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Cai Jing’s Calligraphy

    Can we appreciate art by hated people?

    This question is asked a lot in modern times. It has long haunted the history of Chinese calligraphy, too.

    Cai Jing is perhaps the best example of it. 

    It’s even been argued that he is one of the four great Song dynasty calligraphers, but isn’t listed because of his reputation.

    Detail depicting Cai jing from Listening to the Qin by Emperor Huizong
    Detail depicting Cai jing from Listening to the Qin (ca. 1102) by the Emperor Huizong, hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk. 147.2 x 51.3cm. Palace Museum, Beijing. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Brief biography

    Cai Jing (蔡京 [Cài Jīng]) (1047 – 1126 AD), literary name Yuan Zhang, was born in Xinghua, Fujian Province during the late Song dynasty (960 – 1279 AD).

    The Song dynasty can be divided into two distinct periods: 

    • The Northern Song (960 – 1127 AD)
    • The Southern Song (1127 – 1279 AD)

    The Northern Song is seen as the high point of the dynasty, when it controlled most of China. The Southern Song came about once the north of the empire was taken over and occupied by the Jurchen-ruled Jin dynasty (1115 – 1254 AD). 

    The distinction between these two periods is important in discussions of Cai Jing. This is because many at the time, and still today, claim he significantly contributed to the Northern Song state’s failure.

    Prime minister and reformist

    During his career, Cai served as an official under the Song emperors Shenzong (r. 1067 – 1085 AD), Zhezong (r. 1085 – 1100 AD), and Huizong (r. 1100 – 1126 AD).

    He was the Prime Minister of the Song dynasty and a chief counsellors under Huizong. In these roles, he was given great power.

    Cai claimed to be the successor of the famous reformer Wang Anshi (1021 – 1086 AD), whose work a few decades before had made a big impact on many aspects of the Song state. 

    He used his power to draw up lists of ‘crooked scholars’ and other officials he disliked – namely, those that opposed his reforms. As a result, hundreds of officials were both demoted and banished far away from the Song court.

    The effect, perhaps unsurprisingly, was negative. There were less checks on Cai’s policies and the power of the government itself declined steeply. He also collaborated with the infamous eunuch Tong Guan (1154 – 1126 AD).

    Not all of Cai’s policies were implemented. For example, in 1102, his proposal to stop using the imperial examination system to select officials failed. (He also considered abolishing the system itself).

    Artistic adviser to the emperor

    Cai gave Huizong both political and artistic counsel. Along with Su Shi and Mi Fu, Cai is said to have advised the Emperor on the famous collection of art Catalogue of Art in the Xuanhe Era (1120) (Xuanhe Huapu).

    This work contained 6,396 paintings and biographies of 231 different artists.

    Another interesting collaboration between the emperor and Cai appears in the painting Listening to the Qin (ca. 1102).

    The emperor painted Cai here (this detail features at the top of this article) and Cai also wrote a calligraphic piece of it (detail cropped below).

    Listening to the Qin by the Emperor Huizong
    Listening to the Qin (ca. 1102) by the Emperor Huizong, hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk. 147.2 x 51.3cm. Palace Museum, Beijing. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)
    Cai Jing's postscript on Listening to the Qin
    Cai Jing’s postscript on Listening to the Qin (ca. 1102) by the Emperor Huizong, hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk. 147.2 x 51.3cm. Palace Museum, Beijing. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Downfall and death

    In the 1120s, the Northern Song state struggled against the Jurchen Jin state to its north. 

    (The Jurchens were ancestors of the Manchus, who would rule China’s last dynasty, the Qing (1644 – 1912)).

    Throughout Chinese history, the Emperor Taizong has been generally labelled a weak emperor. He was a talented poet, painter and calligrapher, but many say this as a sign that he wasn’t spending enough time on the affairs of the state.

    As the Northern Song state started to decline, Cai and a number of other reformist officials (known collectively as ‘The Six Bandits’) were held responsible for the Song state’s peril.

    They were sent into exile, along with their families – altogether twenty-three sons and grandsons, in Cai’s case. 

    the 80-year-old Cai had already retired, but this did not save him. Just ten days into his journey south to exile, he passed away. It is claimed that he was so hated that along the way no one would help him, which caused him to starve to death.

    Cai Jing’s calligraphic style

    Unfortunately, likely owing to his bad reputation, not much of Cai Jing’s calligraphy survives today.

    However, from what remains, his style is considered to be similar to those of Mi Fu and (to a slightly lesser extent) Su Shi. Like these calligraphers, his style was also influenced by Jin and Tang dynasty calligraphic styles.

    Critics have pointed to a flaw in his work: he appears to have sometimes deliberately aimed to make his calligraphy look disorderly. This often gives his work a rushed appearance.

    Either way, elsewhere, his characters are well-formed and fit nicely in a wider scheme of a pieces. This shows he certainly was talented and capable of producing elegant, vigorous pieces.

    Cai Jing, Cai Xiang and the four great Song dynasty calligraphers

    ‘The four great Song dynasty calligraphers’ is a category that refers to four Northern Song calligraphers. They are 

    Cai Jing and Cai Xiang were cousins (in fact, Cai Xiang first taught Cai Jing calligraphy.) So, their surname is the same character: 蔡 (Cài). 

    This could lead to some uncertainty when the four great song calligraphers are listed by surname in Chinese. The Ming dynasty art collector Zhang Chou (1577 – 1643 AD) claimed:


    During the Song, people listed Su, Huang, Mi, and Cai – Cai as in Cai Jing. Later generations removed Cai Jing because he was a bad person and replaced his name with Cai Xiang. And Cai Xiang was born before Su and Huang, so should not be listed after them. There can be no doubt that it was Jing! Jing Cai’s calligraphy is beautiful, you can’t compare Cai Jing’s to it.

    – Zhang Chou

    The first part of this argument (that later generations felt Jing was evil so replaced him with his cousin, Cai Xiang) has a fairly sound reasoning to it, but no evidence. 

    The second part (that the naming order proves this replacement has taken place) is only half correct – Yes, Cai Xiang should be listed before Su Shi if the ordering is by birth, but Cai Jing was born before Mi Fu, too, so the ordering still is not correct.

    And finally, the third statement (that Jing’s calligraphy is better than Xiang’s), reveals Zhang’s preference. Had he thought the opposite, his faith in his first argument first argument would at least been clearer!


    Separating art from the artist is difficult to do. In Chinese calligraphy, this is particularly in the case of Cai Jing. 

    Cai Jing’s attempted reforms during the Northern Song dynasty have been considered a leading factor in its downfall for centuries This reputation has cast a long shadow on his calligraphy. 

    Not much of his work remains, but it’s evident that his style was notably influenced by renowned calligraphers of his time. 

    Debates surrounding Cai Jing’s work reveal that he remains at the very least a notably figure in the history of calligraphy.

    And his cousin Cai Xiang’s position in the canon of great calligraphers will no doubt mean Cai Jing’s name is never forgotten.

    In the end, he at least left behind something good attached to his name: his calligraphy.