Sunday, February 19, 2012

China's Greatest Calligrapher

Wang Xizhi is regarded by all those with a classical East Asian (Chinese, Japanese or Korean) eduction to have been China's greatest calligrapher. This is an astounding statement; for calligraphy is not a dead art. It has been practised continuously for the last sixteen hundred years or so. Perhaps something comparable in Western Civilization would be to assert that Praxiteles (4th century B.C.) is its greatest sculptor - not Donatello, not Michelagelo, not Rodin, etc. Or to say that the "Winged Nike of Samathrace" 2nd century A. D. Hellenistic sculpture, rediscovered in the 19th century and now in the Louvre is the greatest work of sculpture. But there you are; ask any traditionally educated Chinese, Japanese or Korean--it is Wang Xizhi, who lived in the 4th century A. D., whose works are all lost and remain only in copies.

Undoubtedly it is due to the fact that Chinese civilization has survived continuously for nearly three thousand years (five thousand years over-states the case and includes the period that Chinese tradition has written about) as well as the fact that the bearers of this civilization has remained a self-perpetuating scholar-gentry class supported most of the time by the state. The second Tang emperor was said to have commissioned a search for Wang's most famous work--his preface to a collection of poems that celebrated a picnic at an Orchid Pavilion near modern-day Hangzhou (famous today partly because Henry Kissinger cattily recorded Nixon's philistine remark upon visiting it was that it was as pretty as a picture post-card). That emperor decreed that the original manuscript be buried with him and so it was but it appears that three copies were made that include even Wang's crossing out of his mistakes or imperfections. These survived as stone copies and have since then been faithfully copied and recopied. The text and pictures may be viewed on-line at

It is not long, only a few over 400 characters or "graphs" long, introducing what became "nature poetry" in Chinese literature. The whole is reproduced in three panels that should be read from right to left, below. It is said that Wang was a calligrapher of such infinite variety that he wrote the word zhi (之) a common particle, that appears 21 times, such that no two instances are exactly the same. Each instance, the graph is ever so slightly different due to the the rhythms of its surrounding graphs. It is as if Jefferson had written the letter "e" differently each time it appeared in the Declaration of Independence, but of course, calligraphy in Chinese civilization is not to be equated with penmanship in the English language. The following pictures are from the website noted above.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Calligraphy in Chinese Culture

Why do the Chinese write on their paintings?

Is the writing part of the painting?

What if the writing is not by the painter?

In The Three Perfections, Michael Sullivan (1974, 1999 reprint) begins with an incident recorded in the xin tang shu (New Tang Chronicles) regarding the inscription of the Emperor on a gift from Zheng Qian, a noted poet, painter and calligrapher. He pronounced the gift “Zheng Qian san jue” (三 絶 ?) which Sullivan translated as Zheng Qian’s “three perfections”—the title of his book. This probably happened in the middle of the 8th century. Zheng Qian’s three perfections, alas, have not survived, but the anecdote provided the springboard for Sullivan’s reflections on the above related questions.

The example that Sullivan chose to demonstrate his answer, that the writing is part of the painting and even or especially if it is written by someone else, was a painting by Zhao Mengfu (趙孟頫), a scholar who served Kubilai Khan but never forgave himself for this act of “collaboration.” On his painting, dated 1295 and entitled Sheep and Goat, a later scholar had written that Zhao painted the animals that had clearly gone astray and were lost as if he grieved for them and that this was because he was in grief for his own action in serving the Mongols. It was also something he could not have written on the painting himself without incurring the swift and terrible retribution of the Mongols. (Sullivan, 1974. Perfections, pp. 42-44.) Sullivan points to Chinese legend that both writing and painting were of divine origin and also to Chinese conventional wisdom that the two activities had a “common body.” (Sullivan, pp. 12, 15.) By a happy coincidence that painting has not only survived but is on exhibit at the Freer Gallery (part of the Smithsonian in Washington D.C.) and following are three pictures of it.

I have downloaded the following three pictures of that painting from the Freer pages of the Smithsonian website:

This painting was done centuries after the tradition of calligraphy began (around the 4th century A.D. It is helpful to see this tradition of calligraphy as an important contribution to the standardization of the written form of the Chinese language that allowed it to remain in continuous use for over two thousand years. Chinese began to be written probably around 1400 B.C. but was not standardized until the unification of China around 221 B.C. Either the Emperor or his Chief Minister decreed that the written form of the language be made uniform. As with many of those who have actually or in myth unified nations, he also decreed various actions that aroused the opposition of the literate class, most famously by burning classics and other books that he deemed to be useless.

The development of a tradition of literary achievement in calligraphy therefore mitigated against any distaste for the standardization of the orthography/writing of Chinese. In the middle of the fourth century, Wang Xizhi (王羲之) composed the Lantingji Xu (蘭亭集序), a preface to several poems written to commemorate a picnic in the Orchid Pavilion park that gives the volume of poems its name. The poems and the preface are lost but Wang's calligraphy so impressed his contemporaries and successors that he has ever since been regarded to be China's greatest calligrapher. Nearly two centuries later, Emperor Wu (502-549 A.D.) of the Liang Dynasty (one of several during the Period of Fragmentation) commissioned the well-known scholar Zhou Xingsi to compose a poem using 1000 unique graphs so that the Crown Prince, Xiao Tong (蕭 統), might have something interesting with which to practice his calligraphy. This poem of a thousand characters became the primer for Chinese, Japanese and Korean men of letters as they began their study of writing and literature.

Without this embrace of the standardized orthography of the Chinese language, there might not have been such universal acceptance of the uniformity of writing imposed by the state. And without such universal acceptance, the Chinese language might not have become the political and cultural force of unity in Chinese history that it is said to have been [see Derk Bodde's assessment in the Cambridge History of China, vol. 1, pp. 57 and 58.]

Simplicity and children's books

This book is addressed to children aged five to ten. It is beautifully produced with illustrations by the author herself. The story is u...