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Sun Guoting’s Treatise on Calligraphy (Shu Pu)

    Sun Guoting’s Treatise on Calligraphy (687 AD) stands out as a jewel written during a glittering era of calligraphy.

    It articulates an artistic philosophy of the field of calligraphy. And it reflects the highly prestigious position calligraphy had reached in Chinese culture at this point.

    Not much is known about its author. We aren’t even certain of his name, date of birth, or exactly when he died. 

    However, with this work, we know his character, thoughts, and calligraphy well.

    A brief biography of Sun Guoting

    Sun Guoting (b. c.646 – c. 691) (孙过庭 [Sūnguò Tíng]) was possibly born in Kaifeng, Henan Province during the early Tang dynasty.

    His real name was possibly Sun Qianli (孙虔礼 [Sūn Qiánlǐ]). It’s almost certain that Sun was his family name, but there is confusion whether Guoting or Qianli was his courtesy name (a literary name most Chinese poets and calligraphers have).

    Some sources state that he died at the age of forty-four after a sudden illness. 

    The inscription on his tomb was written by his friend Chen Zi’ang. It states that Sun ‘died in the guest of Zhiye Village [near] Luoyang [Henan Province].‘ And that he held the post of Administrative Supervisor of the Guard of the Heir Apparent.

    A sacrificial ode written for him by Chen also hints that he had troubles with slander at the imperial court. Sun appears not to have achieved a high position in court. However, if he did die young, then this could in part explain why.

    Sun’s calligraphy

    Treatise on Calligraphy (书谱 [Shū pǔ]) is Sun’s only known work. Some scholars believe that a copy of The One Thousand Character Classic in cursive script is by him, but its authenticity has not been confirmed.

    Amazingly, a physical copy of the text survives, written in what perhaps can be considered the calligraphy connoisseur’s favourite style of writing – cursive script (also known as grass script).

    His style is described by Chinese calligraphy expert Ouyang Zhongshi as ‘strict adherence to the norms of in starting and ending a stroke’ and being ‘sinewy yet graceful’. 

    The clear command of the brush evident in his cursive script reflects his own words in the Treaty:

    Cursive script takes dots and lines as its living spirit, and curving movement as its corporal structure. When it violates the principle of curving movement, it cannot form characters. 

    – Sun Guoting, Treatise on Calligraphy

    A few centuries after Sun’s life, the famously opinionated Song dynasty calligraphy Mi Fu (1051 – 1107 AD) wrote of him:

    In cursive script of the Tang dynasty, no one could surpass [Sun] in absorbing the best elements of the two Wangs [Wang Xizhi and Wang Xianzhi].

    – Mi Fu, History of Calligraphy

    Background to Treatise on Calligraphy

    Treatise on Calligraphy (书谱 [Shū pǔ]) was written in 687 AD, during the tang dynasty (618 – 907 AD) reign of Emperor Ruizong (r. 684 – 690 AD). It is Sun’s only certain existing work (see below, ‘Sun’s other works’).

    Some scholars question whether the treatise is complete or a preface to a larger work that has since been lost (see below).

    It is also not known whether it is the same as Discourse on Wielding the Brush (运笔论[Yùnbǐ lùn]), a work mentioned by Zhang Huaiguan in the eighth century.

    The work itself is well-written in all senses of that phrase. Its content is clear and compelling. It is still a good introduction to calligraphy even today.

    Like other Chinese officials throughout the centuries, Sun was educated in the Confucian classics and major Daoist texts. This means the treaty is full of references that most educated Chinese would have understood.

    He also clearly felt there was a need for a work like his Treatise. He mentions – and dismisses – other works, such as the Tactics of the Brush and Treatise on Brush Technique both allegedly written by Wang Xizhi. 

    And he repeatedly makes the clarity is difficult to achieve when discussing calligraphy, but that it must be strived after. 

    The important thing is to make the wording simple and the reasoning sound, the writing clear and comprehensive, so that when someone unrolls my scroll, it will be understood…

    Can the Treatise on Calligraphy be divided into six parts?

    It is not known whether Treatise on Calligraphy is part of a larger work or a self-contained complete essay. At the end of the Treatise, Sun writes: 

    I have written my work in six sections, divided it into two scrolls, arranged it for practical use, and entitled it Treatise on Calligraphy.

    – Sun Guoting, Treatise on Calligraphy

    But only one existing scroll exists. And some argue that there is no clear way to divide the existing work into six distinct sections. Others argue that it can be divided in the following way: 

    1. Discussion on the origins of calligraphy
    2. Distinctions between types of script
    3. Comments on outstanding works
    4. Brush methods
    5. Advice to scholars
    6. Lamentations on lack of real knowledge amongst calligraphers

    (Uncertain of who is right in this debate, I have not followed these divisions below…)

    The content of Treatise on Calligraphy

    The below sections aren’t clearly demarcated in the text (though their content does appear in this order). And many of them lead quite fluently onto one another.

    So, the below headers should not mislead you into thinking this was Sun’s structure – they are simply hear to make his piece easier to understand for newcomers. 

    Introduction – who were the greatest calligraphers in Chinese history?

    Sun opens Treatise on Calligraphy by asserting who he believes are the four greatest Chinese calligraphers:

    He then compares and contrasts these calligraphers’ strength sand merit in contrast to one another. For example, he states that:

    The clerical script of Zhong You is especially distinguished. The cursive [/grass] script of Zhang Zhi is particularly outstanding. These are their two finest points – and Wang Xizhi combines them both.

    Sun’s personal note

    A personal note is added when Sun goes on to mention these four figure’s influence on his own efforts in calligraphy:

    When I was fifteen years old, I centred my mind on brush and ink, savouring the extant splendours of Zhong You and Zhang Zhi, and absorbing the past principles of Wang Xizhi and Wang Xianzhi. I fully concentrated on the art for more than twenty-four years. I failed to reach the stage of ‘penetrating the wood’ but determinedly and constantly ‘practiced by the pond’.

    – Sun Guoting, Treatise on Calligraphy

    (‘Penetrating the wood’ is a reference to a story of Wang Xizhi’s characters being written in such a powerful hand the ink from them penetrated wood inches deep. ‘Practicing by the pond’ is a reference to Wang’s persistence at practicing calligraphy beside a pond that eventually turned black from brushes being washed in it.)

    Technical and ethical issues

    Sun compares two different scripts in calligraphy: the ‘suspended needle’ (悬针 [xuán zhēn]) and ‘hanging dewdrop’ (垂露 [chuí lù]) script. 

    He vividly describes how they should appear (‘the marvels of rolling thunder and toppling rocks, the postures of wild geese in flight and frightened beasts…’). And he waxes lyrical about how the brush should move when creating them.

    This leads him onto expressing a common sentiment about calligraphy:

    Truly, fine calligraphy may be called the result of wisdom and skill achieving joint excellence, of mind and body acting in harmony.

    – Sun Guoting, Treatise on Calligraphy

    This interest in immersion, he states, is also helped by focusing on the fundamentals of writing.

    Who the calligraphy connoisseurs are…

    Using his unique phrasing and logic, Sun remarks on the nature of calligraphy fans. He distinguishes between general fans (‘[who] esteem… a great variety of shapes and styles’) and connoisseurs (‘who investigate minute subtleties and probe abstruse mysteries’).

    An interest in it, he states, forms a link between ‘all kinds of talented and intelligent men’. But he also deplores how true knowledge has, at times, been lost. This leads to calligraphers losing their grasp on some of the essentials of the art.

    The five harmonies and five discords

    Sun lists the internal and external conditions that aid or hamper a calligraphers’ work.

    The five harmonies

    1. Being happy in spirit and free from one’s duties (in that moment)
    2. Feeling quick in apprehension
    3. Pleasantly warm and mild weather with the right levels of moisture in the air
    4. A match between one’s paper and ink
    5. A flash of inspiration to write

    The five discords

    1. feeling restless and sluggish
    2. Opposed will and limited energy
    3. Dry wind and hot sun
    4. Poorly matched ink and paper
    5. Emotional tiredness and tired hand

    The difficulty of articulating the beauty of calligraphy

    ‘It may happen’ writes Sun, ‘that a master of calligraphy grasps the idea but cannot express it in words.’ He acknowledges that the point he is making also applies to his own work, but that he will try nonetheless: 

    Without considering my own dark ignorance, I will present what has become clear to me, hoping to enlarge on the styles and models of the past and guide the capabilities of the future, to eliminate frills and do away with superfluities, to look at surviving examples and comprehend the heart of the matter.

    – Sun Guoting, Treatise on Calligraphy

    He then discusses how a book attributed to Wang Xizhi (Tactics of the Brush) is not of much use to readers. 

    And then he broadens his discussion to how judgement on good calligraphy gets established (and re-established) over time. Besides the issue of work surviving (or not), most judgements are naturally established over time and this is particularly true of Wang Xizhi.

    Sun also references a story from the 3rd century BC Daoist classic Zhuangzi, which is often mentioned over the centuries in relation to calligraphy:

    The cook was cutting up an ox for the king […] Wherever his hand hit the carcass, wherever his shoulder leaned into it, wherever his foot braced it […] the sound of meat falling from the bone would resound, and the sound of his knife passing through it would, too; each sound ringing out the perfect pitch…

    The king said, “How wonderful it is that skill can reach such heights!”

    The cook replied, “What I love is the Way, which goes beyond mere skill.”

    – Zhuangzi (3. 1 – 2)

    The point of this story is that what Cook Ding does, like master calligraphers, is a skill that only the master himself can intuitively understand.

    The mind of each student was alert and the hand complied; words were forgotten and the purpose was achieved.

    – Sun Guoting, Treatise on Calligraphy

    Beware of braggarts and slanderers!

    People that boast of their own calligraphy, Sun explains, are incapable of progressing in it.

    Furthermore, those who use the wrong methodology in practicing, and who slander greats such as Wang Xizhi, Zhi Yong, etc., will damage their own reputations in the eyes of future generations.

    Each calligrapher’s style is unique

    Sun explains that each calligrapher’s style will naturally develop in line with his own personality and inner cultivation. 

    This concept was extremely popular throughout Chinese history. An example of this can be seen in a Chinese magazine from 1985. It discussed Zhang Mengfu (1254 – 1322 AD), the famous Chinese official and calligrapher. Zhao was seen by some Chinese as a traitor because he served under the Mongol-run Yuan dynasty (1271 – 1368):

    Zhao, though a famous calligrapher, as a person had no backbone… The very fluidity of his calligraphy is thought to reflect the instability of his character, and his style is often considered unsuitable for beginning calligraphers to copy.

    – Liu Rong, ‘The Wonderful World of Calligraphy’, China Reconstructs (November 1985)

    Sun does not speak in such stark political terms in his Treatise. But like many of his contemporaries and subsequent calligraphy critics, he does believe that characters reflect character.

    Every person follows a natural inclination to shape one’s own basic character: If a person is straight, the writing will be rigid and lacking in vigorous beauty; if a person is hard and ruthless, it will be stubbornly un-submissive and lacking in suppleness; those who are overly careful have the defect of being unrelaxed… those who are impetuous will be excessively hasty…

    – Sun Guoting, Treatise on Calligraphy

    Showing ice to insects

    Sun ends his Treatise by expounding on how so-called experts’ opinions are tainted by their own lack of true appreciation of calligraphy. 

    By example, he says that when he used to directly and honestly show his own calligraphy to experts, they would often show no interest. But when he made his look work older, by wrapping it in silk and forging inscriptions stating that it was an old work, they became animated and fascinated.

    There are, Sun states, ‘differences between understanding and not understanding calligraphy’. He clearly regrets – but accepts – that this is the case.

    In fact, he references several precedents in ancient texts which make the same point. One of them comes from Zhuangzi


    You cannot discuss ice and snow with a summer insect, for he is fixed in his own time.

    – Zhuangzi (17.1)

    Jiang Kui’s Sequel to Sun’s work

    521 years after Sun wrote his work, the Song dynasty (960 – 1279) calligrapher Jiang Kui wrote A Sequel to ‘Treatise on Calligraphy’ (1208).

    Despite the (translated) title, A Sequel is not really a direct sequel of Sun’s Treatise on Calligraphy. It is more of a continuation on the same theme.

    Jiang praises Sun’s work highly and offers his own thoughts on the art, its various scripts and famous calligraphers. Here, for example, are his thoughts on grass script (the expressive yet largely illegible cursive script):

    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 ‘Treatise on Calligraphy’

    Jiang’s work is actually written in a clearer style and has an easier to follow structure than Sun’s work. This is partly to do with how classical Chinese changed in the centuries between when the two works were written.

    Over 800 years since the most recent one was written, these two treatise both form excellent introductions to Chinese calligraphy.