberation from rules in calligraphy also gained momentum, becoming a leading trend in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).[Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw].

Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322, style name Zi'ang) was a native of Wuxing. A tenth-generation descendant of Emperor Taizu's son, Zhao Defang, he went into reclusion at the fall of the Song dynasty. In 1286, though, he answered the following Yuan court's call and became an official. Excellent at painting and calligraphy, he advocated revivalism and had a major influence on later generations. In calligraphy, Zhao Mengfu first studied the style of Song Gaozong, but after his middle years followed the small regular script of Zhong You and the semi-cursive one of the Two Wangs and Li Yong with Su Shi's and Mi Fu's brushwork, creating a beautiful, untrammeled manner. “Su Shi's Verse on West Lake” by Zhao Mengfu is an ink on paper handscroll, measuring 33.8 x 133.8 centimeters. The running script here transcribes Su Shi's poetry, an aura of delicate beauty in the steady and mature brushwork making this a late masterpiece of 1320. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

According to the Shanghai Museum: During the early Yuan, calligraphers esteemed the masters of the Jin and Tang dynasties. Zhao Mengfu was an important advocate of this. Thus a calligraphic style of exquisite brush strokes and graceful shape held influence during the whole dynasty. Representative of this was the Zhao style of Kangli Naonao, Deng Wenyuan, Zhang Yu and others. A steadier and more balanced style which imbued new life into the Yuan calligraphy was developed by the famous calligraphers, Xianyu Shu and Yang Weizhen. [Source: Shanghai Museum]

Yang Weizhen (1296-1370) was a great poet and calligrapher of the Yuan dynasty. He was noted for his running and grass scripts, following the approaches of the Han and Jin dynasties, with fresh and vigorous, primitive and mysterious features, forming his own unique style. “Seven-character Quatrain”, a cursive script hanging scroll, is one of the Yang Weizhen's cursive scripts of Poetry about Immortals by Zhang Yu. The handwriting is forceful and bold, unrestrained in layout, distinctive in character. It is one of his representative works with the signature of ‘Laotie’ and two seal marks, ‘Yang Lianfu’ in white and ‘Tiedi Daoren’ in red. This calligraphy was written in the first month of the 23rd year of Zhizheng (AD 1363) when the author was at the age of 67. This work features the application of light and heavy strokes, resulting in a rhythm of strength and weakness. Free as the whole piece of work looks, the arrangement of the big and small characters, the contrast of the shades and the change of layouts are actually carefully planned.

Ming Dynasty Calligraphy

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “ Into the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) there appeared the simultaneous development of classical and liberated styles of calligraphy, with running and cursive scripts becoming eccentric for an impressive manner. Among the diverse manners of this period, the elegant freedom of semi-cursive script contrasts dramatically with more conservative manners. Thus, calligraphers with their own styles formed individual paths that were not overshadowed by the mainstream of the time. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

Ming dynasty calligraphy can be roughly divided into three periods; 1) Calligraphers in the early Ming, from approximately the second half of the 14th century to the first half of the 15th century, continued the revivalist style advocated in the Yuan dynasty by the prominent painter-calligrapher Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322). The Yung-lo Emperor (r. 1403-1424) also called to court calligraphers throughout the land. Those chosen for service were responsible for writing plaques and decrees as well as transcribing books and classics. These calligraphers excelled at precise standard script. They also appreciated the archaic draft-cursive style (popular in the A.D. third century), which they incorporated into their cursive script for an archaic touch. Since they sought beauty and precision in their calligraphy in favor of personal expression, their style coincided with the regulated, classical one admired by officials at court; hence, it became known as the "Academy Style".

“2) In the middle Ming dynasty (roughly from the second half of the 15th century to the first half of the 16th century), the economy prospered in the Jiangsu and Zhejiang areas of east-central China, and cultural pursuits likewise flourished. The cultivation of gardens, collection of studio objects, painting and calligraphy, and the refined exchange between scholars and friends became the center of life among the upper echelons of society. Learned scholar-calligraphers followed Northern Song (960-1126) predecessors, such as Su Shih, Huang Tingjian, and Mi Fu. Fusing poetry and literature with calligraphy, it became a vehicle for expression. Individuality is strongly reflected in their calligraphy, but they also advocated studying a wide range of ancient styles.

“3) The late Ming (from the middle of the 16th century to the first half of the 17th century) represents a period of economic change as society tended towards extravagance. Artists delved even further within themselves as a form of retreat, personal liberation, and innovation. Individual expression in scholar calligraphy had risen in the middle Ming and yielded at this time the notion of "liberating one's true self" so that "one's individual spirit is unrestrained by rules". However, the tradition of learning from copybooks that had also started in the middle Ming continued, resulting in traditional calligraphic theory proceeding simultaneously with connoisseurship, engraving, and copying. However, when copying from the ancients, similarity was not as important as personal expression, resulting in new life for this ancient tradition.

Zhu Yunming (1460-1527) was a famous calligrapher in the Ming dynasty. “Ode to Peony,” a cursive script, handscroll, is an impromptu study of peonies blossoming in the garden, featuring skilful and masterly strokes, wild and romantic style, and varying and rhythmic lines, fully demonstrating the abstract beauty of Chinese calligraphy. According to the Shanghai Museum: “In early Ming, Zhao Mengfu still had an important influence on calligraphic styles. At the same time, the Imperial courts were developing the ‘Taige’ (official script) and it was required of all scholar officials that they be adept in using it. The studies of Tie-rubbing (the ‘Tie’ refers to calligraphy painted in brush then engraved on stone or wood), which was started from the Northern Song period, was very popular in the middle Ming dynasty. The ‘Wu Men School’ led by Zhu Yunming, Wen Zhengming and Wang Chong was predominant and, through promoting the study of ancient masters, they created their own delicate and simple Creative calligraphers of the late Ming and early Qing such as Zhang Ruitu, Ni Yuanlu, Huang Daozhou, Wang Duo and Fu Shan, boldly and willfully pursued individuality in their calligraphy works to express their artistic feelings and thoughts. Zhang Ruitu, Huang Daozhou, Ni Yuanlu, Wang Duo and Fu Shan reformed the calligraphic convention of the ‘Two Wangs’ with their creative inspiration a new and radical style subsequently evolved. [Source: Shanghai Museum]

Qing Dynasty Calligraphy

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Starting in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), scholars increasingly turned to inspiration from the rich resource of ancient works inscribed with seal and clerical script. Stimulated by achievements in the development of academic research and archaeological discoveries, the calligraphy of ancient writing and seal and clerical scripts gave existing traditions something new, yielding even loftier results in the process. Leading later generations to emphasize the roots of tradition, followed by mastery and transformation, new directions emerged in the development of Chinese calligraphy. Influenced by an atmosphere of closely studying these antiquities, Qing scholars became familiar with steles and helped create a trend in calligraphy that complemented the Modelbook school. Thus, the Stele school formed yet another link between past and present in its approach to tradition, in which seal and clerical script became sources of innovation in Chinese calligraphy. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

According to the Shanghai Museum: “Early Qing calligraphy continued the traditions of earlier styles. The Qing Emperors from Kangxi to Qianlong favored the calligraphic style, which introduced by Dong Qichang and Zhao Mengfu and was very popular at that time. A great number of calligraphers of Tie Xue (It refers to studies of Tie-rubbing) appeared. Weng Fanggang, Liu Yong, Liang Tongshu, Wang Wenzhi were four representatives. From the reign of Jiaqing, more and more stone steles were unearthed and this period marked the unprecedented study and connoisseurship of bronzes and steles. This broadened the range of the calligraphy canon and influenced the works of calligraphers at that time. Often imitated were the characters of Wei steles, the Han official script, bronze inscriptions and the scripts on the ‘Stone Drum’. This practice further developed calligraphic scholarship and the art of the calligraphers: Bao Shichen launched studies of stone steles and the unique Seal and Official scripts of Deng Shiru were also highly appealing. After then, the calligraphers such as Yi Bingshou, He Shaoji, Zhao Zhiqian, and Wu Changshuo all achieved mastery through bringing together the calligraphic style of Tie and Stele. [Source: Shanghai Museum]

Many calligraphers in the mid Qing Dynasty (18th century) advocated the use of calligraphic styles of ancient tablet inscription and developed their own styles using tablet inscription style. This practice reached its peak during the late Qing period (19th century) The most important practitioners of this style were Deng Shiru, Zhao Zhiqian and Wu Changshou. Their robust and natural worked opened and new area of Chinese calligraphy.

Jin Nong (1687-1763), a famous calligrapher in the Qing dynasty, was one of the ‘Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou’. Weng Fanggang (1733-1818) once served as the Secretary of the Grand Secretariat. He excelled in poetry and literature. He was noted for his textual research and appreciation of bronzes and stone tablet inscriptions. His calligraphy was famed far and wide for its orthodox classical calligraphic style during the Qianlong and Jiaqing periods. His calligraphy works are mainly in running script. This piece reflects his calligraphic style: delicate and upright structure and mellow and fluent lines, making a coherent presence. Zhao Zhiqian (1829-1884) was known for painting and calligraphy as well as seal carving. His couplets in regular script are plump and dignified, reflecting the artistic conception of inscriptions on tablets.

Calligraphy in Modern China

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “During the twentieth century, the social and political uses of calligraphy have been radically changed. Calligraphy is no longer an art associated primarily with the traditional scholarly elite. Not only has calligraphy been employed as a tool of revolution, but it has become a popular amateur art practiced by people of all walks of life, and artists have found ways to use it to challenge traditions rather than perpetuate them. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington]

One can still see calligraphy by earlier political leaders in China today. This inscription proclaiming the Confucian virtue of broad love is in the hand of Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925), the founder of Republican China: “There is still work today for calligraphers and a substantial market for calligraphy scrolls produced in the traditional manner. Many art schools now have professors of calligraphy training calligrapher-artists. Considerably less well paid are calligraphers who produce calligraphy for signs and door frames. Nevertheless, this sort of calligraphy continues to form a significant part of everyday visual culture.

“Calligraphy today is practiced by millions of Chinese. The great majority of practitioners are amateurs who find pleasure or artistic fulfillment in perfecting their script. But the number of professional calligraphers or calligrapher-artists is also substantial.” Calligraphy is also for commercial and auspicious purposes. “The entrance to a house has not only the character for "blessings" cut into the brick (visible behind the bicycle) and a four character phrase above the entrance but also two temporary paper strips on either side of the door. The phrase across the top reads "auspicious stars shine on high." The paper strip hanging down the right side reads "The two characters 'peace' and 'calm' are worth a thousand in gold." The one on the left reads "When harmony and obedience fill the home it adds a hundred blessings."

Calligraphy in Maoist China

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “Under Mao, words were frequently seen on the street displayed on banners or signs with revolutionary slogans. Most of the time, the style used for revolutionary slogans was bold and block-like, with no resemblance to calligraphy produced through use of the brush. A “Painting of Mao Zedong wielding a brush to write the "large character poster" with "Bombard the Headquarters" was used in the launch the Cultural Revolution: In a 1969 rally urging resistance against American imperialism a workshop was decorated with banner proclaiming "Under no conditions forget class struggle!" The characters on the wall of the Kirin Municipal Oil and Grease Plant urge "arduous struggle" in 1970 [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington]

“Even if block-like calligraphy had revolutionary overtones, Mao and other leading revolutionaries wrote in styles much closer to traditional calligraphy. Moreover, even after most people took up writing with pencils and ball-point pens, leading party members continued to do calligraphy with traditional brushes. They would give away pieces of their calligraphy and allowed their calligraphy to be widely displayed. Mao was not only a calligrapher, but also a poet. Below is the first part of a poem he wrote in response to a poem sent to him by the literary figure, Guo Moruo. The poem extols revolutionary action, but uses traditional poetic forms.

“Mao Zedong's calligraphy was more widely displayed than that of any other leader. Leaders, beginning with Mao, but continuing to the present, liked to be photographed doing calligraphy or making gifts of it. In 2001 China's premier Jiang Zemin had himself photographed conferring an inscription in his own calligraphy to a society he wanted to support.

During the Mao era Calligraphy is no longer practiced solely by those with a classical education. As literacy has increased with universal schooling, more people have learned to read and write. Even farmers, such as those below photographed in 1978, had opportunities to display their skill with the brush when called on to put up signs or posters during political campaigns. The government has also promoted calligraphy as a "people's art," an art at which peasants and workers could excel. One model peasant-calligrapher was Wu Yukun, shown below farming. Described as too poor to have time for calligraphy before the founding of the PRC, as his life improved afterwards, Wu took up the brush. He would use a board as his paper, wiping it clean after each use. When out in the fields, he would write in the ground with his fingers. Besides copying traditional masters like Wang Xizhi and Yan Zhenqing, he spent a lot of time copying Mao Zedong's calligraphy.

“Most amateur calligraphers, of course, are not peasants, but relatively well-educated individuals who find calligraphy an enjoyable pastime. Many join calligraphy clubs which give them opportunities to get advice and display their work. Many cities offer after-work calligraphy classes, often run by the local Workers' Cultural Palace. Amateurs also enter their calligraphy in competitions — some competitions have attracted entrants by the tens or hundreds of thousands, only a fraction of whom pass the first hurdle and get their work exhibited. Many newspapers, including the China Daily and China Youth Daily, publish columns on calligraphy.

Image Sources: 1,8) Palace Museum Taipei; 2) All Posters.com, Search Chinese Art; 3, 5) Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html ; 4) University of Washington; 6, 7) Metropolitan Museum of Art

Text Sources: Palace Museum, Taipei, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2021

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