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Liu Gongquan – Regular Script Master

    Liu Gongquan was one of the four great masters of Chinese regular script.

    His contribution to Tang calligraphy’s fame was to help regular script reach its zenith in the Tang dynasty.

    It has been directly copied out and imitated by generations ever since.

    Family background and early life

    Liu Gongquan (柳公权 [Liǔ Gōngquán]) (778 – 865 AD), courtesy name Cheng Xuan, was born in during the middle period of the Tang dynasty (618 – 906 AD)

    He was born into a family of officials in today’s Yaoxian (then Huayuan County), Shaanxi Province. 

    His paternal grandfather was Liu Zhengli (柳正礼 [Liǔ Zhènglǐ]) was an official and general. And his father Liu Ziwen (柳子温 [Liǔ Ziwēn]) served as the provincial governor of Danzhou.

    His elder brother was Liu Gongzhuo (柳公绰 [Liǔ Gōngchuò]) was also a well-known official and calligrapher.

    Liu himself passed the imperial exam aged 30 to become a ‘presented scholar’ – essentially, a graduate ready to work in government. Gaining this required a deep grounding in the Chinese classics.

    Childhood anecdotes

    Some likely apocryphal stories about Liu’s childhood have been told over the years. 

    One, for example, has it that he would show off his beautiful characters as a young child. He was already so advanced at writing, that as he did this, the children around him could barely write.

    Another story has it that he once got speaking to a food seller about calligraphy. The food seller told him about a calligrapher master with no arms who used his feet to write brilliantly.

    The young Liu sought out the armless man. When they met, the man told him that he couldn’t directly teach him, but he could give him some advice. This advice came in the form of a poem:

    写尽八缸水
    砚梁涝池黑
    博取百家长
    始得龙凤飞

    Use up eight jars of water writing,
    Flood your inkstone with ink;
    Acquire knowledge from one hundred different schools,
    And you’ll begin to fly like a phoenix.

    Career as an official

    Liu served as an official for many decades, including as the duke of a prefecture in Shanxi Province. This meant working under multiple Tang dynasty emperors, including:

    • Xianzong
    • Muzong
    • Jingzong
    • Wenzong
    • Wuzong
    • Xuanzong
    • Yizong

    This was a rare feat. Not many officials lasted through so many reigns. His success was likely helped by his role as a calligraphy teacher to the emperor’s family for two decades.

    One account has it that would stand by to pass Liu inkstones and brushes as he demonstrated calligraphy to the royals.

    A candid voice

    One – likely apocryphal – story has it that Liu once directly criticised the Muzong Emperor’s rule via his calligraphy. 

    The story has Muzong asking Liu how he can make his characters more beautiful and elegant. He asked this question at a time when the empire was being run badly and his ministers were afraid to speak up.

    Liu answered him that as long as one’s heart was properly upright the characters would naturally become better formed. The emperor understood the implied hint behind this admonishment but didn’t punish him.

    Liu’s calligraphy

    Liu possessed a refined and balanced style. His well-proportioned characters generally feature a harmonious balance of thin and slightly thicker stokes that reflect his use of different angles with the brush. 

    He especially excelled at regular script (aka, standard script). This shows influence from his Tang dynasty predecessors Ouyang Xun, Chu Suiliang, Yu Shinan, and Yan Zhenqing.

    For example, many of the strokes he uses have the vigorous, rapid look that Ouyan Xun deployed. This includes strokes that end with an abrupt, sharp-shaped ‘whip’ at the moment the brush leaves the page.

    And Liu often leaves spacious gaps between the different elements within characters just like Chu Suiliang. 

    Liu Gongquan and Yan Zhenqing

    Liu’s name has been linked with that of Yan Zhenqing (709 – 785 AD) for centuries. 

    Yan was born 70 years before Liu. But many believe Liu’s work is a clear descendent of Yan’s.

    The association is partocracy linked to their standard script styles. Both frequently used smooth and rounded brushwork. 

    However, where they differ lies in the stature and thickness of their characters and strokes. This difference is summed up an idiom often used in discussions on calligraphy:

    颜筋柳骨

    The sinews of Yan; the bones of Liu

    – Fan Zhongyan, ‘Study of the Sacrificial Stone’

    This phrase was coined by Song dynasty critic Fan Zhongyan. It is commonly misunderstood to mean simply that Yan’s style is thick and strong whereas Liu’s is ‘bonier’ (slender strokes that are thicker at both ends) and strong.

    In fact, there are some nuances to the point which essentially encourages calligraphers to take inspiration from both calligraphers’ styles.

    Example work: Xuan Mi Pagoda Stele

    The Xuan Mu Pagoda Stele (玄秘塔碑 [Xuán Mì Tǎ Bēi]) is a stone inscription created in 841 AD, when Liu was about 63 years old.

    The text has 1,512 characters (twenty-eight columns made up of fifty-four characters each). Rubbings from throughout the centuries exist, but so too – fortunately – does the original stele (stone monument). It is preserved in the Stele Forest Museum in Xi’an.

    The content was written by the prime minister Pei Xiu, to commemorate the live of a Buddhist priest.

    Liu Gongquan copied it out in his distinctive regular script – Liu style (柳体 [Liǔ tǐ]) – before it was incised on the stone monument. It has served as a model for generations of calligraphers.