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Ouyang Xun – Early Tang Calligraphy Master

    In 1878, nearly 1,300 years after Ouyang Xun (557 AD – 641 AD) died, his calligraphy was revived…

    Japanese newspaper The Asahi Shimbun used it to create their header.

    They still use it today.

    Ouyang is remembered as both:

    Let’s look closer at his life and work.

    Detail from Discussion Between Confucius and Bu Shang by
    Detail from Discussion Between Confucius and Bu Shang by Ouyang Xun, ink on paper, running script, 25.2 x 16.5cm. The Palace Museum, Beijing. (Image source: Alamy)

    Family background and early life

    Ouyang Xun (欧阳询 [Ōuyáng Xún]) was born in what is today’s Changsha, Hunan Province, during the Northern and Southern dynasties (420 AD – 589 AD).

    This was a period of disunity and competition amongst Chinese states. Ouyang worked for one of them, the Chen dynasty (557 AD – 589 AD).

    He came from an aristocratic family of officials and military leaders.

    His grandfather, Ouyang Wei, served as an official, diplomatic envoy, and army general. 

    And his father, Ouyang Ge, served as a general and provincial governor of Guangzhou.

    Going into hiding

    When Ouyang’s father was killed after plotting a rebellion, the 13-year-old Ouyang Xun had to immediately go into hiding.

    Otherwise, he too would have been punished under the – ‘implicate nine generations’ policy (株连九族 [zhūlián-jiǔ]). 

    Soon after, the royal court issued an amnesty. The young Ouyang was safe again. 

    He was raised by a good friend of his father. This was the writer, calligrapher and former de-facto Chen dynasty prime minister, Jiang Zong (519 – 594 AD).

    “Looks like a monkey!”

    Ouyang is said to have been a bad-looking fellow. 

    One particularly cruel rumour was that he looked like a monkey.

    This rumour appears to have originated from a Tang dynasty novel. 

    In it, Ouyang’s mother accompanies her husband on a military campaign to southern China. 

    She gets kidnapped and then impregnated by a white monkey. Her husband spends a month tracking her down before finding her and killing the monkey. 

    But almost a year after, Ouyang is born.

    It’s likely that behind this mockery was contempt for Ouyang’s biological and adoptive fathers by his political enemies.

    Later career

    Text of the Heart Sutra (635) by Ouyang Xun
    Text of the Heart Sutra (635) by Ouyang Xun, ink rubbing, standard script. Gansu Tianqing Museum. (Image source: Alamy)

    Despite the early setbacks with the loss of his father, Ouyang had a successful official career.

    He served as a minister of ceremonies and academician during the short-lived Sui dynasty (581 AD – 618 AD) that preceded the Tang dynasty.

    During the Tang, he continued on as an official. And was known to be a favourite of the dynasty’s most famous emperor: Taizong (598 AD – 694 AD).

    Portrait of Taizong of Tang (Ming dynasty) by unknown artist
    Portrait of Taizong of Tang (Ming dynasty) by unknown artist, hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk, 86.1 x 48.4 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    Taizong was known to be a keen fan of calligraphy, especially of the work of Jin dynasty (266 AD – 420 AD) calligrapher Wang Xizhi

    In fact, it is thanks to Taizong that Ouyang produced perhaps his most famous work: Jiucheng Palace Sweet Water Spring Inscription (九成宫醴泉铭 [Jiǔchéng Gōng Lǐquán Míng]) (sometimes translated as The Sweet Spring Essay).

    Inscription on the Sweet Wine Spring at Jiucheng Palace (Tang dynasty) by Ouyang Xun
    Inscription on the Sweet Wine Spring at Jiucheng Palace (Tang dynasty) by Ouyang Xun, calligraphic copy book ink rubbing, standard script. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    This piece was written after a spring was discovered at Taizong’s summer retreat. 

    The text was by the official and writer Wei Cheng (580 AD – 634 AD). But Taizong requested that it was written in Ouyang’s hand before it was inscribed onto stone.

    Similarly, Ouyang wrote out the epitaph for the prime minister Du Ruhui – even though text itself was by his fellow Tang dynasty calligrapher Yu Shinan (558 – 638 AD).

    Death and legacy

    Ouyang died aged 83 or 84 in 641 AD. 

    His fame as a calligrapher continued to grow after his death. 

    The Tang dynasty was also very cosmopolitan and had visitors from abroad. Thanks to this, Ouyang’s work managed to spread to Japan and Korea, too.

    His script and calligraphic theory helped influence the direction of the script during the Tang dynasty.

    Many that the changes in regular script during the Tang dynasty were the final significant leap its development. 

    Later on, variations continued to appear, but nothing on the scale of its Tang transformation.

    Wang’s son: Ouyang Tong

    Ouyang Tong (? – 691 AD) (欧阳通) was Ouyang Xun’s fourth son. Like Ouyang Xun himself, he was still young when his father died. 

    A story has it that Ouyang Tong’s mother wanted him to learn his father’s craft of calligraphy. 

    However, the family’s remaining calligraphy collection was destroyed in a fire. 

    This meant that Ouyang’s widow spent time and money buying back some of her late husband’s works. 

    Ouyang Tong was therefore able to study and copy them, which contributed to his success as a calligrapher when he grew up.

    The Asahi Shimbun header

    The Asahi Shimbun's header
    The Asahi Shimbun‘s header

    The Asahi Shimbun was founded in 1879. Japanese is a distinct language from Chinese, but it does use many Chinese characters. 

    Therefore, Chinese calligraphy has long been popular in Japan, too. And Ouyang’s calligraphy was still popular enough to be chosen to create their header.

    The clerical script (an early type of official script) from Ouyang’s 626 AD piece Zongsheng Temple Inscription (宗圣观记 [Zōngshèng Guān Jì]) was chosen.

    This piece doesn’t contain all of the exact characters needed: 朝日新聞 (Japanese: Asahishinbun; Mandarin: Zhāorì Xīnwén).

    In Japanese, the third character (新) has different strokes in the bottom left part to the Chinese version of the same character. 

    (木 in Japanese instead of what looks closer to 小 in Chinese). 

    So, a sample of 木 in Zongsheng Temple Inscription was used to edit this.

    Ouyang Xun’s calligraphy

    Inspiration: Suo Jing and the Two (?) Wangs

    Ouyang was naturally influenced by styles popular in the Chen and Sui dynasties. 

    He also admired work from dynasties even earlier than those. 

    This included calligraphy of Jin dynasty calligrapher Suo Jing (239 AD – 306 AD).

    A Song dynasty (960 AD – 1279 AD) story about Ouyang by Li Fang has Ouyang finding a stone grass script inscription by Suo Jing. 

    Ouyang then stays with the piece for three days and nights, studying it by tracing the characters with his fingers.

    In some Tang dynasty writings, he is only listed as having admired Wang Xizhi. Elsewhere, scholars claim that he studied the work of Wang Xizhi’s son, Wang Xianzhi, more.

    One plausible theory has it that the Taizong Emperor of Tang loved the work of Wang Xizhi but disliked the work of Wang Xianzhi. 

    Taizong said the younger Wang’s calligraphy was like a tired servant being overworked by a master. 

    To please the emperor, admiration for the elder Wang and dislike of the son were emphasised by Tang writers.

    Ouyang’s style

    Ouyang is still known as being the master of Chinese character structure. 

    His characters are some of the most symmetrical and harmoniously balanced shapes in calligraphy.

    He is said to have excelled at several styles, including:

    • Regular 
    • Running
    • Clerical
    • Great and small-seal
    • Grass (cursive) 
    • Zhangcao
    • Flying white

    Unfortunately, none of Ouyang’s samples of these last two survive, only references to them. 

    Ou Style

    Ou has the distinction shared by few of his regular style calligraphy being well-known by a specific name: Ou Style.

    Tang dynasty calligraphy historian Zhang Huaiguan wrote that Ouyang’s regular style was awe-inspiring. 

    He also stated that it resembled spears and battle axes.

    Ouyang frequently used hooked or upturned stroke endings. 

    He also created very choppy, rugged strokes that seem to hint at a powerful hand that sometimes pauses, contracts or extends certain strokes.

    Negative remarks on Ouyang

    Zhang Huaihguan did remark that the speed of Ouyang’s style partially impaired its beauty. 

    And the Southern Song calligraphy theorist Jiang Kui (c. 1155 – c. 1221) wrote in his Sequel to Treatise on Calligraphy:

    Writers like Ouyang Xun and Yan Zhenqing treat regular script like cursive script.

    – Jiang Kui, Sequel to Treatise on Calligraphy (1208)

    (Yan Zhenqing (709 – 785 AD) was Tang dynasty calligrapher seen by generations of literati as an exemplar of Confucian loyalty).

    Eight Knacks (八绝 [Bā jué])

    Ouyang wrote a treatise on calligraphy named Eight Knacks.

    In it, he developed ideas first discussed in Wei Shuo’s (also known as Lady Wei) treatise on calligraphy.

    He discussed specific technical points, such as how to execute certain strokes. 

    And how to maintain a harmony in characters, especially when different – or conflicting – strokes threatened to override it.