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Jiang Kui’s Sequel to the ‘Treatise on Calligraphy’

    Eight centuries after it was written, Jiang Kui’s Sequel to the ‘Treatise on Calligraphy’ (1208) remains one of the greatest treatises on the subject ever written.

    It complements and expands on early Tang dynasty calligrapher Sun Guoting’s Treatise on Calligraphy (687).

    And like Sun’s Treatise, Jiang’s work influenced practitioners and admirers of calligraphy for centuries afterwards.

    Let’s look closer at the author, his time, and his work. 

    Brief biography of Jiang Kui

    Jiang Kui (姜夔 [Jiāng kuí]) (c. 1155 – c. 1221), literary name ‘White Stone Daoist’ (白石道 [Báishí dào]), was born in Poyang, modern day Jiangxi Province. 

    He was born during the latter half of the Song dynasty (960 – 1279 AD), which is known retrospectively Southern Song (1127 – 1279 AD).

    This was when the larger, earlier Northern Song dynasty (960 – 1127 AD) had retreated to southern China because of the Manchu-run Jin state’s invasion.

    His father was a district magistrate. When Jiang was nine, the family moved just over two hundred miles from Poyang to Hanyang (in today’s Wuxi), Hubei Province.

    Jiang’s father died a few years later, but Jiang stayed on in Hanyang for about another twenty years.

    Jiang’s world: The Northern Song dynasty

    In 1186, jiang moved over 400 miles away to Huzhou (today’s Wuxing) in Zhejiang Province. He originally moved here with his uncle Xiao Dezao, who was a well-known official, scholar, and poet.

    Huzhou is based in the lower Yangzi region. Jiang spent the rest of his life here, between the cities and many suburbs of Hanzhou, Suzhou, Huzhou, Nanjing.

    During his lifetime, this was the most prosperous and culturally advanced region in China.

    At its political and cultural centre lied the Southern Song capital of Hangzhou, then the largest and most densely populated city in the world.

    The Song rulers and elite and waves of internal migrants had moved there after the collapse of the Northern Song dynasty. A thirteenth century scholar described it as follows:

    Green mountains surround on all sides the still waters of the lake. Pavilions and towers of in hues of gold and azure rise here and there. One would say, a landscape composed by a painter. Only towards the east, where there are no hills, does the land open out, and there sparkle, like fishes’ scales, the bright-coloured tiles of a thousand roofs.

    – Quoted from Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion (1250 – 1276) by Jacques Gernet (Stanford: Stanford University Press 1962), p. 23

    Earning a living

    The economic growth and sophistication of the Southern Song meant that the arts flourished during Jiang’s era and region.

    New merchant classes and printing technologies made the arts more accessible and innovative than ever. And new technologies and manufacturing made ink, paper, and brushes more accessible than ever for calligraphers.

    Jiang fully participated in this cultural golden age. In fact, he appears to have earned his living from his artistic work – thanks to a number of wealthy patrons and friends. Besides calligraphy, he was also a musician, prose writer and poet.

    To become and official, men needed to pass the imperial exams. Unfortunately, despite the relative growth in successful candidates, most still didn’t pass. Jiang, too, was unable to pass and secure an official post.

    Jiang Kui’s poetry

    Jiang wrote both ci (lyric) and shi (regulated or ancient style) poetry. 

    Like the Tang dynasty, the Song dynasty was also an era famous for its poetry. During the Song, a form of poem known as ci (lyric) was particularly popular. 

    Ci is a form of poetry made up of lines of unequal length that were set to music. It’s different from the more regulated shi poetry, which can be broken down into lü-shi (regulated verses) and gu-ti-shi (ancient style poetry).

    Below are three of Jiang’s famous ci poems

    ‘Decorated Red Lip’ (点绛唇)


    Written in Wusong [Suzhou] in the end of the Dingwei year [1187]
    A wild goose drifts along the banks of Lake Tai as listlessly as a cloud.
    Gloomy hilltops glimmer at dusk, signs of rain hang overhead. 

    The person I have most esteemed in life – Tian Suizi – lived in seclusion by the fourth bridge here. I would like to live here, too. Today, I lean on the parapet and gaze outwards as I reminisce. And the willows wave in the wind against the vast sky.

    Zhegu Tian (鹧鸪天)


    A New Year’s Eve Dream
    Fertile waters endless flow eastwards. To avoid endless thoughts later on, one really shouldn’t plant affections in such fertile grounds today. She appeared before me in a dream, vaguer than a painted figure. In the hazy dreamscape, I suddenly heard a mountain bird’s call and woke up.
       Spring winds have not yet blown across the grass and trees, but my temples are speckled with white hairs. After a long absence from this world, I have become benumbed and unsure how to grieve. Who has left me mired in such thoughts and feelings each time I see red New Years lanterns raised? Only we two can mutter to ourselves that we know that.

    Tasuoxing (踏莎行)

    燕燕輕盈,鶯鶯嬌軟,分明又向華胥見。夜長爭得薄情知?春初早被相思染。 別後書辭,別時針線,離魂暗逐郎行遠。淮南皓月冷千山,冥冥歸去無人管。

    Written on the way from Miandong to Jinling on New Years’ Day after dreaming whilst travelling on the river.
    I dream I met you again. Your posture was as relaxed as a swallow, your voice as tender as an oriole. Softly you said: ‘On faraway spring nights, fickle man, do you think of my anguished pining?’ But in early spring, I was infected with the same thoughts. 
       After I left, you sent a note and sewed me a shirt. It was as if your spirit had followed me this far. Under the cold moonlight, alone amongst Huainan’s endless mountains, your spirit returns to me in a dream.

    Jiang Kui’s calligraphy

    Only one confirmed piece of calligraphy by Jiang exists today. It is a colophon (a kind of postface or accompanying note) added to Wang Xizhi’s Preface to the Orchid Pavilion, which by the Song dynasty was already one of the most famous pieces of calligraphy ever created.

    Background to Sequel to the ‘Treatise on Calligraphy’

    In general, the Song dynasty is remembered as a high point for the development of Chinese culture. This includes its calligraphy, even though it wasn’t always as popular an art as it had been during the previous Tang dynasty (618 – 907 AD).

    Calligraphy had long been important in China when Jiang came to writing Sequel to the ‘Treatise on Calligraphy’.

    However, by Jiang’s time, it had lost some of its eminence since Sun Guoting had written his Treatise on Calligraphy. This is for a number of reasons, including the political disruptions and their associated social upheavals, and the education system.

    China’s imperial exams also no longer emphasised calligraphy as an important ability for passing. In fact, as the candidate-examiner relationship changed (from familiar tutor to unknown examiner), exams were re-copied in order to disguise handwriting.

    Despite this, many officials and members of the rising merchant classes still practiced, shared, and wrote about calligraphy. And whilst the Song dynasties greatest calligraphers all appeared during the Northern Song, the later Southern Song was not devoid of its talents.

    Jiang’s Sequel to the ‘Treatise on Calligraphy’ and Sun Guoting’s ‘Treatise on Calligraphy’

    Jiang’s work’s title – Sequel to the ‘Treatise on Calligraphy’ (续书谱 [Xù shūpǔ]) – is a reference to Sun Guoting’s Treatise on Calligraphy (书谱 [Shūpǔ]).

    However, the former isn’t a direct sequel or continuation of the content of the latter. Instead, it is a continuation of the same theme: understanding and appreciating calligraphy.

    Jiang’s work is more structured and systematic than Sun’s. It more directly and concisely addresses points. Its structure and writing style is easier to follow. 

    This could partly down to a difference in temperaments between the writers. However, it is worth noting that Jiang had the advantage of writing 521 years later than Sun. During this time literary Chinese (文言) had evolved significantly. 

    Sun would have been writing in what is today termed Middle Chinese. By Jiang’s time, the written language had developed into the late stages of what is now termed Old Mandarin.

    Furthermore, Sun was writing in what is known as ‘parallel prose’, a literary style whereby phrases are arranged in pairs.

    Content of Sequel to the ‘Treatise on Calligraphy’

    Below I have given an overview of the Sequel. The sections I have used are not the same sections used in the work itself. However, the content discussed is largely in the same order.


    Jiang opens up his Sequel by listing the main different styles of Chinese calligraphy: regular script, running script and cursive (/grass) script). 

    He explains that different writers specialise in different scripts, but that ultimately, knowing all scripts is ideal for calligraphers. He also refers to Sun Guoting as an authority on these matters: 

    Giving priority to becoming familiar with all the styles and to making mind and hand work together is perfect. Master White Cloud and Ouyang Xun in their Secrets of Calligraphy also speak about this summarily. Sun Qianli [Sun Guoting] discusses in great detail. All these may be consulted.

    – Jiang Kui, Sequel to the ‘Treatise on Calligraphy’ 

    Jiang on regular script

    Regular script (楷书 [kǎishū]) can also be translated as regular, official or model script. Jiang opens his discussion of this script by writing:

    It is commonly believed nowadays that in writing regular script one should strive for evenness and squareness. But this is one of the errors of the Tang dynasty.

    – Jiang Kui, Sequel to the ‘Treatise on Calligraphy’ 

    This, he essentially argues, suppresses the naturalness of certain characters features. What he describes is perhaps the clearest hallmark of Tang dynasty regular script: square, almost squashed-looking forms of characters made up of thick, even strokes. 

    The longer, more natural strokes and outlines of the script that Jiang advocates became – and remained – mainstream after the Tang dynasty.

    Jiang goes on to mention the eight types of brushstrokes used for regular script and to give technical advice on how to hold the brush.

    Jiang on cursive script

    Cursive script (sometimes translated as grass script) (草书 [cǎoshū]) is the most strikingly chaotic-looking form of calligraphy available (unless you categorise ‘crazy grass’ [狂草] script as a separate form rather than a variant of it).

    Here, Jiang momentarily writes in a florid style reminiscent of Sun’s writing: 

    Cursive script is like a person sitting, reclining, walking, standing, pressing the hands together, arguing; like taking a boat or galloping a horse, link singing and dancing, jumping around – like all such movements that are carried out deliberately.

    – Jiang Kui, Sequel to the ‘Treatise on Calligraphy’ 

    He praises past masters, such as perhaps the original ‘inventor’ or populariser of cursive scriptZhang Zhi(? – c. 192 AD). And the two most famous Tang dynasty exponents: the ‘crazy’ poet and calligrapher Zhang Xu (675 – 750 AD) and the diligent monk calligrapher, Huaisu (737 – 799 AD).

    He bemoans the lack of good cursive script since the famous Northern Song regular script practitionerHuang Tingjian (1045 – 1105 AD) claimed to have ‘discovered’ Huaisu’s ‘secret method’ for writing it. And suggests how the script is best written:

    In horizontal, slanting, curved, and straight lines, and spirals, strength is the most important element. But the lines should not be confused with each other – this is vulgar.

    – Jiang Kui, Sequel to the ‘Treatise on Calligraphy’ 

    Jiang on running script

    Running script (行书 [xíngshū]) can be described as a semi-cursive version of regular script

    Jiang dranks Wang Xizhi and as the greatest exponent of running script. In second place he lists Wang’s son, Wang Xianzhi, and Xie An. 

    And below these, he gives an honorary mention to:

    Referencing a popular notion about the structure of Chinese characters in calligraphy (their ‘bones and sinews’), Jiang writes of running script:

    Generally speaking, it is important that strokes be seasoned – then small mistakes can be compensated for. What matters is that heavy and light strokes alternate, like the rhythm of blood flowing through the veins within a firm, strong structure of sinews and bones.

    – Jiang Kui, Sequel to the ‘Treatise on Calligraphy’ 

    Aspects of characters

    Having discussed the three main scripts of calligraphy, Jiang goes on to delve deeper into principles associated with its form, including:

    • Squareness and roundness 
    • Balance
    • Looseness and tightness
    • Speed
    • Movement of the brush

    And more. 

    Unlike Sun’s Treatise, there is no clear conclusion to Jiang’s work, it simply ends at its eighteenth part (which discusses writing with cinnabar).