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Li Yangbing – Seal Script Reviver

    Li Yangbing gave a lease of life to not one but two incredible Chinese cultural achievements during his lifetime.

    The first was his revival of the Qin dynasty (221 BC – 206 BC) small seal script from about 800 years before. This added further richness to the brilliance of Tang calligraphy.

    The second was the shelter he gave his relative Li Bai – the greatest (or joint greatest, along with Du Fu) Chinese poet ever.

    Early life and background

    Li Yangbing (李阳冰 [Lǐyángbīng]) (721 or 722 – 777 AD) was born in today’s Chunhua, Shaanxi Province during the ‘high Tang’ period of the Tang dynasty.

    He was from a well-known family of cultured officials. He too embarked on an official career. He did rise very high in the ranks, but he did achieve the post of deputy chief in charge of the emperor’s secretariat.

    The high Tang

    The ‘high Tang’ (713 – 755 AD) was when Tang dynasty (618 – 907 AD) China’s economic, cultural, and political power was at its zenith.

    A large number of China’s greatest poets appeared at this time, including Li’s relative Li Bai (see below) and Du Fu. And when calligraphy reached new heights.

    The Tang empire was also at the largest it had ever been at that point. The Grand Canal (started in the preceding Sui dynasty) was also developed. This meant that trade and culture could flow smoothly between the north and the south of the country.

    The high Tang period was disrupted by the An Lushan Rebellion (755 – 763 AD). The destruction caused by this event disrupted the lives of just about everyone in China. 

    Millions died and millions more found themselves refugees. The Tang dynasty continued for nearly another century and half. But it never recovered its previous strength, or overcame the consequences (such as devolved state power) of the rebellion.

    Later career

    Li Yangbing appears to have managed well during the An Lushan Rebellion. This is no small feat.

    He was in charge of what is today Dangtu County, Ma’anshan, Anhui Province. Accounts – including a poetic essay by Li Bai – state that Li Yangbing governed well, helping the people get through these difficult times.

    Another apocryphal story has it that Li came up with a novel way to overcome a drought. He threatened the gods, telling them that he would set fire to their temple if they didn’t bring rain by a set date. 

    The rain arrived on time, and Li went to a mountain summit to thank them.

    Li Yangbing’s seal script

    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)

    Li is famous for mastering – and to some extent reviving the popularity of – seal script

    Seal script is an early form of official script created during the Qin dynasty (China’s first unified empire). It built on and standardised the characters in use for centuries before, today a category known as large seal script.

    The Qin prime minister Li Si is said to have been behind the standardisation. However, some historians argue that it was likely an ongoing process with more complex origins.

    Either way, it was Li Si’s stele (stone monument) that Li Yangbing based his seal script on. He is even said to have boasted that his small seal writing had surpassed Li Si’s.

    From the existing samples we have of it today (mostly ink rubbings from stone monuments), it’s clear that Li was a master of this script. 

    His elegant, clear characters are made up of smooth, thin curved, rounded and straight stokes. The overall impression is one of balance and proportion, which adds an even greater gravitas to the already distinguished for of seal script.

    At the time, regular script (also known as official script) and running script (a semi-cursive version of regular script) were the most popular types of calligraphy. But Li’s work and talents received praise from many of his contemporaries.

    He often wrote characters to go along with his contemporary, regular script master Yan Zhenqing (709 – 785 AD). Li’s characters would service as the seal script titles to Yan’s regular script body text.

    Li Yangbing and Li Bai

    Today, Li Bai is one of the highest praised figures in Chinese history. Along with his contemporary, Du Fu, he is considered the greatest Chinese poet of all time.

    In 761 AD, six years into the An Lushan Rebellion, an aging and poor Li Bai found himself in Li Yangbing’s county of Dangtu, Anhui Province.

    Li Yangbing was a distant uncle to Li Bai, despite the fact that Li Bai was twenty years older than him. 

    Thanks to Li Yangbing’s help, Li Bai was able to enjoy relative comfort in the last year of his life. Besides financial support and safety, Li Yangbing also collected and published Li Bai’s poems in The Thatched Cottage Collection.

    The high Tang period may have been over by this point, but both Lis’ represent two of its brightest burning embers.