Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy

Out of Character coverOut of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy
Edited by Michael Knight and Joseph Z. Chang
(2012, Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, 352 pages)

This book is the catalog for the eponymous exhibition, recently at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and at the time of this writing on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibition is based on the personal collection, dubbed Guanyuan shanzhuang (The Mountain Villa for Gazing Afar), of Jerry Yang, co-founder and former CEO of Yahoo! Inc. Most of the book’s text is presented in both English and Chinese. Along with a review of the basics of calligraphy, the catalog’s articles, by a variety of scholars, introduce us to some of the major figures and historical trends in the development of Chinese calligraphy over the centuries.

Imperial Copy of Su Shi's Letter Qianlong Emperor (1711-99)In his “Introduction: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy,” Michael Knight compares calligraphy to dance: “The rhythm and flow of the dance are controlled through character size, contrast between light and dark ink, and the speed with which the individual strokes are applied.” The four most common formats for presenting calligraphy – all of which are represented in the exhibition and its catalog – are hand scrolls, hanging scrolls, albums, and fans. Fans, albums, and hand scrolls were not typically left out for display in a home. Fans were often actually used, and albums and hand scrolls were brought out for special occasions. Hanging scrolls were sometimes left out as wall decorations, but were more often also stored away. Because of this careful storage, many of these precious items have survived for hundreds of years.

Zhao Mengfu Sutra on the Lotus of the Sublime DharmaA central work in the exhibition is The Sutra on the Lotus of the Sublime Dharma by Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322), an early fourteenth century work comprised of 15,000 characters written in Standard script in an almost unbelievably precise hand. In the catalog article “An Examination of Zhao Mengfu’s Sutra on the Lotus of the Sublime Dharma (Miaofa lianhua jing) in Small Standard Script,” Wang Lianqi calls Zhao “precisely the Yuan dynasty’s most fully accomplished and greatest artist.” An aristocrat, Zhao studied history and literature as well as painting and calligraphy. No less a figure than the Yuan Emperor Shizu, also known to history as Kublai Khan, praised “the excellence and distinction of his bearing and the pearly brightness of his complexion.” In a government career that spanned over thirty years, Zhao eventually won the grandiose title of “Academician of the Academy of Scholarly Worthies and Grand Master for Assisting Toward Virtue.” Along with being a famous calligrapher and painter, Zhao also wrote books on music, economics, and antiquities.

Wang Lianqi says of Zhao’s calligraphy, “his mental purity and harmoniousness, stylistic clarity, precision, and lucidity are firmly planted amid all the graceful movement.” Many of the calligraphic script styles had fallen out of favor in previous centuries as a focus on Cursive and Semi-cursive scripts emerged during the Song dynasty. But Zhao was a master, and made a close study, of all the styles. In fact, Zhao once created a copy of the Thousand-Character Classic – a sixth century Chinese poem used as a primer for teaching children Chinese characters and for the practice of calligraphy – in all five of the major scripts (Standard, Seal, Clerical, Cursive, and Semi-cursive). His Standard style became the basis for printing in the Ming Dynasty. Wang continues, “But what is especially exceptional here – apart from the refined beauty of its dots and strokes, the stability of its composition, the comfortable spacing, and the openness of its forms (all achieved while adhering strictly to the principles of standard script) – is that Zhao is able to impart freshness and vitality to the forms, so that strength emerges amid their graceful charms. As a result, viewers forget the concentration and care that went into their structure and brushwork and see only their naturalness and serenity.”

Dong Qichang Calligraphy after Ancient MastersThree centuries after Zhao, Dong Qichang (1555-1636) was the major calligrapher and painter of his day. Somewhat less than a stellar student early on, Dong eventually became especially skilled at Standard script, and was teaching it by his early twenties. After failing his first two provincial examinations, he passed his third and took a position at Beijing’s Hanlin Academy. In 1599 Dong was impeached from that position, apparently because he was spending too much time on his art. For the next several years he remained semiretired. In 1616 his house was burned down by an angry mob, and he lost almost all of his calligraphy collection. Finally, on the beginning of the reign of Emperor Xizong in 1620, Dong was in favor again, and was offered prestigious positions in Beijing and Nanjing.

As Celia Carrington Riely points out in her article “Calligraphy in Context: Three Works by Dong Qichang,” subtle variations in painting, a swelled line there or a broad stroke here, can help in dating Dong’s works, as can the seals that he used. Unusually, Dong had about a dozen calligraphy collections published during his lifetime, either by himself or by friends and relatives. He also contributed to, and had a hand in assembling, larger collections like the Model Calligraphies by Dong from the Hall of Jade-White Mist, compiled and published between 1616 and 1630. Dong’s reputation, very high at his death, grew even more in the years thereafter. As Riely states, “his theories and style became the basis of a new orthodoxy, and exerted a powerful influence down to the modern age.” He “changed the face of Chinese painting and its history.”

Chen Hongshou PoemsWang Yao-t’ing notes in his “A Study of Chen Hongshou’s Album of Poems and Letters in Semicursive Script” that, according to Chen himself, the album was “written while drunk.” It was not actually unusual for calligraphy to be done while under the influence. Many artists attested to the freedom that liquor gave their writing. Chen was a painter as well as calligrapher, and, recognizing the connection between the two arts, Wang notes that evident in Chen’s later works is a quality of elongation in both the calligraphy and the human characters in his paintings, with more emphasis on the upper part of each composition – as Wang puts it, “they represent the sudden ascent of a drunken immortal who paces the void and skims the firmament; he rides the wind upward.”

Economics as well as artistic fashions could lead to major changes in the calligraphic arts in China. One period in which this was true was the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), as Xue Longchun writes in “From ‘Dots and Strokes’ to ‘Lines’: On Changes Great and Small in Late Ming Calligraphy.” In the mid-Ming, calligraphy and painting became very popular consumer goods. So-called “sumptuary regulations” on the sizes of homes were increasingly ignored in the prosperous late Ming, hence more wall room for decorating. The larger works being produced, sometimes twelve or more feet high, were designed for hanging on the wall – or on screen doors or window shutters – at home, and were the major calligraphic works of the time. The more expensive silk and damask started to be used more often. Stiff-haired brushes, useful for smaller, more precise works, were gradually supplanted by softer goat-hair brushes, which allowed for greater freedom in larger works.

Zhang Ruitu Poetic linesIncreasing violence, economic disparity, and mistrust of government also characterized this later Ming period. Artistically, the trend was definitely toward the large, rough, and grandiose. Smallness and intimacy were constantly denigrated. Unpredictability came into these larger works through variations in tone and angle, the connections between characters, the strange twists and turns of the line, the wetness or dryness of the brush, and the contrasting sizes and the heaviness or lightness of individual characters. In a work like Zhang Ruitu’s Poetic lines in Semi-cursive script, this is taken to an extreme. The characters are thick, rough, and less well-defined – powerful, but almost oppressive. As Xue Longchun puts it, “Designing and executing various contrasts – fluid movement versus pauses, flying white versus heavy ink, large versus small, upright versus tilted, connected versus broken, clear versus indistinct – became the basic methods for creating giant hanging scrolls.”

A century later, Yangzhou, on the north bank of the Yangtze River near its mouth, was an important trade center and the largest city in southeastern China. Because of its prosperity, Huang Dun writes in “Calligraphic Style in Eighteenth-Century Yangzhou,” a class of scholar-merchants evolved and invested heavily in all the arts, calligraphy as well as poetry, antiques, jade carvings, opera, book publishing, and more. Han dynasty Clerical script on old steles became popular among calligraphers, but was in opposition to the more mainstream styles favored by the emperors. As Huang writes, “Amid the multilayered, colliding relationships between goods and art, literati and professional artists, and artists and merchants, traditional perspectives on what was elegant and what was vulgar changed significantly.”

Zhao Zhiqian Inscription on ShifanGradually, that stele-based style was supplanted in the nineteenth century as all the varieties of script were used and valued. During that time, as Ho Chuan-hsing relates in “Calligraphy of the Mid to Late Qing Epigraphic School,” historical studies grew throughout China, and epigraphy was an important part of that. Close study of writing styles, while interesting in itself and of great value for calligraphers, also became a guide for dating oracle bones, bronzes, jades, and other historical artifacts. Deng Shiru (1743-1805) was among the first to become so historically grounded, making multiple copies of great calligraphic works of the past and setting out to master all the major styles of writing. He was also right in the middle of the revival of the antique Clerical script. His writing has a unique strength and clarity, evoking the stone carved characters he had studied. Zhao Zhiqian (1829-84) is referred to as “the culmination of the Stele School.” A calligrapher, painter, and seal carver, he made a close study of the styles of past dynasties, and tried to integrate calligraphy styles into all his artistic work.

Zheng Fu calligraphyPoetry was such an important part of Chinese culture that it was part of the civil service examination. While poetry was the most common subject for calligraphy, calligraphy itself sometimes became the poetic subject matter. In one such work by Zhu Yizun (1629-1709), he describes the dynamic calligraphic strokes of his contemporary Zheng Fu (1622-93):

Elongated, like mist and cloud
scudding far away;
Upthrusting, like pillar on base of stone,
immovably in place.
Or perhaps a startled bird,
shedding falling feathers;
Or perhaps an angry dragon,
clutching hold of them!

One thought on “Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy

  1. Pingback: Sunday Salon 7-13-14 | Thirty-Two Minutes

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