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Huang Tingjian – The Valley Daoist

    Huang Tingjian was one of the most original and erudite calligraphers in Chinese history.

    He is said to have gained inspiration for his famous grass script calligraphy from ripples on water.

    During his career as an official, court politics were fraught with danger. Outspoken officials risked torture and exile.

    So, discerning the exact meaning behind Huang’s words is also like trying to see through rippling waters.

    But once can see, you find hidden depths and treasures.

    Biographies of Lian Po and Lin Xiangru by Huang Tingjian
    Biographies of Lian Po and Lin Xiangru (ca. 1095) by Huang Tingjian, handscroll, ink on paper, running script, 33.7 × 1840.2 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Image credit: Alamy)

    Huang’s life and career

    As an official, Huang’s life was heavily influenced by reigning emperor’s decisions and whims. 

    This is particularly the case with regards to the policies they adopted. And many of these policies were based around support or opposition to reforms.

    Below I have divided up Huang’s life by these reigns.

    The Renzong Emperor’s reign (1022 – 1063 AD)

    Portrait of Seated Renzong Emperor by unknown artist
    Portrait of Seated Renzong Emperor (Song dynasty) by unknown artist, hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk, 188.5 x 128.8 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    One of the defining issues of the Renzong Emperor’s long reign was the proposed (but not implemented) Qingli Reforms (named after the reign period they appeared in).

    These far-reaching reforms were based on a 10-point memorial by the official Fan Zhongyan (984 – 1052 AD). However, they were met with resistance by what are often called conservatives at court.

    The Qingli Reforms’ failure became tied up in bitter accusations and arguments in court. These in turn led to the exiling of associated officials. 

    One such official was the great scholar and writer Ouyang Xiu (1007 – 1072 AD), who was effectively exiled from court between 1036 and 1043.

    Though not directly related to Huang’s career, these events foreshadowed the politics of the coming decades.

    Huang’s family background and early life

    Huang Tingjian (1045 – 1105 AD) (黄庭坚 [Huáng Tíngjiān]) (sometimes known as Huang Shangu) was born during the Song dynasty (960 – 1379 AD) in the southern city of Fenning (today’s Xiushui county, Jiangxi province).

    His ancestors had fled Fenning from northern China during the chaotic Five Dynasties period (907 – 960 AD) that had followed the collapse of the previous unified Chinese dynasty, the Tang dynasty (618 – 907 AD).

    He came from many generations of scholars and officials, dating back to the Han dynasty prime minister Huang Ba (? – 51 BC). 

    His great-great grandfather had set up a large library in Fenning for members of their clan.

    This benefited the Huang family greatly. Before Huang’s Tingjian’s time, 18 of his recent relatives had passed the imperial examinations that guaranteed a place in the civil service.

    Huang’s mother, Lady Li (? – 1091 AD) (李氏 [Lǐ Shì]) was known to be an accomplished painter and musician. Her brother, Li Chang (1067 – 1090 AD), was an official and well-known book collector.

    And Huang’s father, Huang Shu (黄庶 [Huáng Shù]) was the prefect of Kangzhou. He was known for his talent in poetry and prose, and introduced his son to the works of Du Fu (712 – 770 AD) and Han Yu (768 – 824 AD)

    Unfortunately, Huang père died aged only 40, when Huang Tingjian was only 13 or 14 years old.

    So, Huang was sent to live with maternal uncle, Li Chang, in Anhui province. Here, he resumed his education amidst his uncle’s extensive library.

    The Yingzong Emperor’s reign (1063 – 1067 AD)

    Portrait of Yinzong Emperor Seated by unknown painter
    Portrait of Yinzong Emperor Seated (Song dynasty) by unknown painter, hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk, 199.7 x 155.7 cm. (National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    The Yingzong emperor’s brief reign began when the Renzong Emperor died without an heir (the two were first cousins). 

    He died aged 34, after a short illness. His reign lasted less than 4 years.

    1064 – 1067 AD: Huang takes the imperial examinations

    Huang failed his attempt at the imperial exam in 1064, aged nineteen.

    He passed it on his second attempt in 1067, aged 22. This was a relatively young age to receive ‘presented scholar’ (进士 [jìnshì]) status.

    This achievement marked the culmination of years of intense learning and favoured candidates – like Huang – with literary strengths. 

    Since as young as three, they primarily studied the classics (especially the Thirteen Classics). But a wide range of reading in history, philosophy, poetry, and more was also necessary.

    The Shenzong Emperor’s reign (1067 – 1085 AD)

    Portrait of Shenzong Emperor Seated by unknown painter
    Portrait of Shenzong Emperor Seated (Song dynasty) by unknown painter, hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk, 176.4 x 144.4 cm. (National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    The Shenzong Emperor was the Yingzong Emperor’s eldest son. He came to the throne aged 19.

    Through his tutor, he was introduced to Wang Anshi (1021 – 1086 AD). Several years before, Wang had proposed a radical series of reforms, the New Policies

    They covered many aspects of Song life, including education, taxes, government spending, and more.

    Now, a radical reformist had radical power.

    A century later, the Song dynasty official and intellectual Zhu Xi (1130 – 1200 AD) remarked that Wang’s appointment was a ‘once in a thousand-years occurrence’.

    1068 – 1069 AD: First official post

    Huang’s first post was a relatively minor role as district defender in Ye County(today’s Pingdanshan, Henan Province). 

    Here, he saw streams of survivors of the 1068 – 69 Tianjin earthquakes pass through Ye Country. Meeting them inspired a poem:

    Recently, the goddess Houtu shook the earth at midnight.
    It was like the Giant Turtle Ao carrying three mountains on his back.
    Walls fell, houses were destroyed, the old and weak were crushed.
    Voices of grief were carried along by the floods.

    – Extract from ‘The Refugee’s Sigh’ by Huang Tianjian

    1070 AD: Loss of first wife

    Huang’s first wife died in 1070. She was the daughter of the well-known scholar of Sun Jue (1028 – 1090 AD).

    1072: Teaching post and second marriage

    In 1072, he gained certification to teach at the illustrious imperial college: the Damingfu Academy (in today’s Handan city, Hebei province).

    Wang Anshi himself has noticed Huang’s talent and helped ensure he got this post.

    Huang would go on to teach here for seven years. And also rose to concurrently hold the post of official history compiler.

    The same year he married, Miss Xie, with whom he had a daughter. 

    1978: Meeting Su Shi

    Huang was introduced to the greatest literary figure of his time, Su Shi (1037 – 1101 AD)in writing before meeting in person. 

    Huang’s uncle, Li Chang, and his father-in-law, Sun Jue, had helped put them in touch.

    By this time, Huang was known for his literary talent. Su praised Huang’s poetry and the two soon exchanged poems.

    Huang became known as one of the ‘four disciple scholars of Su Shi’ (苏门四学士 [Sū mén sī xuéshì]), along with:

    • Zhang Lei
    • Chao Buzhi
    • Qin Guan

    Su greatly influenced Huang’s poetry, calligraphy, philosophy and artistic theory.

    1079: Loss of second wife, adopts new name

    Huang’s second wife, with whom he had had a daughter, died in 1079.

    Shortly after, he adopted the name ‘Daoist of the Mountain Valley’ (山谷道人) after visiting the Shang’gu. 

    From this time on, he would sign a lot of his calligraphy and colophons (comments written beside calligraphy and paintings) with this.

    1080: Caught in a conspiracy

    In 1079, Su Shi was arrested on charges of slandering the court with his criticisms Wang Anshi’s New Policies.  (Of course, by extension, this meant that Su had also been criticising the emperor’s judgement…)

    People around Su were also caught up in this. One of these was Huang, who was charged with having circulated Su’s critical poems.

    Huang was not outspoken like Su. Huang’s oblique criticisms – when they did come – were always heavily disguised under subtle literary references. 

    However, his writing was not under the spotlight. Had it been, things could have been worse for him. In this case, he was sent to a relatively remote post as subprefect in Jizhou (today’s Ji’an, Jiangxi province).

    Huang once wrote to his nephew:

    Su’s writing is the best in the world. His only shortcoming is that he likes to rebuke people – in this, you must not follow his example!

    1084: 40-year-old Huang names son ‘Forty’

    Huang’s third wife’s name is unrecorded. This is likely a sign she was his servant or former concubine. 

    Together they had a son named Huang Xiang (1084 – 1132), whose childhood nickname was ‘Forty’ (his father’s age when he was born…) He also passed the imperial examination and work as a lecturer.

    The Zhezong Emperor’s reign (1085 – 1100 AD)

    Portrait of Zhezong Emperor Seated by unknown painter
    Portrait of Zhezong Emperor Seated (Song dynasty) by unknown painter, hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk, 179.7 x 144.7 cm. (National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    The Zhezong Emperor came to power when he was only eight years old.

    The regency around him, led by the Empress Dowager Gao (1032 – 1093 AD), was against Wang Anshi’s reforms and began dismantling them.

    This was good news to Huang, Su, and many others. Many were recalled from their remote and minor posts. 

    Huang was brought back to the capital Bianliang (today’s Kaifeng, Henan Province) and given a position in the History Institute.

    This can be seen as the height of Huang and many other anti-reformers careers.

    Besotted by Flower Vapors by Huang Tingjian
    Besotted by Flower Vapors (1087) by Huang Tingjian, ink and paper, cursive script, 30.7 x 43.2 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image Source: Wikipedia Commons)

    1091 – 1093 AD: Mourning his mother

    Huang’s mother passed away in 1091. He had helped nurse her through a long period of illness. 

    It was customary for officials to return home, bury their parent, and mourn for an official period of three years when they lost a parent.

    Huang travelled back to Fenning, about 430 miles (700 km) south of Kaifeng, with the coffins of his mother, aunt, and two wives.

    During this period, he appears to have written no poetry.

    1093 AD: The Zhezong Emperor brings back the reforms

    Unluckily for Huang, Su, and other reformers, the Empress Dowager Gao passed away in 1093. 

    Power naturally moved over to the young (16 years-old) Emperor Zhezong. He began reviving the New Policies.

    Convicted of sarcasm…

    For the reformists around Zhezong, revival of the New Policies also created an opportunity for revenge.

    Su Shi was one of the first be targeted. He was sent on what would be his final and toughest exile in the far south of China.

    Huang was charged a few months later, accused of being a co-conspirator in a case led by Wang Anshi’s zealous son-in-law, Cai Bian. 

    His role in the History Institute required him writing the recent dynasty’s history – his enemies alleged that this included many examples of Huang’s sarcasm.

    Huang was sent into internal exile in Quanzhou, Fujian province, and later on moved to other remote locations. 

    This period lasted about ten years.

    The Huizong Emperor’s reign (1100 – 1126 AD)

    Portrait of Huizong Emperor Seated
    Portrait of Huizong Emperor Seated (Song dynasty) by unknown painter, hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk, 188.2 x 106.7 cm. (National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    The Zhezong Emperor died aged just twenty-three. The throne was then passed onto Zhezong’s younger paternal half-brotherHuizong (1082 – 1135 AD).

    The political winds changed dramatically once again.

    Amnesty on anti-reform exiles

    Wang Anshi’s reforms were cancelled, and Huang – like many other exiled officials – was allowed to return from exile.

    Su Shi died en route during his return from exile in 1101. 

    Huang saw his son married in Sichuan, then travelled (or meandered) back to Fenning, visiting many friends along the way.

    Anti-reformists targeted again

    Unfortunately for Huang (and many others), his respite from political persecution and exile did not last very long. 

    The political situation changed yet again, and people seen as anti-reformist were once again targeted. 

    The Emperor had entrusted great power to the notorious official Cai Jing (1047 – 1126 AD)

    Huang eventually died en route to exile in the south of China in 1105 AD.

    Huang’s calligraphy style

    Today, Huang is remembered as the greatest Song dynasty calligrapher of grass script (sometimes referred to in English as fully-cursive script). But he was also excellent practitioner of the running script and the regular (or standard) script.

    He studied the work of past calligraphers diligently, including Wang Xizhi (303 – 361 AD) and Yan Zhenqing (709 – 785 AD).

    But he was also influenced by the contemporary prominence of the literati-art that he would later come to be remembered for.

    Ripples on the water

    Huang is famously said to have received a sudden inspiration about calligraphy from the water’s surface.

    Whilst living in exile, he was passing by a gorge on the Yangze River. One version of events has it that he noticed the ripples fisherman’s oars made on the water. Another that he observed the powerful water’s surface itself.

    Either way, the scene is said to have inspired his calligraphy thereafter.

    Huang and Su Shi joke about one another’s styles

    Su and Huang would often meet up and practice calligraphy together. Neither was afraid to critique the other’s calligraphy. 

    It’s said that Su once said that Huang’s ‘rowing boat calligraphy’ (see below) looked like snakes hanging over tree branches. 

    And Huang said that Su’s characters looked like expanding frogs being crushed by rocks.

    Huang’s artistic philosophy

    Huang’s artistic philosophy was a lot like those in his inner circle. He was a literati-scholar, which is something different from the professional painters at the time.

    Chinese literati practiced ‘the three perfections’ of calligraphy, poetry, and painting (they were generally in this order of importance). 

    Their artistic philosophy was not like that of professional painters. They saw their art as essentially an overflow of their inner selves. It was certainly not something they would ever be paid for.

    Let’s look closer at how Huang himself explained it.

    Outer art reflects inner self

    Like many Song officials, Huang was primarily a Confucian but also showed affinity with Daoism and Chan Buddhism. 

    One of Huang’s core beliefs reflects aspects of all three of these schools of thought.

    This was in the ability of calligraphy, poetry, and art to reflect the artist’s inner self, which in turn needed to be cultivated.

    He wrote the following comment more than once:

    In his breast there were ten thousand books, in his brushwork, no speck of vulgar spirit.

    – Huang Tingjian comment on another artist’s painting

    This line was very likely directly inspired by lines from a poem by Du Fu, who lived about four centuries earlier:

    I have read 10,000 volumes, and it is as if I were guided by the spirits when I write.

    – Lines taken from ’22nd Ode to Official Wei Zuo’ by Du Fu

    Absolute concentration

    Besides absorbing and reflecting what one read, Huang also believed in achieving mastery through concentration (and meditation).

    This was something that went hand in hand with developing skill over time.

    He once wrote:

    The cook’s cutting up of oxen and the woodworker Qing’s carving a bell stand went with their having clarity in themselves and a concentration like the spirits, so closely joined that nothing could come in between. Only then could they achieve excellence.

    – Huang Tinjian

    These reflect the writing in Zhuangzi, a foundational book of Daoism written in the 3rd century BC text.

    The flow of life is always constrained by its banks, but the activity of the understanding consciousness is constrained by no limits.

    The cook was cutting up an ox for the king […] Wherever his hand hit the carcass, wherever his shoulder leaned into it, wherever his foot braced it […] the sound of meat falling from the bone would resound, and the sound of his knife passing through it would, too; each sound ringing out the perfect pitch…

       The king said, “How wonderful it is that skill can reach such heights!”

       The cook replied, “What I love is the Way, which goes beyond mere skill.”

    – Zhuangzi (3.1-2)

    Elsewhere, Huang links this state directly to meditation and the Way (道 [dào] – which appears in Daoism and Confucianism). And he links these both to calligraphy:

    In studying calligraphy , copying can frequently catch formal likeness, but in general one takes pieces of earlier calligraphy and by looking at them closely one closely reaches a state of complete absorption (入神[rùshén]).

    – Huang Tinjian

    One hill, one valley

    One of Huang’s monikers is the Valley Daoist (山谷道人 [Shāngǔ Dàoren]).

    In his writings, he references ‘One hill, one valley’ (一丘一壑 [yīqiū-yīhè]) several times.

    When he mentioned this, he was generally referencing the inner cultivation that calligraphers, poets, and painters expressed through their work.

    Writing on one of Su Dongpo’s paintings, he commented:

    Hills and valleys were naturally in his mind from the beginning. So that he made old trees twisted by wind and frost.

    – Huang Tingjian comment on a painting by Su Dongpo

    Example of Huang’s calligraphy: Poem on the Halls of Pines and Wind

    Poem on the Hall of Pines and Wind by Huang Tingjian
    Poem on the Hall of Pines and Wind by Huang Tingjian, ink on hemp paper, running script. 32.8 x 219.2 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Poem on the Hall of Pines and Wind is an excellent example of Huang Tingjian’s mature calligraphy style.

    It was written near the end of his life, between 1102 – 1105 AD.

    And it commemorates a trip through Wuchang (today a part of Wuhan, Hubei Province) with friends.