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Huaisu – The Cursive Calligraphy Monk

    To newcomers of calligraphy history, discovering Huaisu might bring on déjà vu.

    That’s because he is one of two wild Tang dynasty figures that specialised in grass script. The other is Zhang Xu, who was born over half a century before him. They are two of the most interesting characters in Tang calligraphy history.

    He is also one of monks famous for their cursive script. The other was the Sui dynasty monk Zhiyong.

    Early life and background

    Huaisu (怀素 [Huáisù]) (737 – 799 AD), courtesy name Zangzhen (藏真 [Zángzhēn]), was born in Lingling County, Hunan Province, during what is now considered the high Tang period.

    He is said to have been an intelligent child with delicate facial features. His appearance obviously hid a determined personality – aged 10 he decided to become a Buddhist monk, much to his family’s surprise.

    Buddhist monks were traditionally meant to abstain from meat an alcohol. However, Huaisu appears to not have abstained from either of these…

    In some records he was listed as ‘the monk of Lingling’. And in today’s Lingling district (now a part of Yongzhou City), there is a Huaisu Public Park (on Middle Xiaoshui Road).

    Huaisu’s eras: From high Tang to middle Tang

    Huaisu lived during the Tang dynasty (618 – 907 AD). 

    This was recognised at the time as a period when China’s political, economic, and cultural power prestige was at its greatest. Today, it is still regarded as a highpoint in Chinese history for the same reasons.

    It covers nearly three centuries, during which its territory and fortunes changed a lot. So, it often gets subdivided up into smaller periods. 

    Huaisu was born during high Tang period, which covers the years 713 – 755 AD. Many of China’s greatest poets lived during this time. This includes Du Fu and Li Bai, both of whom Huaisu knew. 

    But painting, calligraphy, and other literature also thrived, too. In fact, it is also the period when Chinese calligraphy is said to have reached its greatest heights, too.

    The high Tang came to an end at the outbreak of the destructive An Lushan Rebellion (755 – 763 AD). Even as a monk, this era would no doubt have impacted Huaisu’s life just as it did millions of others.

    What followed is now often categorised as the middle Tang (766 – 835). Whilst not as intensely productive as the high tang, the middle Tang was still a period of great artistic and cultural flourishing. 

    After all, many figures from the high Tang lived on. And a lot of great poetry, painting, writing, and calligraphy continued to appear.

    Later life

    Many of Huaisu’s contemporaries were officials. This meant that their lives and careers are relatively easy to trace.

    Huaisu appears to have been associated with these and other figures of the cultural elite. 

    For example, he is said to have gained advice on calligraphy from the great calligrapher Yan Zhenqing, a high official and commander in the Tang dynasty. He is also mentioned in the poems of China’s two greatest poets, Li Bai and Du fu.

    Tradition has it that he as a poor monk, he used to write calligraphy for people in exchange for food and alcohol. He would often consume these just first before he did his work.

    In fact, like Zhang Xu, Huaisu’s drunkenness seems to have been a part of his working method.

    Though it was against traditional Buddhist practitioners, drinking was popular in Chinese culture during the Tang. It was widely celebrated by other Chinese poets, calligraphers, and artists. 

    Even Confucius, whose influence was very important during Tang society, saw a role for drinking in society.

    Take this well-known poem by Huaisu’s friend Li Bai as an example:

    花间一壶酒,
    独酌无相亲;
    举杯邀明月,
    对影成三人。

    Alone midst the flowers grasping a pot of wine,
    I pour myself a drink.
    I raise my cup to cheers the bright moon
    then nod to my shadow. We are now three.

    – Extract from ‘Pouring Wine Alone Under the Moon No. 4 (One)’ by Li Bai

    The presiding image of Huaisu in many people’s minds is of a bald (Buddhist monks shaved their heads) man wearing a worn out kāṣāya (an ordained Buddhist monk or nun’s robes) writing for people in inns. 

    He is said to have written on people’s cloths and walls, too, when paper wasn’t available. Paper was expensive, so he would write on the leaves of Musa basjoo (also known as Hardy Banana) plants, a large palm tree-like leaf, with tung oil.

    He would store these leaves in the roof of his hut, which he called the ‘green-domed hut’. 

    Huaisu’s calligraphy

    Huaisu is primarily famous for his grass script (草书 [cǎoshū]) calligraphy. This is the fully cursive style of writing that is not legible to most people.

    In fact, his style crosses the boundary into what is classed as crazy cursive (狂草 [kuángcǎo]). This is essentially cursive style taken to its absolute limits of ‘cursive-ness’, i.e., an even faster, more illegible and ‘crazy’ category of grass script.

    Like one of his influences, the Sui dynasty monk Zhiyong who also specialised in a form of grass script, Huaisu was very hardworking. He even imitated Zhiyong’s practice of burying his many used brushes.

    His style is often described in terms such as ‘exuberant’, ‘vigorous’ and ‘powerful’. And it’s easy to see why.

    Huaisu and Zhang Xu

    Huaisu is often linked with another famous Tang dynasty calligrapher, Zhang Xu (675 – ca. 750 AD). They are often linked with the phrase  颠张醉素 – ‘Crazy Zhang and Drunk [Huai]Su’.

    Zhang preceded Huaisu. The two never met, but Huaisu may have been inspired by him. After all, he is said to have learned directly from Yan Zhenqing, who in turn is said to have directly learned from Zhang Xu.

    Huaisu and Zhang Xu’s styles are similar. However, it is clear that Zhang’s strokes are generally thicker slightly more powerful-looking.

    Example work: Autobiographical Essay

    Huaisu’s Autobiographical Essay (自叙帖 [Zìxù tiē]) was written in 777 AD.

    It’s not known for sure if the version in existence is the original or a Song dynasty (960 – 1279 AD) copy. In fact, the authenticity of text itself – which details praise of Huaisu – has been questioned by some critics.

    Either way, it is seen as a calligraphy masterpiece. 696 elegant and rapidly written characters are arranged in 126 columns. Their thin, light forms are occasionally interrupted by thicker, heavier characters or individual strokes. 

    But overall, the piece gives an impression of frantic, controlled creativity.