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Du Mu’s Calligraphy

    Today, Du Mu is remembered primarily as one of China’s great poets.

    However, he was also a great calligrapher. His work is firmly placed in the canon of Tang calligraphy.

    The little that does survive of his calligraphy compliments and enriches his poetry.

    Women of the House Playing Double Sixes. by Zhou Fang
    Detail from Women of the House Playing Double Sixes (late 8th century) by Zhou Fang, ink and colour on hemp paper, 28.8 x 42.2. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    Early life and family background

    Du Mu (杜牧 [Dù Mù]) (803 – 852 AD) was born in the Tang dynasty capital of Chang’an (today’s Xi’an) to a wealthy and well-known family of officials.

    His paternal grandfather, Du You (735 – 812), was a famous Tang dynasty official and historian.

    Du enjoyed success early in life. By the time he passed the imperial exams aged 25, he was already well-known for his poetry.

    Like many others, the young Du frequented the ‘pleasure quarters’ of Chang’an – a mixture of brothels, bars, and other entertainment venues.

    They were particularly popular with merchants, officials, and students. The last group were often – like Du – sons of the elite. They had money to spend and stress to vent.

    落魄江南载酒行,
    楚腰肠断掌中轻。
    十年一觉扬州梦,
    赢得青楼薄幸名。

    Down and out south of the river, roaming around with wine in hand.
    Beauties’ hearts were broken when they fell into my hands. 
    Ten years have passed since I woke up in Yangzhou, 
    I still dwell on the dream of those pleasure quarters, where I earned a reputation as a heartless man.

    – Du Mu, ‘Venting Feelings’

    The late Tang period 

    The late Tang period is seen as the period of fatal decline in the dynasty. In historical discussions, it is often dated between 875 and 907 AD. And in discussions of literature, as between 820 – 907 AD.

    This period was approximately contemporaneous with:

    • Alfred the Great’s reign as King of the West Saxons (r. 871 – c. 886) and then King of the Anglo Saxons (r. c. 886 – 899)
    • Dublin (841) and Iceland (c. 872) founded by the Vikings
    • The first phase of the Holy Roman Empire (c. 800) beginning

    Half a century before Du Mu was born, the An Lushan Rebellion (755 – 763 AD) had irreparably damaged the Tang empire. Thereafter, a series of revolts, coups, and counter-coups disturbed it further.

    The dynasty’s territory and authority had never recovered its former glory. And overall, neither did its artistic achievements in calligraphy, poetry, and painting.

    This decline is not just something we can see in hindsight. There was an awareness amongst many at the time, often reflected in the nostalgia for the earlier High Tang period (713 – 755 AD).

    Du Mu’s poetry (and by extension, his calligraphy) often reflects this deep sense of loss and regret. However, his temperament no doubt contributed to this tone that pervades through his works, too.

    The Sweet Dew Incident (835 AD)

    Being an official during the late Tang could be dangerous. But Du was fortunate not to have suffered any great misfortune during his career.

    However, that does not mean his career was without anxiety. 

    One close call came in the form of the Sweet Dew Incident in 835. At the time, the emperor Wenzong (r. 827 – 840) plotted with officials to assassinate the courts’ powerful eunuchs. 

    His plot – and assassins – were discovered and halted. This led to a purge of many officials and a huge loss of power for the emperor.

    Fortunately for Du Mu, he had transferred from Chang’an to the second Tang dynasty capital Luoyang shortly before these events.

    Later official career

    Like many officials of the era, Du Mu held many posts in different locations during the course of his career. Besides both Tang capitals, Chang’an and Luoyang, he was appointed to positions in:

    • Hongzhou (today’s Nanchang, Jiangxi Province)
    • Xuanzhou (today’s Xuancheng, Anhui Province)
    • Yangzhou (Jiangsu Province)
    • Huangzhou (part of today’s Huanggang, Hubei Province)
    • Chizhou (Anhui Province)
    • Huzhou (Zhejiang Province)

    At one point late in his career he held a position for drafting official documents for the emperor and was the governer of Huzhou. But in general, he appears to have felt frustrated and bitter about his lack of promotion to prestigious posts. He blamed this on political rivals.

    Du also supported his younger blind brother, Du Yi, throughout much of his life. Sadly, Du Yi died in 851. And Du Mu died the following year in Huzhou.

    Du Mu’s calligraphy style

    Du Fu style of calligraphy is very distinct. This adds even more expression and idiosyncrasy to his poetry. It is a very free and imbalanced style consisting of varying thicknesses of strokes and characters.

    During the late Tang, especially during the Yuanhe reign (806 – 820) of the second Xianzong Emperor, many calligraphers begin favouring thin and vigorous brushstrokes over the thicker strokes of the earlier Tang periods. Du’s surviving calligraphy partially reflects this trend.

    Du’s brushstrokes often appear both slow and leisurely. This leads to characters having unusual quirks, such as mis-sized components or occasionally dissimilar styles between characters that follow on from one another.

    He favoured running script which often crossed over into near grass script with some characters and strokes.

    Example calligraphy work: Poem About Zhang Haohao (834)

    Poem About Zhang Haohao (张好好诗 [Zhāng Hǎohǎo Shī]) is Du Mu’s only surviving original ink calligraphy piece

    It is narrative poem written in running script on hemp paper. It is made up of 322 characters arranged in forty-six rows.

    Zhang Haohao was a young courtesan that Du Mu met in 829 in Hongzhou, Jiangxi Province. Girls like Zhang often came from lower class families or had been sold into prostitution by their former husbands. 

    Their roles were often a mixture of entertainer, hostess and prostitute. Today, many historians see them as the predecessors to Japan’s Geishas.

    The famous Song dynasty calligraphy treatise Notes on Xuanhe Era Calligraphy (宣和书谱 [Xuānhé Shūpǔ]) (1120 AD) mentions Poem About Zhang Haohao. It comments on how the style suits the content well.

    The content is based on a recollection of the young Zhang’s beauty. As the piece states in its opening lines, Zhang was just 13 years old when Du first saw her. At the time she was a singer in the pleasure quarters.

    The poem goes on to talk about how Du saw Zhang many years later, by which point she was a concubine for a wealthy man. Like his ‘Venting Feelings’ poem above, Poem About Zhang Haohao is tinged with a sense of sadness and regret over times gone by.

    Summary

    Du Mu was born into a prominent family at a relatively great time in Chinese history. He gained early recognition for his poetry and passed the imperial exams at 25.

    Like many of the Chinese elite at the time, he frequented the pleasure quarters of Chang’an, and lived like a libertine.

    His era saw political upheaval and a decline in artistic achievements. However, this is relative to the unprecedented heights it had achieved in recent memory.

    Despite his abilities and the relative stability of his career as an official, Du was often frustrated by his lack of prestigious appointments, which he attributed to his political rivals.

    Whether it was the political or his personal ones, or both, or neither, Du Mu’s poetry is tinged with the hue of nostalgia and regret.

    His distinctive calligraphy style, with its varying brushstroke thicknesses and characters, is believed by many to reflect this, too. Its preference for thin, vigorous brushstrokes was also influenced by the trends of the late Tang period.

    Poem About Zhang Haohao (834) is his only surviving work. It blends his unique calligraphy style with a narrative about a courtesan’s beauty.

    We too should feel the sense of nostalgia and regret it carries about the lack of other surviving calligraphy pieces by Du Mu. However, we can be consoled by the fact that so much of his excellent poetry exists.