Wednesday, January 30, 2008

History of Chinese Calligraphy

Zhang Chih (d. 193)

It being the middle of Winter,

Heaventree has once


addressed the topic of Chinese Calligraphy that he first discussed

last year ,

and has even ventured to present a
highly controversial opinion concerning
one of the tradition's most famous

(the "Cold Food Festival")

This has led me to take the extreme step
of actually ordering the


that he has been reading
(and at $47.80 I can affirm that it is one of world's great bargins.)

to further investigate the history of the genre.

(and BTW -- a very helpful website is now being assembled
here by Joshua Hough.)

Wang Hsi-chih (or Xizhi) (303-361)
(note: the above piece is a Tang Dynasty copy
called the "Mei Zhi Tie" that was recently
put to auction, but withdrawn when the bids
failed to top $2 million)

Wang Hsi-chih is the great hero/saint/demi-god of the tradition,
and to confirm his legendary status,
not a single scroll from his brush remains in existence.

But stone tablets were carved to replicate his style,
and they were used as study models
for the centuries that followed.

Even some of his personal letters
were carved in stone,
like "Extreme Cold" whose text runs as follows:

"This morning, it was extremely cold. I received your letter and learned from it that your wife again has a cough, cannot sleep well, tosses and turns. I trust her illness is a little better now. What medicine has she taken ? I am thinking about you also, worrying about your asthma. Are you any better ? Yesterday evening, I vomited heavily, ate a little food, and vomited again. Since this morning, I have felt better. I know you are thinking of me"

Yeccch ! Perhaps more than we needed to know ?
But then we're not his personal friends -- and
I think it's important to recognize that
the text of these calligraphic triumphs
was of no great concern.

And as Robert Harrist Jr. remarks in his essay
"Reading Chinese Calligraphy" :

"Most scholars agree that by the early Six Dynasties period (222-589), among aristocrats of southern China, calligraphy came to be thought of as an art, more or less as that concept is understood today. This period witnessed the burgeoning of critical and theoretical texts on calligraphy, the emergence of an art market, and the formation of collections of works by Wang Hsi-chih (303-361), the most famous of all calligraphers, and other masters. Treatises categorizing script types, discussions of connoisseurship, notes on calligraphic technique, and rankings of calligraphers laid the foundations for all later writers on this art. The Six Dynasties period also witnessed the development of a specialized language of appreciation and
assessment that metaphorically equated effects of brushwork with forms in nature or the physiology of the human body. During this period, it also became common to speak of a person's calligraphy as an externalization of the writer's mind and personality open to interpretation by an informed observer"

*** but ****

"Missing in the early discourse of this art is any systematic discussion of the relationship between the textual content of a work of calligraphy and the script type or style in which it appears" (an observation he credits to Jonathan Chaves in the Summer 1977 edition of Oriental Art. )

Not that a calligrapher will never appear
to sometimes match the visual style to the verbal content....

but that this connection is mostly ignored
by the critical tradition
which was begun back in the 4th Century
by the same people who were making
the calligraphy.

(and the Chinese tradition does not seem to have acknowledged
critics who were not also recognized as masters of the art
-- or, at least, I haven't yet found that
kind mentioned in "The Embodied Image")

Wang Hsi-chih

It's just my ignorant guess,
but I'm guessing that what distinguishes
him from the earlier masters
(like Zhang Chih shown at the top of this post)

is the feeling of personal vulnerability,
as opposed to just sheer, athletic virtuosity.

(like the difference between a ballerina and
a competitive ice-skater)

Here's a detail of a copy of the most famous Wang scroll of all,
the "Preface to the Poems composed at the Orchid Pavillion"
(taken from the Shen-lung version, Palace Museum, Beijing)

And it's history gives some indication of its cultural importance

since T'ai-Tsung (599-649)
the second emperor and
co-founder of the Tang Dynasty
(and most celebrated of all Chinese rulers),

commissioned its theft from the Wang family,
had it faithfully copied,
and then had the original buried in his own tomb.

These guys were nuts about calligraphy !

Yen-chen Ch'ing (709-785)

is mentioned,
in the Harrist book,
as being the primary model
for the great calligraphers of
the Sung Dynasty.

(who apparently turned away from what
they saw as the corrupted copies of Wang Hsi-Chih
which they felt had a deleterious effect
on so much Tang Dynasty calligraphy)

Yen-chen Ch'ing

Yen-chen Ch'ing

To me,
his characters seem to present
a greater variety of qualities,
and be a little more sensitive
to the space between/behind them
(but then -- who knows
what the Wang looked like in the original.
I think carving has a limited ability to
reproduce what happens with ink on silk)

Chu Yung-ming (1461-1527)

Now -- I'm going to skip the great Sung period
(which will be discussed in the next post)
and jump to the Ming Dynasty,
which is famous for
some looser, wackier styles,
like the one shown above.

Fu Shan (1607-1684)

And as the dynasty wore one,
the calligraphy just kept on getting wackier.

Fu Shan (1607-1684)

These works are mostly
indecipherable as text,
and sometimes the artist
has even eliminated whole lines
of characters from earlier texts
that were being represented,
making the resulting text
broken and incomprehensible.

They also seem to inhabit an entirely
different visual world.

Wang To (1592-1652)(on the left)

Here the 17th C. Wang
is making a "copy"
of the 4th Century Wang
(shown on the right)

and what an incredible difference !

That column on the left is one, single
unbroken line ---
like those long, stationary
tracking shots that cinematographers
occasionally use for an unusual
(and celebrated) effect.

It's a real virtuoso effort -
to go through so much complication
in a single breath,
and still have the piece feel monumental.

Wang To (1592-1652)(on the left)

Here's another "copy"
(running from the right edge to left)

Perhaps this is Ornette Coleman
playing a Jerome Kern standard ?

Both of these Wangs served as
public officials
(as well as being celebrated artists)


I wonder which official
you would be more likely
to take at his word?

(just judging from his style of calligraphy)

And now,
for one more comparison,
we have a Tang tracing copy
of Wang Hsi-Chih's
"Ritual to pray for Good Harvest"
on the left.....

and the Ch'ien Lung emperor's (1711-1799)
tributary inscription on the right.
(and his colophon on the far left)

Qianlong was no slouch -- as an emperor or calligrapher.
I'm afraid that his monumental arrogance
in putting his own skillful work side-with-side
with the most famous calligrapher in history
only serves to magnify
the difference between them.

(but --maybe that was his purpose ?
after all - he was no dummie)

The phrase that he wrote was borrowed
from the 6th C. emperor Wu,
a great collector and promoter of the art:

"Dragons leaping at the edge of Heaven,
tigers crouching at the phoenix tower"

Sounds right to me !

(while Qianlong's work might better be characterized as:
"Spiders scampering over calm water")

*one note of caution regarding the above piece:

It is currently in the Elliott Collection at Princeton
University -- but Elliott purchased it in 1970 from
Chang Ta-ch'ien, a Hong Kong dealer who was also renowned as an
expert painter and

Nothing in Chinatown
is what it appears.


Blogger Lori Witzel said...

"Perhaps this is Ornette Coleman playing a Jerome Kern standard?" Great comment on that riffing line.

On a related note, what do you think the calligraphic version of Andy Bey's rendering of "Ain't Necessarily So" would look like?

February 01, 2008  

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