The Expressive Significance of Brush and Ink: Selections from the History of Chinese Calligraphy,Period 2018.04.01-06.25,Galleries 204

     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.


Ink Rubbing from the Stele for Duke Wen of Zheng from Yingyang

  1. Anonymous, Northern Wei dynasty (386-535)
  2. Album leaf, ink on paper, 26.8 x 13 cm

     In the fourth year of the Yongping reign in the Northern Wei dynasty (511 CE), the Regional Inspector of Guangzhou, Zheng Daozhao (455-516), found a large stone at the foothills of Yunfeng Mountain in Yexian of modern-day Shandong Province. He had one face of the stone chiseled flat to engrave a dedication for the merits of his deceased father, Zheng Xi (426-492). Also known as the "Stele for Duke Wen of Zheng," is likewise called the "Latter Stele of Zheng Xi" to distinguish it from the "Former Stele" erected previously at Tianzhu Mountain. The calligraphy in the two steles came from the same hand. A mistake in documenting the career in office of Zheng Xi suggests the contents were composed by an assistant of Daozhao.
     This is a rubbing of the "Latter Stele." The strokes are even in terms of thickness with a greater sense of turning, which has been called a tendency towards rounded strokes and the force of seal script. The start and end of the lines have an angular quality that reveals the spirit; the combination of round and sharp elements are balanced in a style close to funerary inscriptions for the Northern Wei ruling family and perhaps a result of sinification from the Southern Dynasties.

Ms. Wang Hai-lan donated this rubbing to the National Palace Museum.

Ink Rubbing of the Decree for Changdao Abbey

  1. Xuanzong (685-762), Tang dynasty
  2. Hanging scroll, ink on paper, 113.8 x 60.3 cm

     In the twelfth year of the Kaiyuan reign (724), the Tang emperor Xuanzong (also known as Minghuang; personal name Li Longji) decreed that Buddhist monks at the Feifu Monastery return Changdao Abbey to Daoist priests. A Daoist abbot, surnamed Gan, and others erected a stele with the contents of the decree and had the reverse engraved with the memorial to the throne composed by the official sponsoring the action, Zhang Jingzhong. This stele can still be found at Sanhuang Hall of the abbey. The contents testify to the competition between Buddhism and Daoism in the Tang dynasty and the attitude of Emperor Xuanzong (Minghuang) in protecting the latter.
     The decree was written in running script, the original calligraphy appearing heavy with the strokes concentrated in many places where the brush tip exhibits sharpness and brilliance. It creates a pervasive energy in a style comparable to Emperor Xuanzong's "Ode on Wagtails" from 721 representing the High Tang. Made as a public document, perhaps the attitude seen here is broader and even further testifies to the force of grace and vigor.

Ink Rubbing of the Stele on the Order from the Secretariat to the Yongxing Command in 1035

  1. Anonymous, Song dynasty (960-1279)
  2. Hanging scroll, ink on paper, 157 x 73 cm

     In the Northern Song period, the "Yongxing Command" was similar in meaning to "Jingtao (Capital) Prefecture," corresponding to the area under the administration of modern-day Xi'an City, which had once served as the capital in the Tang dynasty. In the second month of the second Jingyou year (1035), Jingtao established a prefectural school. In the eleventh month of that year, the Secretariat issued a document ordering local officials to abide by the statutes of the school. The manager of the school, Chen Yu, then erected a stele with the contents of the document and which still survives at the Stele Forest in Xi'an.
     The stele was carved in calligraphy corresponding to semi-regular script showing traces between the strokes and the tip of the brush fully exposed. Many lines are also angular with no effort to conceal the corners. Complemented by the wave-like and "S"-shaped diagonal strokes left and right with horizontal and vertical strokes, it creates a pleasing combination of soft and hard for the idea of relaxed solidity. The character forms are often powerful with an emphasis more on verticality than the horizontal. The overall structure is upright and the placement spacious, representing a masterpiece that elegantly combines the styles of Chu Suiliang (596-658) and Yan Zhenqing (709-785).

Ode on Bitter Bamboo Shoots

  1. Huang Tingjian (1045-1105), Song dynasty
  2. Album leaf, ink on paper, 31.7 x 51.2 cm

     Huang Tingjian was a famous poet and calligrapher of the Northern Song period. In the latter, he excelled at regular, running, and cursive scripts, becoming known as one of the "Four Masters of Calligraphy" in his time.
     Although this work bears no seal or signature of the calligrapher, it exhibits a high degree of fusing the regular script of Liu Gongquan (778-865) with the small cursive script of Huaisu (ca. latter half of the 8th c.), something Huang Tingjian was not known for doing. The character forms have elongated extensions with the right part lifted for an upward-looking poise. The brush movement is at times slightly trembling, like an oar paddling in the water. However, the lines are polished and the brush tip exposed without a single hint of slackness. It shows the full concentration of the calligrapher as his hand and heart moved in unison to create power in the brush force. Writing small characters is similar to doing large ones in manifesting the beauty of both majesty and ease.

Truncated Verse by a Tang Poet

  1. Zhang Yu (1283-1350), Yuan dynasty
  2. Hanging scroll, ink on paper, 154.3 x 34.3 cm

     Zhang Yu (style name Boyu, sobriquet Juqu waishi) was an important scholar, calligraphy, and Daoist of the Jiangnan region during the Yuan dynasty.
     Although this scroll is in semi-cursive script, each of the characters is independent. The forms of such characters as "jue 絕," "liang 涼," and "qian 前" are wide with areas of void evenly spaced and slightly more rounded strokes that reveal the influence of Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322). Few places of pressing and lifting the brush are seen throughout the work and more turning of the brush, the thickness of the lines varying little but the contrast between the angles and curves quite large. Combined with the lengthening of character forms slanting to the upper right and the variation between dark ink and "flying white" traces in the strokes, we witness the quick brush force and beautifully powerful vigor. It represents a personal style inspired by the likes of the Tang calligraphy Li Beihai (Yong) and Mi Fu of the Song.

Copying the "Wansui Tongtian" Modelbook

  1. Liu Yong (1720-1804), Qing dynasty
  2. Hanging scroll, ink on paper, 185.2 x 50.6 cm

     Liu Yong (sobriquet Shi'an) was good at poetry and gifted at calligraphy, in office serving to the post of Academician of the Tiren Hall and people calling him "Grand Secretary of Dark Ink."
     This scroll reflects influences from the late Ming dynasty, when the contents of the "Wansui tongtian modelbook were abridged and recombined in adaptations. The entire piece here uses the style of Yan Zhenqing (709-785) to do the cursive script of earlier Jin dynasty masters. With a mostly centered brush, it has clear starts and stops, the brush tip exposed and concealed in places with rounded turns more prevalent than angular ones. The lines also range greatly in thickness, fusing the beauty of a light spirit and heaviness. The character forms are mostly level and broad, the line spacing and arrangement upright without emphasizing expressions of spontaneity and drama. This work, done neither too quickly nor too slowly, has a steady and relaxed manner bearing much of the majestic atmosphere of the court.

Messrs. Tann Boyu and Tann Jifu donated this piece to the National Palace Museum.

Exhibit List

Stele of Master Lou, the Abstruse Scholar
Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE)
Ink Rubbing from the Stele for Duke Wen of Zheng from Yingyang
Northern Wei dynasty (386-535)
Donated by Wang Hai-lan
Ming Rubbing of the Inscription on an Image for the Duke of Shiping
Zhu Yizhang
Northern Wei dynasty (386-535)
Donated by Tann Boyu and Tann Jifu
Ink Rubbing of the Stele for Yunhui General Li Sixun
Li Yong (675-747)
Tang dynasty
Donated by Huang Li-jung and Huang Wen-ju
Ink Rubbing of the Decree for Changdao Abbey
Xuanzong (685-762)
Tang dynasty
Ink Rubbing of the Stele on the Order from the Secretariat to the Yongxing Command in 1035
Song dynasty (960-1279)
Letter to Officer-Gentleman Du
Cai Xiang (1012-1067)
Song dynasty
Ode on Bitter Bamboo Shoots
Huang Tingjian (1045-1105)
Song dynasty
Inscription of Appreciation
Mi Fu (1051-1108)
Song dynasty
Su Shi (1037-1101)
Song dynasty
Truncated Verse by a Tang Poet
Zhang Yu (1283-1350)
Yuan dynasty
Banquet Poetry
Song Ke (1327-1387)
Ming dynasty
Copying the "Wansui Tongtian" Modelbook
Liu Yong (1720-1804)
Qing dynasty
Donated by Tann Boyu and Tann Jifu
Five-character Couplet in Running Script
Yongxing (1752-1823)
Qing dynasty
Eight-character Couplet in Regular Script
Zhao Zhiqian (1829-1884)
Qing dynasty
Donated by Lin Tsung-yi