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Draft of A Requiem for my Nephew by Yan Zhenqing

    Draft of a Requiem for my Nephew (958 AD) is one of the most famous calligraphy masterpieces in Chinese history.

    It is a eulogy for Yan Jimin (? – 756 AD), written by his uncle, the Tang dynasty official and calligrapher Yan Zhenqing (709 – 984 AD).

    Jimin was beheaded by rebels during the An Lushan Rebellion (755 – 763 AD), a civil war that led to the death of millions in the Tang empire.

    And it is a draft for a piece that either no longer – or perhaps never did – exists. 

    Its appeal lies in its moving content itself and the subtle, nuanced changes in the sturdy characters’ that express this content.

    Background to Draft of a Requiem for my Nephew

    Yan Gaoqing (692 – 756)

    Yan Gaoqing was Yan Zhenqing’s cousin.

    Like his cousin, he was an official. But unlike his cousin, he (Gaoqing) had once switched to An Lushan’s side during the rebellion.

    However, the Tang government had persuaded Yan Gaoqing to switch back sides. 

    He was rewarded by being made the governor of Changshan Commandery (in today’s Hebei Province) and several other surrounding imperial bases.

    Yan Jimin’s death in Changshan Commandery

    In the winter of 756, An Lushan and his forces had just successfully attacked the second Tang capital of Luoyang (today’s Henan Province). 

    They were due to head west to target the main capital, Chang’an. 

    However, news reached them that resistance by Yan Gaoqing and 200,000 loyalist forces had appeared in Hebei. 

    Two contingents of An Lushan’s rebel forces went to attack them. One came from the north, the other the south.  

    After six days of fighting, the loyalist forces surrendered. This was when Yan Gaoqing’s son, Yan Jimin, and his grandson, Lu Di, were both beheaded.

    Yan Gaoqing himself was taken captive and brought to An Lushan, who ordered his tongue cut out and execution by dismemberment.

    Yan Quanming brings the bad news

    Meanwhile, Yan Gaoqing’s other son, Yan Quanming, had been imprisoned by rebels in a separate incident. 

    But in 758, Quanming was released when one of the rebel commanders that had attacked Changshan Commandery (Shi Siming) switched back to the loyalist side. 

    Yan Quanming then travelled to Luoyang to bury his father’s dismembered body. Here, he made contact with Yan Zhenqing, who was the prefect of Puzhou, 150 miles (250km) west of Luoyang.

    Yan’s own recent war

    Yan Zhenqing had himself recently been caught up in fighting and fleeing war.

    He had recently first bravely defended and then fled the city of Pingyuan (today’s Shandong Province).

    His fleeing was clearly a tactical necessity, which the emperor himself praised and rewarded him for. 

    However, Yan was upset that he had not been martyred like his cousin, Yan Gaoqing.

    Upon receiving the news of his nephew’s death, Yan wrote the Requiem.

    Details about Requiem

    Draft of requiem for my nephew by Yan Zhenqing
    Draft of a Requiem for my Nephew (758 AD) by Yan Zhenqing, ink on hemp paper, running script. 28.3cm x 75.5cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei.

    Draft of a Requiem for my Nephew (祭姪文稿 [Jì zhí wéngǎo] (sometimes translated as just Requiem for my Nephew) was written in 758, when Yan was 49 and the An Lushan Rebellion about halfway through its course.

    It is written in running-cursive script – a mixture of running (semi-‘fast’ handwriting) and cursive (very ‘fast’ handwriting) scripts.

    It consists of 23 lines and 27 characters (not including the several blotted out characters). It measures 28.3 cm in height by 75.5 cm in width – or just under one foot in height and 2.5 foot across.

    Part of the charm of the draft is that it contains Yan’s additions and crossing out. 

    This adds an element of authenticity and insight into the great calligrapher’s working process that the final version may not have.

    Requiem’s place in the Chinese calligraphic canon

    Requiem is often grouped with Wang Xizhi’s Preface to the Orchid Pavilion and Su Dongpo’s Cold Food Observance.  

    Together, these three pieces are known as:

    • The ‘three great running script works’ (三大行书 [sān dà xíngshū])

    Or even:

    • The ‘three great running script under heaven’ (天下三大行书 [tiānxià sān dà xíngshū])

    Calligraphers and literati have admired Yan’s work throughout the centuries. Many repeatedly copied out this work (and other works by Yan) in order to practice and imbue his style.

    Chinese (Traditional) text side by side with piece

    Below is an picture of Requiem with original characters listed directly below each line.

    The characters in red are ones that have been blotted or crossed out (they are crossed out in black on the piece, so are not to be confused with the red calligraphy seals here).

    Requiem for my nephew by Yan Zhenqing with printed traditional Chinese characters underneath
    Requiem for my Nephew by Yan Zhenqing with printed traditional Chinese characters underneath

    Chinese (Simplified) version of the Requiem‘s text

    舋称兵犯顺 尔父竭诚常
    山作郡余时受 命亦在平
    原 仁兄爱我俾尔传言尔既
    倾卵覆 天不悔祸谁为

    English version of the Requiem‘s text

    The Quanyuan year [758 AD], on the third day of in the 9th month. 

    Hou Zhenqing is the thirteenth uncle, the Glorious Grand Master, the governor and military prefect of Puzhou, captain of the light chariots founder of Danyang County. He gave offerings of ritual wine and food to Ni’er for the departed spirit of Yan Jiming.

    Since your youth, you were like a glazed ritual vessel in our ancestral hall, like a garden’s fragrant grass. You brought great joy to our Yan family, we looked forward to your good fortune. 

    We never thought that the rebellion [An Lushan] would intrude on us here.

    Your father, the sheriff of Changshan, was loyal to the empire to the end. At the time, I was appointed sheriff of Pingyuan county by the imperial court. My dear brother, out of love for me, had you contact me personally.

    Afterwards, you returned to Changshan County and helped me through the Tumen Pass.  

    Then, the rebel army attacked. The contemptible bandit [Wang Chengye] raised troops but didn’t save you. He left you without aid. The city was stormed, your father was ransomed, you were sad, like a bird whose nest was destroyed and eggs smashed.  

    How can one not grieve such a disaster? Who killed you? I would have exchanged my life a hundred times to prevent your cruel fate.

    By order of his majesty, I went to serve in Heguan. Quanming recently came by from Changshan with your coffin.

    I think of all this with great sadness, a grief that makes me quiver and turn pale. In a day’s time, I will help choose a grave for you.  

    I send this notice to your spirit, please don’t let it make you feel sad for long.

    Where is the original version of the Requiem today?

    Today, Requiem is has been housed in Taiwan’s National Palace Museum since at around 1949.

    The museum was originally set up within Beijing’s Forbidden City on October 10th 1925, shortly before the expulsion of the former Emperor Puyi (who had been resident there since his abdication on February 12th 1912).

    It moved to Taiwan near the end of the Chinese civil war and currently has a permanent collection of a 700,000 Chinese art works and artefacts.

    Requiem left the museum briefly in 1997 for an exhibition in Washington DC and in 2019 for an exhibition on Yan in Japan (which caused anger amongst some online Chinese nationalists).