The Ancient Art of Writing: Selections from the History of Chinese Calligraphy,Period 2017/04/01 to 2017/06/25,Northern Branch Gallery 204、206
The Ancient Art of Writing: Selections from the History of Chinese Calligraphy,Period 2017/04/01 to 2017/06/25,Northern Branch Gallery 204、206

To meet the need for recording information and ideas, unique forms of calligraphy (the art of writing) have been part of the Chinese cultural tradition through the ages. Naturally finding applications in daily life, calligraphy still serves as a continuous link between the past and the present. The development of calligraphy, long a subject of interest in Chinese culture, is the theme of this exhibit, which presents to the public selections from the National Palace Museum collection arranged in chronological order for a general overview.

The dynasties of the Qin (221-206 BCE) and Han (206 BCE-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.

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. 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.

Revivalist calligraphers of the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), 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). 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.

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. 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.


Copy of Wang Xianzhi’s “Feiniao” Modelbook

  1. Attributed to Chu Suiliang (596-659), Tang dynasty
  2. Handscroll, ink on paper, 22 x 47.4 cm

The contents of “Feiniao (Flying Bird)” modelbook tell how Wang Xianzhi reportedly had received the secret of calligraphy written by a bird that had come to him, becoming a legend that has circulated since the Tang and Song dynasties. At the end of the scroll are later inscriptions by Ke Jiusi and Wang Shoucheng, who both indicate that the modelbook is a copy by a Tang dynasty calligrapher. Judging from the collection seals, its production dates earlier than the Southern Song period (1127-1279).

Chu Suiliang was studied in history and literature, being also gifted at regular and clerical script calligraphy. His style is beautiful and balanced, the character forms fluid and rhythmical. His brushwork is thin and open yet strong and trained. Although not an original by Chu, this work is still considered to be a representative of his calligraphy.

Song Poetry in Seal Script

  1. Chang Biao, Song dynasty (960-1279)
  2. Album leaf, ink on paper, 24.5 x 11.1 cm

Biographical information on Chang Biao is still lacking, but he apparently active in the early thirteenth century.

Seal script is the oldest form of calligraphy practiced in Chinese history. Evolving from oracle bone writing of the Shang dynasty to the small seal script of the Qin dynasty, it circulated for more than a thousand years in ancient China. Differences over time and from region to region, however, yielded many variations in character forms.

In this album written in 1227 during the Southern Song dynasty, the first passage is a transcription of Su Shi’s “Shaobian” in small seal script. The second passage is “Pangu Preface” written in the style of bronze inscriptions; the starts and stops of the strokes are relatively thinner with the middle parts thicker. The third passage transcribes “Poetry on Red and White Lotuses” in small seal script. Here, the “small seal” script appears similar to that of the Tang dynasty calligrapher Li Yangbing (fl. 8th c.), being rounded and strong with an archaic manner.

Turning Pictogram

  1. Attributed to Su Hui, Former Qin dynasty (351-394)
  2. Handscroll, ink on paper, 28.1 x 246.3 cm

Su Hui (style name Ruolan) was the wife of Dou Tao, the Governor of Qinzhou. She excelled at poetry and prose, composing an intriguing form of poetry in “Turning Pictogram” to express her longing and “boudoir lament.”

The poetry in “Turning Pictogram” is actually a phonetic palindrome with the visual effect of Chinese characters in squares. The verse consists of 840 characters in 29 lines of 29 characters, each arranged symmetrically. The lines can actually be read from any direction for a multitude of poems with different readings, thereby fully expressing the literary talent and skill of Su Hui.

The scroll here is a full transcription in regular script of “Turning Pictogram.” The characters are carefully done and beautiful, but there is no evidence to suggest they actually came from the hand of Su Hui.

Five-Character Truncated Poetry in Cursive Script

  1. Ding Yanyong (1902-1978), Republican period
  2. Hanging scroll, ink on paper, 137.5 x 68.4 cm

Ding Yanyong, a native of Maoming in Guangdong, early studied oil painting at the Tokyo School of the Arts in Japan. After he returned to China, he served as an instructor at numerous art academies and fine arts schools. Ding experimented with new styles in traditional Chinese painting, also coming under the influence of Bada shanren’s style. He used a technique featuring spirited lines and exaggerated forms to innovate in the tradition of monochrome ink, developing a highly personal style.

Ding did not specialize in calligraphy, but the cursive script in the truncated five-character lines of poetry here are nonetheless unrestrained and the brush manner fluid. In other words, it has a marvelous effect similar to that of his painting.

Exhibit List

Ink Rubbing of the Stele for Cao Quan
Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE)
Stele on Chen Shuyi’s Renovation of the Temple of Confucius
Sui dynasty (581-618)
Copy of Wang Xianzhi’s “Feiniao” Modelbook
Chu Suiliang (596-659), attributed to
Tang dynasty
Cai Xiang (1012-1067)
Song dynasty
Song Poetry in Seal Script
Chang Biao
Song dynasty (960-1279)
Turning Pictogram
Su Hui, attributed to
Former Qin dynasty (351-394)
Thousand-Character Classic in Seal and Clerical Script
Yu He (1307-1382)
Yuan dynasty
Miscellaneous Poetry
Wang Chong (1494-1533)
Ming dynasty
Ode on the White Feather Fan
Dong Qichang (1555-1636)
Ming dynasty
Preface to the Peach and Plum Garden
Shen Quan (1624-1684)
Qing dynasty
Copy of Su Shi’s Transcription of Du Fu’s Poetry
Wang Youdun (1692-1758)
Qing dynasty
Five-Character Truncated Poetry in Cursive Script
Ding Yanyong (1902-1978)
Republican period