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Emperor Taizong of Tang’s Calligraphy

    Emperor Taizong of the Tang dynasty was a successful ruler and accomplished writer and calligrapher. 

    Few Chinese emperors enjoy such a positive and well-respected reputation.

    His love of calligraphy played a big role in the development of Tang calligraphy. It reached new artistic heights during and after his reign.

    Let’s look closer at his interest and expertise in calligraphy. But before that, let’s briefly look at his life.

    Background to rule

    The Taizong Emperor of Tang (唐太宗 [Táng Tàizōng]) (598 – 649 AD) was born as Li Shimin (李世民 [Lǐ Shìmín]) during the short-lived Sui dynasty (581 – 618 AD).

    His father, Li Yuan was a general and governor of what is today Shanxi Province. Like the Sui dynasty rulers – whom they were related to – the Li family appear to have been of mixed Chinese, Turkic, and Xianbei descent.

    In 618, Li Yuan’s forces overthrew the Sui dynasty and founded the Tang dynasty (618 – 907 AD). Li Shimin had encouraged his father to do this and is seen by many as the co-founder of the dynasty.

    Li Yuan became the Emperor Gaozu and Li Shimin became the Prince of Qin. But just eight years later, Li Shimin became the Emperor Taizong. He did this after imprisoning his father and killing two of his brothers and ten of his nephews.

    A brief overview of Taizong’s Reign (626 – 649 AD)

    Taizong’s reign began ruthlessly, something relatively common among contemporary steppe people’s politics. However, it quickly went on establish itself as enlightened and well-run.

    For example, early on, he had some success with foreign policy. Military successes and his cultural connections with the peoples to the west of China’s empire helped the Tang achieve the largest Chinese empire to-date. The empire’s boundary stretched as far as Persia.

    Taizong styled himself as the Heavenly Qaghan (great khan) to his central Asian and steppe subjects and the Son of Heaven (emperor) to his Chinese ones.

    The emperors since ancient times have appreciated the Chinese and depreciated the barbarians. Only I view them as equal. That is why they look upon me as their parent.

    – Emperor Taizong

    Taizong was lucky to have inherited the unification and bureaucracy established by the Sui dynasty. Northern and southern China were now united as one, so economic and cultural exchange could flow between the two.

    Taizong’s later rule was not as successful. He died shortly after a failed attempt to invade what is today Korea. The recent Sui dynasty had come undone after the same failure.

    However, to this day he is largely remembered as one of the greatest and most able emperors in Chinese history. This legacy is no doubt boosted by his artistic interests and capabilities.

    Taizong’s love of the arts

    The Taizong Emperor was genuinely enthusiastic about the arts and literature. His patronage and promotion of them helped usher in a golden age for them. 

    When he was the crown prince, he had established academies of art. These continued to train scholars and academicians throughout his reign as emperor.

    He also built on the examination system revived by the Sui dynasty. Candidates were tested on their literary abilities, and the successful ones were rewarded with official positions in the government.

    Calligraphy, painting, and poetry flourished and evolved during and after Taizong’s reign. This contributed greatly to the high Tang period (713 – 755 AD) in the century after his death. This later period is still seen as a golden age of Chinese arts.

    Taizong’s and calligraphy 

    Taizong studied and practiced calligraphy throughout his life. As crown prince and later emperor, he also found positions for many scholars and academicians.

    And he studied under and worked with many of the leading calligraphers of his day, including Ouyang Xun (557 – 641 AD)Yu Shinan (558 – 638 AD),  Chu Suiliang (596 – 658 AD), and others. 

    Love of Wang Xizhi

    Taizong famously loved the work of Eastern Jin dynasty calligrapher Wang Xizhi (303 – 361 AD). He collected and copied Wang’s works, and had other calligraphers copy it out, too.

    The Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty (464 – 549 AD) had also had a strong passion for Wang Xizhi’s work. However, Taizong appears to have gone further in his efforts to promote and proliferate Wang’s style.

    The monk and the masterpiece

    A perhaps apocryphal story has it that Taizong used cunning to gain the original of Wang Xizhi’s masterpiece, the Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Collection.

    The story has it that a monk named Bian Cai had the original. Bian Cai was a student of Zhi Yong – one of Wang Xizhi’s descendants.

    Taizong sent Xiao Yi, an official named to investigate. Xiao Yi went to Bian Cai’s village pretending to be a poor scholar passing through. 

    He befriended Bian Cai and then extended his stay by feigning illness. At Bian Cai’s temple, the two played chess, drank, ate and conversed. Calligraphy soon came up in conversation.

    Xiao Yi showed Bian Cai samples of Wang Xizhi’s work and declared them to be some of the finest available. Disagreeing, Bian Cai climbed into the temple’s rafters and pulled out his copy of Preface to the Orchard Pavilion.

    Xiao Yi feigned disinterest and declared Bian Cai’s piece a fake. Bian Cai debated him into the night, before going to bed and leaving his copy of the Orchid Pavilion out.

    Xiao Yi immediately took the masterpiece and travelled back to the palace, where the ecstatic Taizong rewarded him. This story has it that Taizong even sent Bian Cai enough grain to build a new temple with, too.

    Biographer of Wang Xizhi

    The Book of Jin (sometimes translated as The History of the Jin Dynasty)  (晋书 [Jìn Shū]) was a collection of essays by Tang officials on the Jin dynasty (266 AD – 420 AD) compiled by in 648.

    Taizong wrote four essays for it, including a detailed biography of Wang Xizhi. In it, he states that though Wang’s work did have some defects, he was still only person to have achieved perfection in the art of calligraphy.

    He even famously stated that:

    [Wang Xizhi’s] fame exceeded reality

    – Emperor Taizong, Book of Jin

    Taizong appears not to have noticed the irony of saying this whilst being one of Wang’s biggest promoters!

    Taizong’s own calligraphy

    Taizong is not considered to have been an elite-level calligrapher, in the same class Wang Xizhi, or his well-known contemporaries like Ouyang Xun, Yu Shinan, etc.

    However, he was clearly highly skilled at the art, and is said to have excelled at many forms. He is most known for his running script, which is the script he most admired Wang Xizhi for.

    He tried to imitate Wang’s style for many years. But later on, he seems to switched to learning directly from Yu Shinan’s running script.

    In imitating the works of ancient calligraphers, I concentrate on learning strength of strokes instead of outward form [of characters]

    – Taizong of Tang

    He also directly produced two big innovations in calligraphy field: steles and seals.

    Running script on steles

    Taizong started the trend of having running script inscribed on steles (stone monuments). 

    Before Taizong, stele inscriptions were generally carried out in the former official script (clerical script) or the newer standard script.

    Running script is a cursive variation of standard script. It’s generally used for handwritten documents because it’s faster and more convenient to write. This had made it seem unsuitable for the solemnity and official-looking appearance needed for steles.


    Taizong is said to have begun the trend for stamping paintings and calligraphic works with a personalised seal.

    Example of Taizong’s calligraphy: Jin Memorial Hall Stele (646 AD)

    In 646, Taizong visited the Jin Memorial Hall near today’s Taiyuan, Shanxi Province. This is a sacred shrine for the ancestors of the Tang state of the first Jin dynasty (266 AD – 420 AD).

    Whilst praying there, Taizong felt a deep connection to the site. He decided to commemorate this by writing text for a stone stele to be placed there.

    The Jin Memorial Hall Stele (or Jin Shrine Stele) (晋祠铭 [Jìncí Míng]) is a 6ft 3 (195CM) tall by 4ft (122CM) across stone. It is inscribed with 1,203 running script characters in Taizong’s own hand arranged in 28 lines of text.

    It praises the earlier Jin dynasty for its rule and prosperity, criticises the Sui dynasty for its collapse, and praises the Tang dynasty. 

    In 1772, the Qing emperor Qianlong also added an accompanying stele.