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Chu Suiliang

    Chu Suiliang was both one of the four masters of regular script and one of the four early Tang calligraphy masters.

    In an era of an era of outstanding development in calligraphy, his work helped bring forth a new Tang dynasty (618 AD – 907 AD) calligraphy style.

    Family background and early life

    Chu Suiliang (褚遂良 [Chǔ Suìliáng]) (596 – 658 AD) was born in Hangzhou during the Sui dynasty (581 – 618 AD).

    His father Chu Liang (褚亮 [Chǔ Liàng]) (560 – 647 AD) was a well-known literary man and high-up official during the Chen, Sui, and Tang dynasties. He was also good friends with famous calligraphers and men of letters such as Yu ShinanOuyang Xun, and others.

    Chu Suiliang flourished in this cultured and well-connected aristocratic environment. As a youth, he received direct instruction from Yu Shinan and diligently practiced calligraphy.

    His career got off to a great start. He rose through the ranks quickly and soon became a favourite of the Taizong Emperor (r. 626 – 649 AD)

    He is said to have been able to talk relatively frankly with Taizong. This adhered to a famous Confucian principle of being honest with rulers.

    This applied to artistic matters, too. Thanks to Chu’s expertise in calligraphy, he was said to have been useful for distinguishing genuine and forged calligraphic pieces.

    子路问事君。子曰:“勿欺也而犯之。”

    Zilu asked how to serve a prince. Confucius answered: “Tell him the truth, even if that offends him.”

    Analects (14.22)

    This was particularly useful when it came to Taizong’s favourite calligrapher was Wang Xizhi (303 – 361 AD), who Chu was naturally familiar with.

    In 629, when Chu was only 33 years old, he was amongst those selected by the emperor to write the calligraphy for a stone memorial (also known as a stele) outside a temple.

    Later official career: Exile and death

    After the Taizong Emperor passed away in 649 AD, his son Gaozong (r. 649 – 683 AD) became emperor.

    At this time, Chu was made Duke of Henan Province. However, his position wouldn’t last long.

    Gaozong’s reign was famously dominated by the rise of his concubine and second empress: Wu Zetian. This began about five years into his rule.

    Wu Zetian had previously been one of Taizong’s concubines. The custom was for deceased emperors’ concubines to retire to monasteries. However, Taizong didn’t let this stop him.

    Chu made the mistake of trying to dissuade Gaozong from this relationship. As a result, he was demoted and fell out of favour.

    Unlike Taizong, Wu Zetian did not encourage honest conversation between monarchs and officials. By the end of her own reign, she had removed 80% of her ministers.

    Eventually, Chu was sent into exile in Annan province (which was essentially today’s Vietnam). He passed away there aged 63 and his family was forced to remain.

    Not long after, Empress removed his official titles. It would be another 46 years before his name was officially rehabilitated.

    Chu Suiliang’s calligraphy

    Chu Suiliang is particularly famous for two scripts. His standard script, which shows traces of clerical script. And his running script – though no samples of this survive, just comments by contemporaries.

    In his standard script, the influence of calligraphers such as Yu Shinan, Ouyang Xun, and Wang Xizhi are clear.

    His style is often described as balanced between strong and gentle strokes. Overall, his characters give the impression of having being written vigorously and swiftly yet elegantly. They often feature idiosyncratic strokes that dexterously start, end, curve and or extend.

    His work is preserved in ink rubbings of stone inscriptions. Fortunately, the skill of inscribing in stone had advanced a lot by the Tang dynasty. So, they reflected the original writing more accurately than before.

    Example piece: Preface to the Sacred Teaching at Wild Goose Pavilion

    The Preface to the Sacred Teaching at Wild Goose Pavilion (雁塔圣教序 [Yàntǎ Shèngjiào Xù]) is a particularly well-known piece by Chu Suiliang.

    Originally, there were two stone inscriptions: the Preface and the Record. The latter was authored by the Gaozong Emperor. It detailed how his father, the Taizong Emperor, had come to work on the Preface.

    Both pieces were inscribed in 653 AD – just a couple of years before Chu’s exile. They are likely the last existing examples of his calligraphy. Fortunately, even though though monuments no longer survive, Song dynasty ink rubbings of them do.

    Conclusion

    Chu Suiliang had a big impact on the development of Chinese calligraphy. 

    He in turn received direct influence from great calligraphers such as Yu Shinan and Ouyang Xun.

    Early on, he achieved great success and support from the Tang court and the Taizong Emperor in particular. But the latter part of his career and life was marred Wu Zetian’s takeover.

    His works are preserved in ink rubbings. Fortunately, the surviving examples reflect advancements in Tang dynasty stone inscriptions and Chu’s unique style.