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The History of Tang Dynasty Calligraphy

    The Tang dynasty (618 – 907 AD) isremembered today as a golden age of China’s political power and cultural brilliance.

    Its empire was the largest China had ever had (or would have for nearly another 1,000 years).

    It is remembered as an age of great prose writing, painting, and – most famously – poetry.

    It was also the golden age of calligraphy

    Many of China’s greatest calligraphers appeared in quick succession, each significantly influencing the art.

    Let’s take a closer look at Tang dynasty calligraphy and some of its key features and figures.

    detail from sun guoting's tratise on calligraphy
    Detail from Treatise on Calligraphy (687 AD) by Sun Guoting, in on paper, cursive script, 26.5 x 900.8cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Brief overview of the Tang dynasty

    Map of the Tang dynasty
    Map of the Tang dynasty, with civil administration (dark red), military administration (dark pink) and briefly controlled territory (light pink) highlighted. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Before the Tang dynasty, China had been divided for nearly three centuries.

    (Excluding its immediate short-lived predecessor, the Sui dynasty, see below). 

    Unification from nearly three centuries of Tang rule brought about relative stability. This enabled the economy and culture to flourish.  

    One writer noted: 

    [one could] visit Qing of Xiang in the South, go to Taiyuan or Fanyang in the North, or go to Sichuan or Liangfu in the West, and everywhere there were shops and emporiums for supplying merchant travellers. Though they should go as far as several thousand li, they need not carry even an inch-long blade.

    Quoted in The Golden Peaches of Samarkland: A Study of T’ang Exotics by Edward H. Schafer (London: University of California Press, 1985), p. 8. (I have converted the Giles-Wade to pinyin in above quote).

    Brief overview of the Tang dynasty calligraphy 

    The Tang’s centralisation and stability simultaneously fostered advances in both standardisation and innovation of calligraphy.

    In fact, this applies to writing and intellectual movements more broadly, too.

    The growing importance of the imperial exams contributed to nation-wide academic standards

    And important figures like Han Yu (768 – 824 AD) helped reform the Chinese written language.

    These unified features did, of course, develop and change over time. But the level of standardisation remained high.

    Changes in scripts

    Early Tang calligraphy stands out for its squat, symmetrical dimensions and thick, vigorous strokes.

    Later on, slimmer characters made up of thinner strokes that retained the same vigour replaced them.

    Detail from Discussion Between Confucius and Bu Shang by Ouyang Xun
    Detail from Discussion Between Confucius and Bu Shang by Ouyang Xun, ink on paper, running script, 25.2 x 16.5cm. The Palace Museum, Beijing. (Image source: Alamy)

    There were important changes in the three most popular scripts for calligraphy.

    Standard script

    The official or standard script changed significantly. The drive for standardisation and the prevailing fashion for particular trend for vigorous yet balanced trends drove this.

    Running script

    Running script was experimented with and even standardised to a degree. As with the official script, this was largely thanks to the continued influence of China’s most eminent calligrapher: Wang Xizhi (303 – 361 AD).

    Grass script

    Grass script reached new heights of expression. Its popularity reflects the wider appreciation of calligraphy as a prestigious form of artistic expression. After all, it is purely artistic rather than practical.

    Clerical script

    And proto form of official script clerical script, also flourished. It was particularly promoted by the Emperor Xuanzong (685 – 762 AD).

    Seal script

    Even the script that symbolises early Chinese civilisation seal script was revived as an art form. It was also during the Tang that the practice of stamping pieces with seals decorated in seal script began.

    Dividing up Tang dynasty’s (artistic) periods

    Tang dynasty poetry and calligraphy is often divided up into the following periods:

    • Early Tang (618 – 713 AD)
    • High Tang (713 – 755 AD)
    • Middle Tang (755 – 820 AD)
    • Late Tang (820 – 907 AD)

    Before this, let’s briefly look at the crucial period before the Tang dynasty: the Sui dynasty.

    The Sui dynasty (581 – 618 AD)

    The Sui dynasty lasted only about 35 years. However, it laid the foundations for a lot of the Tang dynasties’ political, economic and cultural achievements. And the label ‘Sui-Tang’ is often used to combine these two dynasties.

    The Sui unified northern and southern China for the first time since the Han dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD) several centuries earlier. This had profound implications for many areas of Tang society.

    For example, the Grand Canal project was built during this time. It supplied China’s main capital Chang’an in the north west with food from the south. This profoundly changed China’s economy and urban centres for centuries to come.

    It also began the process of standardization between Northern and Southern calligraphy styles, which had been separate for centuries.

    Zhiyong: the monastic calligrapher

    Detail from Zhiyong’s version of the Thousand Character Classic in regular and running scripts
    Detail from Zhiyong’s version of the Thousand Character Classic in regular and running scripts. (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Zhiyong (exact birth and death dates unknown) was perhaps the most famous Sui dynasty calligrapher known primarily for this brief dynasty (the Sui only lasted about 35 years).

    He was also a Buddhist monk and descendent of Wang Xizhi. 

    And copied out the One Thousand Character Classic 800 times in two different scripts (regular and running scripts).

    His style was used as a model for centuries to come. It was both elegant and compact, two features that clearly influenced later Tang dynasty writings.

    Early Tang dynasty (618 – 713 AD) calligraphy

    The period in calligraphy and art known as the early Tang covers just under a century. From its founding by Li Yuan to the second year of Emperor Xuanzong’s (585 – 762 AD) reign.

    During this period, the Chinese state’s power and territory grew. The standardisation of multiple aspects of governance and culture that had begun in the Sui also progressed.

    The Emperor Taizong (598 – 649 AD)

    Detail from Stele for the Jin Memorial Temple
    Detail from Stele for the Jin Memorial Temple (647) by Li Shimin (Taizong Emperor), mounted ink rubbing, running script. National Museum of China, Beijing. (Image source: Alamy)

    The Taizong Emperor of Tang (唐太宗 [Táng Tàizōng]) played an important role in the development of Calligraphy during the Tang dynasty. 

    His private collection is said to have numbered over 700 pieces of calligraphy from various dynasties. 

    He greatly admired the work of Wang Xizhi and found academies of calligraphy where he encouraged the copying and imitation of Wang’s style.

    This made Wang’s style of elegant standard script and running script pieces done in forceful but controlled strokes particularly valued.

    The Taizong Emperor also befriended and studied calligraphy with a number of well-known calligrapher officials.

    And he promoted the painting as well as calligraphy. This encouraged officials and others to focus on it.

    Artistic theory advances: Sun Guoting’s Treatise on Calligraphy

    Detail from Treatise on Calligraphy (687 AD)
    Detail from Treatise on Calligraphy (687 AD) by Sun Guoting, in on paper, cursive script, 26.5 x 900.8cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    There have been treatise on calligraphy written over the years, both before, during and after the Tang.

    However, in 687 AD, Sun Guoting (b. c.646 – c. 691), a relatively lowly official but excellent calligrapher, wrote one of the classics for the genre: Treatise on Calligraphy (书谱 [Shū pǔ]).

    A physical copy of the masterpiece, written in a distinct and elegant cursive (/grass) script survives today. The ideas expounded on in it do, too.

    Sun gives an overview of calligraphy to-date. He particularly praises the work of two Han dynasty calligraphers: Zhong You (151 – 230 AD) and early cursive script innovator Zhang Zhi (? – c. 192 AD).

    And the work of Jin dynasty’s ‘two Wangs’: Wang Xizhi and his son Wang Xianzhi (344 – 386 AD), who – despite the emperor Taizong’s dislike of his style – was still highly regarded by many calligraphers.

    He then goes on to expound on several different aspects of the art and practice of calligraphy. Throughout this piece, his logic and ideas come across as elegantly and interestingly as his calligraphy itself.

    Truly, fine calligraphy may be called the result of wisdom and skill achieving joint excellence, of mind and body acting in harmony.

    – Sun Guoting, Treatise on Calligraphy

    The Four Early Tang Masters (of Calligraphy)

    The Four Early Tang Masters (of Calligraphy) (唐初四大家 [Tángchū sì dà jiā]) refers to the four most well-known and influential calligraphers of the period.

    1. Ouyang Xun (557 – 641 AD)

    Text of the Heart Sutra by Ouyang Xun
    Text of the Heart Sutra (635) by Ouyang Xun, ink rubbing, standard script. Gansu Tianqing Museum. (Image source: Alamy)

    The first of them was the innovative regular script master Ouyang Xun.

    He was a minister during the Sui dynasty. And his calligraphy showed the influence of both the Sui and Chen dynasty (557 – 589 AD).

    2. Yu Shinan (558 – 683 AD)

    The second is eminent and well-respected official Yu Shinan (558 – 683 AD).

    Yu particularly excelled at regular and running styles of calligraphy. His style is often described as being both firm and flexible and full of grandeur.

    Draft of the Epitaph for Princess Ru’nan by Yu Shinan
    Draft of the Epitaph for Princess Ru’nan (636 AD) by Yu Shinan, ink on paper, running script, 26.3 x 39.5CM. Shanghai Museum. (Image source: Alamy)

    3. Chu Suiliang (596 – 658 AD)

    Chu Suiliang was one Taizong’s favourite officials and calligraphers, is the third name in this category. His style built on Ouyang and Yu’s styles. It is described as both vigorous and balanced.

    Detail of Ni Kuan Zan by Chu Suiliang
    Detail of Ni Kuan Zan by Chu Suiliang, ink on yellow silk, scroll, standard script, 24.6 x 170.1cm, National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Photo credit: flickr.com).

    4. Xue Ji (649 – 713 AD)

    Xue Ji possessed abilities in the ‘three perfections’: Calligraphy, painting, and poetry.

    He was very influenced by Chu Suiliang. His own characters were slender and incorporated elements of running script into regular script.

    The High Tang (713 – 755 AD)

    The High Tang is primarily today as a period when China’s culture and political power was at one of its all-time highs. 

    Its territory was at the largest extent any Chinese dynasty would have until the Qing nearly 1,000 years later.

    It also famously produced many of China’s most famous poets, including Li Bai, Du Fu, and Wang Wei.

    It ended with the An Lushan Rebellion (755 – 763 AD), a military-led rebellion that quickly turned into a cataclysmic civil war.

    The Tang dynasty never fully recovered from this…

    This rebellion was famously at the centre of the official, general, and calligrapher Yan Zhenqing’s (709 – 785 AD) running-script masterpiece Requiem for My Nephew.

    Yan would go on to influence centuries of officials and calligraphers because of his reputation as a loyal Confucian official.

    Draft of a Requiem for my Nephew
    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. (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

    During this time, innovation in calligraphy was as clear as it was in poetry. The highly visually striking and difficult to read grass script (also known as fully-cursive script) is a good example of this.

    One innovator in this was the poet and official known for his ‘crazy cursive’ scriptZhang Xu (675 – ca. 750 AD).

    Detail from Four Ancient Poems (undated) by Zhang Xu
    Detail from Four Ancient Poems (undated) by Zhang Xu, ink on five-coloured paper, cursive (/grass) script, 28.8 x 192.3cm. Liaoning Provincial Museum, Shenyang. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Stability, standardisation, and economic development no doubt contributed to this era’s calligraphy flourishing.

    However, there was also top-down encouragement by the Xuanzong Emperor. He was as enthusiastic a patron of calligraphy as Taizong had been.

    The Middle Tang (755 – 820 AD)

    The Middle Tang was still a period in which calligraphy, like poetry, flourished. After all, many of the High Tang’s most famous stars still lived on into this period. 

    However, this era didn’t reach the sheer rapid volume of innovation and new figures as before.

    This was in part to the reduced political and cultural flourishing after the sheer destruction caused by the An Lushan Rebellion.

    The eccentric and talented monk Huaisu (737 – 799 AD) added more grass-script masterpieces to the canon.

    Detail from Autobiographical Essay by Huaisu
    Detail from Autobiographical Essay (777) by Huaisu, ink on paper, cursive (/grass) script, 28.3 x 755cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum, Taipei)

    And Liu Gongquan (778 – 865 AD)the great synthesizer of the styles of Ouyang, Chu, Yu, and Yan, began to develop his refined, spacious and balanced regular script.

    The much older seal script even began to advance. Li Yangbing (721 or 722 – 777 AD) was a scholar-official famous for reviving the use of seal script.

    He often collaborated with Yan Zhenqing – Li’s seal script headers would complement Yan’s standard script body text.

    Detail from Three Tomb Memorials by Li Yangbing
    Detail from Three Tomb Memorials (Tang dynasty) by Li Yangbing, mounted ink rubbings, seal script. (Image source: Alamy)

    The Late Tang (820 – 907 AD)

    Politically, the Late Tang was a period of general decline punctuated with flickers of hope.

    By its end, the Tang state broke up into the period known as the Five Kingdoms. It would by about half a century before the Song dynasty (960 – 1279 AD) reunified most of China.

    The great poet and calligrapher Du Mu (803 – 852 AD) seems to have sensed this decline. His poetry is full of nostalgia and a sense of loss.

    His free-flowing running script masterpiece Poem for Zhang Haohao reflects this in both its form and content.

    Detail from Poem About Zhang Haohao (834) by Du Mu, ink on hemp paper, in running script, 28.2 X 162cm. Palace Museum, Beijing. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Many calligraphers began to favour longer, thinner strokes. The distinctly squat characters with plump strokes popular in the earlier Tang periods were left behind.

    After the Tang dynasty

    The Tang dynasty finally formally collapsed in 907. What followed was the era known as the Ten Kingdoms and Five Dynasties (907 – 960 AD) (known as the Five Dynasties for short).

    About half a century later, the Song dynasty (960 – 1279 AD) appeared.

    It brought forth a cultural flourishing similar to – yet unique from – the Tang dynasty. This included many great calligraphers.

    Subsequent dynasties would produce great calligraphers and trends.

    But none would live up to the Tang dynasty in sheer volume of great calligraphers and innovation.

    What survives of Tang calligraphy today?

    Some – but not many – original ink on paper calligraphy pieces survive today. Given the time that has lapsed since then, this is remarkable. 

    There are also some steles (inscribed stone monuments) and ink rubbings of them. And a number of direct copies (and copies of copies) of works.

    Many of these have been passed down through the centuries. Today they are housed and preserved in museums across China.