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Song Dynasty Calligraphy

    The Song dynasty (960 – 1279 AD) is considered by many to be ‘China’s Renaissance’.

    Many of its social, economic, philosophical and cultural developments shaped China for centuries.

    One of its major artistic achievements was its calligraphy.

    It still stands as some of the greatest ever produced.

    One Night by Su Shi
    One Night (1080 – 1083 AD) by Su Shi, running script, ink on paper. 27.6 x 45.2cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum’s Open Data collection)

    Brief overview of the Song dynasty

    Before the Song dynasty, the last unified Chinese empire was the Tang dynasty (618 – 907 AD).

    The Tang collapsed half a century before the Song began. In between, states violently competed to re-unify all of China.

    The winning ruler was a general named Zhao Kuangyin. He became the first Song emperor: the Taizu Emperor (r. 960 – 977 AD).

    Thereafter, Song dynasty brought great prosperity and stability to China.

    However, these forces were not evenly distributed throughout its existence…

    Song calligraphy overview

    Possible reasons for Song calligraphy’s excellence

    Calligraphy in the Song partly reflects the dynasty’s breakthroughs in technology for paper, ink, brushes, and printing.

    These breakthroughs are downstream of the political stability and economic growth that lasted (most) of its three centuries.

    Calligraphy’s sister arts, poetry and painting, also developed significantly during this time. 

    (Its landscape painting is still considered the greatest of all Chinese landscape painting.)

    The Song’s preferred calligraphy scripts 

    Throughout the Song dynasty, the regular script – which had been so greatly advanced under the Tang – did not undergo great development or innovation.

    However, many samples of the small-regular script variant from the Song are still highly valued today. 

    Prosperity and printing technology likely contributed to scholarly work. The Song is the source of much of today’s understanding of previous Chinese dynasties.

    This aided knowledge and practice of the broad but distinct category of seal script.

    The most standout script of the Song, however, is no doubt the running script. Many of its greatest exponents often verges on cursive script.

    Calligraphy in the Northern Song (960 – 1127 AD)

    The early Song period: Re-establishing calligraphy’s place

    During the Tang, calligraphy had been a part of the imperial examination criteria. This was where many – but not all – government officials were chosen from.

    However, by the Song, writing on exam papers was anonymised.

    And unlike the first Tang emperor, the first Song emperor had been uninterested in calligraphy. 

    However, as we shall see, calligraphy’s fortunes eventually changed.

    Li Jianzhong (945 – 1013 AD)

    A Box of Herbs by Li Jianzhong
    A Box of Herbs (early 11th century) by Li Jianzhong, running script, ink on paper. 31.2 x 44.4 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data).

    The first really well-known early Song calligrapher was the scholar Li Jianzhong (李建中 [Lǐ Jiànzhōng]). Only three of his works survive. 

    Li had a refined and elegant style, but he was not very influential and many later critics complained that his work was too simple. Some blamed this on the lack of variety in models he learned from.

    Li Zong’e (965 – 1013 AD) 

    Li Zong’e (李宗谔 [Lǐ Zōng’è]) worked in the highest educational institution in the Song dynasty for two decades: the Imperial Academy.

    As a result, his calligraphy was disseminated across China for officials to base their styles on. However, despite the deep reach of his work, its influence was soon surpassed.

    Ouyang Xiu (1007 – 1072 AD)

    Letter to the Duanming‘s Attendants by Ouyang Xiu
    Letter to the Duanming‘s Attendants (Early 11th Century) by Ouyang Xiu, regular script, ink on paper, 25.9×53.4cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data).

    Ouyang Xiu is one of Chinese history’s most famous polymaths. He excelled as a historian, essayist, poet, politician, botanist, and archaeologist.

    In Ouyang’s writings, signs of the developing trends in artistic thought of the Song dynasty are clear. He emphasised the essential difference between literati art and art by artisans:

    萧条淡泊。此难画之意,画者得之,贤者未必识也… 若乃高下、嚮背、远近、重复,此画工之艺尔,非精鉴者之事也。
    Desolation and tranquillity are qualities hard to paint, and if an artist manages to achieve them, viewers are not likely to perceive this…. As for the effects of height and depth, distance and recession, these are only the skills of the artisan painter and not the business of refined connoisseurship.

    – Ouyang Xiu

    This principle applied to calligraphy as well as painting. Unlike artisan calligraphers employed by the Academy of Calligraphy, the literati saw themselves moved to write purely as a form of expression and inner cultivation.

    Ouyang did not consider himself a great calligrapher. However, his influence came by way of his writings on the subject.

    […] 明窗净几,笔砚纸墨皆极精良,亦自是人生一乐事。能得此乐者甚稀,其不为外物移其好者 […] 余晚知此趣,恨字体不工,不能到古人佳处。若以为乐,则自给有余。
    […] to have a clean desk beside a bright window with a brush, inkstone, paper and ink, all of high quality, is one of life’s great pleasures. But few men are able to appreciate this pleasure.
    […] It was late in my life that I understood its charm, and unfortunately my calligraphy is not skilful and I shall never reach the heights of the ancient masters. But if it gives me pleasure, that’s enough.

    – Ouyang Xiu, ‘Calligraphy Exercises

    Earlier calligraphers that influenced the Song dynasty

    Two calligraphers from previous dynasties in particular influenced the Song dynasty:

    The styles of these two calligraphers were remarkably different. Wang is clearly the more flamboyant stylist.

    However, Yan’s outspoken yet loyal criticisms of government policies was admired by many Song officials. After all, he represented the moral authority and importance of their class.

    The four great song calligraphers

    The four great song calligraphers all lived during the same 100-year period.

    They are sometimes ordered in terms of their artistic and intellectual prestige (or the consensus of this prestige):

    • Su
    • Huang
    • Mi
    • Cai

    However, they are more commonly listed in chronological order:  

    1. Cai Xiang (1012 – 1067)
    Letter to Li Du by Cai Xiang
    Letter to Li Du (1055 AD) by Cai Xiang, ink on paper, running script, 29.2 x 46.8cm. National Museum of China, Beijing. (Image: Wikipedia Commons)

    Cai Xiang was a refomist-minded official who had passed his imperial exam aged just 17 or 18.

    During his long and varied career, he also made a name for himself as a poet, tea connoisseur and calligrapher.

    He was known for his diligent study and attempts at mastering multiple different styles. His work greatly influenced the other three great Song dynasty calligraphers.

    2. Su Shi (1037 – 1101)
    Cold Food Observance by Su Dongpo
    Cold Food Observance (1082) by Su Dongpo, ink on paper, running script. 34.2 X 118cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Su Shi (also known by pen name Su Dongpo) is one of the most famous literary figures in all of Chinese history

    His official career and poetry established his reputation early in his career. Although his career was partly marred by controversies and exiles, his literary talents and many interests kept him productive.

    His most famous piece of work is the running script (with strong hints of cursive script) classicCold Food Observance.

    Su is also famous for his contributions to Chinese art theory. His writings helped develop the concept of the Chinese literati for centuries to come. 

    In a nutshell, his art philosophy emphasised the interconnected nature of poetry, painting, and calligraphy. And he emphasised scholar art’s:

    • Grounding in study of the classics
    • Reflection of the artist’s self-cultivation
    • Emphasis on expressing ideas and emotions rather than realistic depictions
    3. Huang Tingjian (1045 – 1105)
    Poem on the Hall of Pines and Wind by Huang Tingjian

    Poem on the Hall of Pines and Wind
     (c. 1102) by Huang Tingjian, ink on hemp paper, running script. 32.8 x 219.2 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Huang was a good friend and artistic disciple of Su Shi. Like Su, he was a scholar-official. He is widely considered the greatest grass-script calligrapher of the Song dynasty

    Like Su Shi and Ouyang Xiu, Huang was guided by his sense of being a member of the literati.

    He saw calligraphy as a means to achieve an almost zen-like sense of concentration and cultivation. He once remarked:

    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.

    – Huang Tingjian

    Huang was also extremely at running script. This can be seen in his early twelfth century running script masterpiece, the Poem on the Hall of Pines and Wind.

    4. Mi Fu (1051 – 1107)
    Letter Written to Jing Wen, On a Satchel
    Letter Written to Jing Wen, On a Satchel (c. 1091) by Mi Fu, ink on paper, running script, 28.4 cm x 41.9 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image Source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Mi Fu was a brilliant, opinionated, and contrarian figure. He was a talented artist, calligrapher, scholar and official.

    Mi Fu was famous for his running script, which deployed a striking range of different strokes. He once remarked:

    Each vertical stroke should end with a contraction, each horizontal one by turning back on itself

    – Mi Fi

    Like his fellow four greats, Mi Fu articulated his artistic theory on more than one occasion.

    One of his well-known remarks emphasised the essential nature of the art, which aligned with the literati concept of calligraphy as a means for the refined to relax:

    要之皆一戏, 不当问拙工。
    意足我自足, 放笔一戏空。
    It’s all just a game.
    One shouldn’t question clumsiness or skill. 
    If my mind is satisfied, then I am satisfied. 
    When I put down the brush, the game is over.

    – Mi Fi
    A firth great Song calligrapher? Cai Jing (1047 – 1126)
    Postscript on Listening to the Qin by cai jing
    Cai Jing’s postscript on Listening to the Qin (ca. 1102) by the Emperor Huizong, hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk. 147.2 x 51.3cm. Palace Museum, Beijing. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    This infamous high official was labelled one of the ‘Six Bandits’ accused of damaging the Song dynasty shortly before the Jin takeover of northern China. 

    He was a cousin to the first great Song calligrapher, Cai Xiang.

    And because the four are often listed by their surnames (which in Chinese comes first), some have speculated that Cai Jing was replaced by Cai Xiang. 

    In other words, Cai Jing was seen as so despicable his calligraphy could not be appreciated.

    Emperor Huizong (1082 – 1135)
    Detail showing Huizong's 'slender gold style' of standard script
    Detail showing Huizong’s ‘slender gold style’ of standard script. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    Huizong’s life and art have long battled for attention. He died whilst imprisoned by the Jurchen Jin dynasty shortly after losing half of his empire. 

    The consensus has long been that he spent too much time on art and not enough time on politics.

    However, he was clearly accomplished in all areas of what the Chinese call ‘the three perfections’: calligraphy, painting, and poetry.

    Whilst a decent calligrapher, Huizong’s influence on the art comes more from his patronage and instruction of the Academy of Calligraphy. 

    His instructions to get artisan calligraphers (and artists) to focus more on the classics helped push the arts more in the direction the literati were taking it.

    Calligraphy in the Southern Song (1127 – 1279 AD) and Jin (1115 – 1234 AD)

    The Southern Song state lasted for 152 years.

    It is easy to assume that the state, now half the size and under constant threat and humiliation from the Jin Dynasty, represented some sort of decline in Chinese culture. 

    However, the Southern Song was still the richest and most developed state in the world.

    It’s capital, Lin’an (today’s Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province), was likely the largest and most magnificent city on earth at the time. By the end of the dynasty, its population was over a million.

    The Jurchen-ruled (a then nomadic steppe people) Jin dynasty was also inhabited by a mostly Chinese population and many Chinese officials.

    And many of its rulers themselves practiced Chinese arts and even promoted Confucianism. This kept Chinese culture alive there, too.

    The division did lead to strong differences between the Jin and Southern Song. The Qing dynasty scholar Wang Fangkang (1733 – 1818 AD) summarised it in his pithy statement:

    The Chengs teachings flourished in the south, Su’s teachings in the north.

    – Wang Fangkang

    Cheng was a reference to the Cheng brothers, Cheng Hao (1032 – 1085 AD) and Cheng Yi (1033 – 1107 AD). These famous Confucian thinkers were a big influence on the Song state’s ideology. 

    And Su is a reference to Su Shi. Though an original thinker in many ways, his philosophy isn’t really a coherent system like the Cheng’s. 

    Either way, different philosophical and artistic trends existed in the Jin and Southern Song states until both were forcibly reunited under Mongol rule in 1279.

    Zhu Xi (1130 – 1200 AD)
    Letter on Government Affairs by Zhu Xi
    Letter on Government Affairs (1194) by Zhu Xi, cursive script, ink on paper, 33.3 x 47.8 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Zhu Xi (朱熹 [Zhū Xī]) is widely considered to be one of the greatest thinkers in Chinese philosophy.

    He helped to revive Confucianism (i.e., Neo-Confucianism) and influenced how it was understood with commentaries.

    Like Confucius and Mencius, he was referred to as ‘Master’ (子) by scholars for centuries after his death.

    He lived in poverty for much of life. In part this was due to his frequent turning down of government posts.

    However, several decades later, his work was revived and remained the most popular guide to the classics until the twentieth century.

    Although primarily a philosopher, official, and educator, Zhu Xi was very interested in calligraphy.

    His interest reflected his philosophical leanings: he liked to systemise and analyse the art from an ethical point of view. 

    According to Zhu (and this opinion was not unheard of throughout the history of calligraphy), calligraphers’ work reflected their moral cultivation.

    Consequently, Zhu associated the popular slanted style featured in the popular running-cursive style as a reflection of the loss of social morals amongst the Song’s elite. 

    Zhu recommended writers stick with an upright and orderly standard script, even for personal letters. However, he himself appears not to have always adhered to his own advice on this.

    Wang Tingyun (1151 – 1202)

    Wang Tingyun (王庭筠 [Wáng Tíngyún])is considered one of – if not the – best calligraphers of the Jin Dynasty. 

    He was an official that was once entrusted with organising the calligraphy and painting collection of Jin Emperor Zhangzong (1123 – 1189). 

    Wang was – like many Jin literati – inspired by the leading Northern Song intellectuals: Su Shi, Huang Tingjian and – especially in Wang’s case – Mi Fu.

    Jiang Kui’s Sequel to the ‘Treatise on Calligraphy’ (1208)

    Jiang Kui (c. 1155 – c. 1221) was born in Jiangxi Province, but spent most of his life in the economically and culturally vibrant lower Yangzi region. This included in the Southern Song capital, Lin’an (today’s Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province). 

    Like many other, he failed the imperial exams after an intensive classical education.

    He relied on the patronage of wealthy friends to support his work in calligraphy, music, prose, and poetry.

    Jiang was not well-known outside of a few artistic circles during his lifetime. However, his masterpiece work, Sequel to the ‘Treatise on Calligraphy’, influenced generations of calligraphers

    Its name pays homage to a Tang dynasty treatise by the Calligrapher Sun Guoting.

    Like Sun’s work, the Sequel sets out to both define and promote calligraphy. And along the way, he also gives comments on different calligraphers and styles:

    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’ 

    Calligraphy after the Song dynasty’s fall

    In 1234 a previously obscure group wiped out the Jin dynasty, taking over the North of China.

    By 1279, they had taken over Southern China, too, effectively ending the Song dynasty.

    This group was, of course, the Mongols, led by Khubilai Khan.

    Their leader, Khubilai Khan, soon declared a new dynasty: the Yuan (1279 – 1368). One of their propaganda lines was that they had, in fact, saved China from disunity.

    One of the Yuan’s early acts was bring collections of calligraphy and painting from the fallen Southern Song capital of Hangzhou to Beijing.

    Officials, scholars, and collectors could now also travel all over both northern and southern China.

    This hadn’t been possible for over a century prior. This helped inspire and improve the knowledge many, including the greatest calligrapher of the Yuan: Zhao Mengfu (1254 – 1322 AD).