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Cai Xiang – Influential Early Song Calligrapher

    Cai Jing was first of the one of the four great Song dynasty calligraphers.

    He influenced the other three calligraphers of his era, and even taught his cousin, the hated official Cai Jing, how to wield the brush…

    Let’s look closer at his life and work.

    Brief biography

    Cai Xiang (蔡襄[Cài Xiāng]) (1012 – 1067 AD), literary name Junmo, was born in Xianyou County, Fujian Province during the reign of the third Song dynasty emperor: Zhenzong.

    His father, Cai Xiu (蔡琇), had been a farmer but became a low-ranking official for Quanzhou in Fujian Province. And his mother was the daughter of a well-known scholar named Lu Ren.

    Cai Xiang passed the imperial exam in 1030 (when he was just 17 or 18 years old). And when he was twenty-four years old, he made a name for himself in the Song court by writing a controversial poem in support of reformers.

    Thereafter, he earned himself a reputation as an upright and honest official. He was a cultured man known for his poetry, calligraphy, and expertise on the then-booming Tea trade. 

    He published A Monograph on Tea (茶录) somewhere between 1049 – 1053, in which he wrote about the selection, preparation, and enjoyment of tea.

    Cai was promoted to a number of different roles during his career as an official, including the minister in charge of transport and envoys in Fuzhou.

    But it was his calligraphy which brought him access to the highest circles of power, including contact with the emperor himself. 

    The Northern Song dynasty and reform

    The issue of political, educational, and economic reform loomed over the early Song dynasty (now retrospectively called the Northern Song because of the loss of half its territory to the Manchus in 1127).

    Cai was an advocate of several types of reform. For example, despite his own success in and because of it, he expressed dissatisfaction the education system. This was the famous imperial examination system that the government recruited the small number of successful candidates from. 

    It was, Cai argued, not practical enough for students to be so focused on exclusively literary knowledge. It left them unprepared for the many different challenges government work would face them with.

    This debate would continue in the decades after Cai passed away. His associate and admirer, the famous official-scholar Su Shi, was in fact threatened with execution and then sent into exile due to his opposition to reforms.

    Cai also passed comment on other social issues, such as public morals. He once complained:

    Nowadays, it is common that a man considering a marriage does not take into account the status of a family but solely the family’s wealth.

    – Quoted in The Age of Confucian Rule: The Song Transformation of China by Dieter Kuhn (Harvard: The Belknap Press, 2009), p. 140

    Cai Xiang’s calligraphy

    Early on, Cai diligently studied and practiced the styles of the influential Sui and early Tang dynasty official and regular script master Yu Shinan (558 – 638 AD) and equally influential middle Tang regular script innovator Yan Zhenqing (709 – 785 AD).

    Cai was also influenced by his contemporaries Zhou Yue (dates unknown, lived first half of the 11th century) and Su Shunqin (1008 – 1049 AD).

    Like all of these above names, Cai is remembered as an influential innovator in calligraphy. His work is generally said to have initiated the development of his fellow three members of ‘the four great Song calligraphers’ category: 

    However, like Zhou Yue and Su Shunqin, Cai’s calligraphy was occasionally critiqued during and after his lifetime. 

    The Song dynasty emperor Gaozong (r. 1129 – 1162), for example, said that Cai had met adequate but not outstanding levels. And Cai’s contemporary historian and calligrapher Ouyang Xiu thought that Cai tried too hard to master all the scripts equally, which prevented him from innovating.

    However, the Ouyang also claimed that Cai was the greatest calligrapher of the era. And Su Shi praised Cai as a great calligrapher to learn from.


    [Cai Xiang’s] natural talent was high, he was deeply learned, his hand and mind were aligned [/very skillful], he could endlessly change styles, he is first rank in this present dynasty.

    – Ouyang Xiu

    Calligraphy by Cai Xiang

    Paper from Heart Purification Hall (1063) is considered by many to be Cai’s best running script piece. Heart Purification Hall was where the last emperor of the Southern Tang dynasty had had stored his writing paper.

    This note, written on that paper, is a request from Cai for one hundred sheets of the paper.

    Paper From Heart Purification Hall by Cai Xiang
    Paper From Heart Purification Hall (1063) by Cai Xiang, ink on paper, running script, 24.7 x 27.1cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image: Wikipedia Commons)

    Letter to Li Du

    Cai’s Letter to Li Du (离都帖) was written shortly after his son had died of an illness. It is a reply to a friend who had sent their condolences. Cai wrote it when crossing the Yangtze.

    Letter to Li Du by Cai Xiang
    Letter to Li Du (1055 AD) by Cai Xiang, ink on paper, running script, 29.2 x 46.8cm. National Museum of China, Beijing. (Image: Wikipedia Commons)

    Letter to of the State Farms Bureau (“Siyong”)

    Letter to Si Yong of the State Farms Bureau (“Si Yong” – 思咏帖), is a farewell letter from Cai to his friend Feng Jing.

    Letter to Si Yong (1051 AD) by Cai Xiang, ink on paper, running script, 29.7 x 39.7 cm. National Museum of China, Beijing. (Image: Wikipedia Commons)