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The Three Perfections (Calligraphy, Poetry, and Painting)

    ‘The Three Perfections’ sounds like a Motown band name. But in Chinese art, it’s something quite different.

    It refers to the three central arts in traditional Chinese elite culture. They have all been deeply interconnected for over 1,000 years.

    Read on to learn the basics of each ‘perfection’ (art), and the relationship between them.

    What are the Three Perfections?

    In Chinese art, the Three Perfections (三绝 [sānjué]) (sometimes translated as the Three Incomparables) are:

    • Calligraphy (书法 [shūfǎ])
    • Poetry (写诗 [xiéshī])
    • Painting (作画 [zuòhuà]): Especially in its monochrome landscape form (i.e., not in the professional, artisan capacity where detailed scenes were depicted using colours, etc.)

    These three arts have long been linked because for centuries they all used the same basic artistic tools: ink, brush, and paper (or silk).

    However, the status of each art and its relationship to the other two has changed over time.

    For example, it wasn’t until the Song dynasty (960 – 1127 AD) that painting achieved a status close to that of calligraphy and poetry. But even then, it was a particular kind of painting that did (see below, ‘Xieyi’).

    And it wasn’t until the next dynasty, the Yuan dynasty (1279 – 1368 AD), that calligraphy was written directly onto paintings. This is the format most people associate with Chinese painting today.

    When was the phrase ‘Three Perfections’ first coined?

    The Tang dynasty Emperor Xuanzong (685 – 762 AD) is said to have written four characters on the poet Zheng Qian’s (郑虔 [Zhèng Qián]) (691 – 759 AD) map of Cangzhou: 郑虔三绝 – ‘the three perfections of Zheng Qian’.

    Was and is the phrase ‘the Three Perfections’ used a lot?

    In short, not really.

    Today, ‘the Three Perfections’ is a useful phrase to categorise these three sister arts as being related to one another. It is especially useful for introducing people to them and emphasising how connected each one is to the other. But the phrase itself wasn’t often used.

    Perhaps this is due to frequently changing status of the three arts over the centuries. And the fact that each art is so distinguished in its own right.

    It can be seen as comparable to a phrase like ‘liberal arts’ – useful as an umbrella term, but not necessarily useful for specific discussions of each art.

    Who practiced the three perfections?

    The three perfections were largely seen as the pursuit of literati in their free time.

    These were educated and literary individuals (mostly – but not always – men). Some worked as officials, educators, or even military generals.

    But many others had received the same education but not career opportunities. This was largely due to the low success rate for the imperial exams.

    If you didn’t pass, you didn’t gain a high official post. So many highly-educated failed candidates worked as clerks, teachers, merchants, etc.

    Though some literati did make a living by selling their calligraphy and paintings (see below ‘Professional painters vs literati’), many others looked at these arts as pastimes.

    Are there other perfections?

    For thousands of years of Chinese history, music could be seen – in hindsight – to be a ‘Fourth Perfection’. It wasn’t labelled this directly, but it was often associated with calligraphy, poetry, and painting. 

    And early in Chinese history, the rites (sacrificial rituals), archery, charioteering, and even arithmetic were seen as skills that educated men should be familiar with and good at.

    The Three Perfections: an overview

    Calligraphy

    Unlike in the West, Chinese Calligraphy is a popular fine art in East Asia. Probably the most prestigious fine art.

    This is partly because it inherently contains two arts: the visual art of the writing itself and the cerebral art of the poetry or poetic prose that it often uses.

    Calligraphic pieces were generally written on scrolls (both hand-scrolls and hanging scrolls) throughout Chinese history. Vertical lines of text of approximately even length run across the page from right to left. 

    This format is particularly suitable to Chinese characters, which each take up approximately the same space.

    The content is said to not be that important. In some forms (like grass script), the characters are barely legible. Many classic pieces are written in classical Chinese, which only those educated in it can understand well.

    And many masterpieces exist that are simply copies of famous texts (such as the famous One Thousand Character Classic).

    However, the content of most famous pieces of calligraphy is interesting, poetic, and moving (see the below example). And the stories around their creation are often interesting, too.

    Several main types of calligraphic scripts have emerged over the years. These include:

    There are also intermediates between these scripts and variations of then. Different famous calligraphers’ personal styles are also often seen as a form or variation of one of these scripts.

    Example of famous calligraphy

    Wang Xizhi’s Preface to the Orchid Paviliion is the most famous piece of calligraphy in Chinese history – and maybe the most famous missing art piece in Chinese history.

    Detail from Discussion Between Confucius and Bu Shang by Ouyang Xun
    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)


    The original version of it doesn’t survive. All we have are copies that were made of it. However, there are rumours that the original could be in tomb of the Emporer Taizong (598 – 649 AD) of the Tang Dynasty.

    The piece is written in regular script. In it, Wang recounts a happy gathering of about 40 literati. They take part in drinking games and compose poems.

    仰观宇宙之大,俯察品类之盛,所以游目骋怀,足以极视听之娱,信可乐也。

    Looking up at the immensity of the cosmos, looking down at the multitude of the world, the gaze flies, the heart expands, the joy of the senses reaches its zenith, this is true happiness.

    – Extract from Preface to the Orchid Paviliion by Wang Xizhi

    Poetry

    Poetry has long been extremely popular in China. In written form, it has been around for thousands of years there, and each dynasty has its famous poets. 

    For the last thousand years, there have been several main, fixed styles of poetry:

    • Old-style poetry (古体诗) including yue-fu and gu-feng
    • Modern-style poetry (今体诗) including jue-ju, lü-shi, and chang-lü
    • Ci poetry

    These styles were all written using classical Chinese. But in modern times, just in English and other languages, less formalised poems written in colloquial Chinese with ‘freer’ structures appeared.

    China’s greatest era for poetry: the Tang dynasty

    The most famous era for poetry is without a doubt the Tang dynasty (618 – 906 AD). Especially the the High Tang period (712 – 765 AD), which saw a large number of great poets appear. 

    This includes China’s two greatest poets, Li Bai (701 – 762 AD) and Du Fu (712 – 770 AD). These two were friends and – like many Chinese literati – wrote poems about and to one another.

    The Complete Tang Poetry collection completed during the early Qing Dynasty contains 48,900 poems by just over 2000 poets.

    床前看月光,疑是地上霜。 
    举头望山月,低头思故乡。

    I look at moonlight in front of my bed covering the ground like frost.
    I raise my head and look at the bright moon, lower it and think of home.

    – ‘Quiet Night Thoughts’ by Li Bai

    空山不见人,
    但闻人语响。 
    返景入深林,
    复照青苔上。

    Empty mountain, no people in sight,
    Just the sound of voices.
    Rays of light piece the forest,
    And gleam across the green moss.

    – ‘Deer Park’ by Wang Wei

    Painting

    Chinese painting can be divided in several different ways: by subject, by format (landscape vs portrait), era, or style.

    The artist Xie He famously wrote his ‘6 rules for painting’ about 1.500 years ago. Like the Three Perfections, these ‘rules’ are simply useful during discussions of art, they are not an unalterable concept.

    Let’s look at the way to categorise Chinese poems that best suits our discussion of the Three Perfections: the difference between gongbi and xieyi painting.

    Gongbi (工笔 [gōngbǐ]) – ‘Elaborate style’

    This is the style professional painters used. These paints were often large scale, detailed, and colourful depictions of complex scenes.

    Because it isn’t linked to the three perfections in the way that xieyi is (below), let’s simply admire a famous gonbi painting and then move onto xieyi.

    Xieyi (写意 [xiěyì]) – ‘Sketching the idea’

    Wu Zhen’s Fishermen (1345 AD), ink on paper, section on a handscroll, 35.2 x 332cm. Shanghai Museum. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Xieyi, literally ‘write’ ‘idea’, was the favoured form of painting for Chinese literati, i.e., the people most likely to have mastered the Three Perfections.

    Blank spaces are important in xieyi. It makes room for calligraphy and/or the viewer’s imagination.

    Professional painters vs literati

    These literati, some of whom were also officials, were seen as different from professional painters (also sometimes called court painters or academy painters).

    In their roles as officials, literati would have used the ink and brush throughout the day for work. So, it would only be natural for them to unwind and exercise a bit of self-expression with the very same tools.

    Professional painters were often trained at academies in technical aspects of painting. Their course of study was long and technical. By contrast, the literati often received a classical education that was primarily focused on classic Chinese texts.

    Professional painters openly painted for commission. The literati liked to play down this aspect of their work. They would often emphasise the authenticity and creative control they had over their work.

    Think of rock bands looking down on pop bands (but still ultimately being commercial enterprises themselves…)

    The relationship between the Three Perfections

    It was with the invention of paper that the first two of the Three Perfections (calligraphy and poetry) developed.

    But before that, earlier forms of all three arts existed.

    Like most places in the world, the earliest forms Chinese painting appeared before written Chinese forms and appeared, on tombs and cave walls.

    Chinese characters first appeared in their oracle bone script form, which was (re)discovered in 1899. These appeared on shells, bones, and bamboo, and are dated at about 3 thousand years old. 

    A form of appreciation of their beauty no doubt existed in the creation of these objects. And later on, too, when copper script characters were carved into bells, cauldrons and other objects.

    Poems existed in oral form long before the invention of paper in the Han dynasty two thousand years ago.

    The relationship with poems and music has long been established, too. Most Ci poems in the Song dynasty, for example, were lyrics to tunes.

    Later thoughts on the three perfections

    As mentioned, the phrase ‘Three Perfections’ first appeared in the Tang dynasty, about 1,300 years ago.

    Over the centuries, there have been a number of individuals famous primarily for just one of the Three Perfection arts. 

    For example, Wang Xizhi (303 – 361 ADuniversally regarded as the greatest Chinese calligrapherKaizhi (344 – 406 AD) is remembered as one of China’s great painters. And Tao Yuanming (365 – 427 AD) one of Chinas great poets.

    It is only later that more explicit associates were made. And by the eighteenth century, someone like the scholar Zheng Geng could casually assert such connections: “Painting, which comes from the same source as writing, also holds up a mirror to the heart.”

    But in between these two extremes, links have continuously been made between and two of the Three Perfections.

    Calligraphy and poetry

    Calligraphy and poetry have been linked for millennia. Before the huge growth of printing in the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 AD), texts were written out and copied by hand.

    A writer’s calligraphy style can add meaning to pieces in a number of ways.

    For a start, the script they choose can set the tone. There is a big difference between how something written in clerical script (very formal) looks in comparison to something written in grass script (informal).

    Then there is the visual nature of the characters themselves. For example, look at this line written by Wang Wei (699 – 759 AD):

    木末芙蓉花

    Literal: Branch end magnolia flowers
    Literary: At the end of the branch, the magnolia blossoms

    To the expert familiar with these characters, there is a clear progression here.

    It starts with the first four-stroke character (木), moves onto the five-stroke one (末), 7-stoke one (芙), 13-stroke one (蓉), and then finally back to 7-stroke character for flower (花) placed on the end of the sentence.

    Finally, the different scripts also enable subtle forms of particular characters. The calligrapher can write the same characters slightly differently each time, even in the same piece.

    Let’s look at one of the Song dynasty Su Dongpo’s famous calligraphic masterpieces, Cold Weather Observance.

    The opening lines of the text, which is a poem, read:

    自我来黄州,已过三寒食。
    年年欲惜春,春去不容惜。

    Since I’ve been in Huangzhou, three Cold Food Festivals have already passed. 
    Each year I regret spring’s decline, but spring’s rays are indifferent.

    – Extract from ‘Cold Weather Observance’ by Su Dongpo

    The lines 年年欲惜春 ‘Each year I regret spring’s decline‘ are written like this in the piece:

    Spring Mountains and Auspicious Pines (date unknown) attributed to Mi Fu, hanging scroll, ink and colour on paper. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data). The calligraphy above the painting is by the Emperor Gaozong of Song.

    Here, you can see (in the middle line) how the character for year (年), which in the text version is repeated (年年), is written as one, long character.

    This fits well with the meaning implicit in previous line (three Cold Food Festivals have already passed), and the meaning in the overall piece, which is about commemoration of the struggle of Su’s exile.

    Painting and poetry

    The Tang was also a period in which famous poets could also be famous painters. The great poet Wang Wei, for example, was known to excel at both arts. 

    Unfortunately, none of his paintings survive today. But the interplay between his skill in poetry and painting is still remembered, in part thanks to comments made by Song dynasty literati (see below) Su Dongpo.

    味摩诘之诗,诗中有画;观摩诘之画,画中有诗
    In every poem by Wang Wei, the is a painting; and in every one of his paintings, there is poem.”

    – Su Songpo

    Calligraphy and painting

    Tang dynasty scholar Zhang Yanyuan wrote ‘Writing and painting have different names but a common body’. (It must be noted that before calligraphy was labelled calligraphy, it was just writing).

    Calligraphy, poetry and painting

    其文之毫末;诗不能尽,溢而为书,变而为画,皆诗之余。

    What is used up in poetry overflows to become calligraphy and is transformed to become painting: both are what is left over from poetry.

    – Su Dongpo