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.]

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