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Lady Wei – Legendary Chinese Calligrapher

    Lady Wei (272 AD – 349 AD) is known for teaching China’s greatest calligrapher Wang Xizhi (303 – 361 AD) calligraphy.

    However, there’s more to her achievements than this. She was also an outstanding and influential calligrapher and calligraphy theorist.

    Let’s look closer at her life and art.

    Illustration of Lady Wei from Famous Women by Gai Qi
    Illustration of Lady Wei from Famous Women (1799 AD) by Gai Qi, album of sixteen painted leaves with facing inscriptions, ink on paper, 24.8 × 16.8 cm (each leaf). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Lady Wei’s family background and early life

    Wei Shuo (卫铄 [Wèi Shuò]), courtesy name Maoyi, was born in Anyi (today’s Xia City, Shanxi province) during China’s Western Jin dynasty (266 – 316 AD).

    She has long been known in China primarily as Lady Wei (卫夫人 [Wéi fūrén] sometimes translated as Madam Wei).

    During her first decades, the Western Jin was unstable – rebellion, warfare, banditry and famine disrupted life across China.

    This culminated in the formation of the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317 AD – 420 AD).

    This was a large state with a sophisticated culture that covered over half of today’s modern China. Its capital was Jiankang (today’s Nanjing).

    Detail from The Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies by Gu Kaizhi
    Detail from The Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies by Gu Kaizhi (344 – 406 AD), scroll, ink and colour on paper, Tang dynasty copy by Zou Yigui. British Museum. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Wei came from well-known family of scholars and officials. Many scholars believe she was an aunt of Wang Xizhi, who was himself from a highly influential family.

    Her paternal great-grandfather Wei Ji, for example, was known for his excellent calligraphy. His imitation of calligrapher Han Danchun’s copy of the Book of History (尚书) was said to be indistinguishable from the original.

    She grew up around calligraphy and she was nurtured into practicing it, especially by her paternal uncle, Wei Heng

    He is said to have paid particular attention to her after observing a small incident…

    Once, when a guest arrived, he hastily moved a writing table, unthinkingly placing it in front of the young niece.

    He then noticed that she automatically started writing on the paper on top of it.

    Marriage, child and teaching

    When she turned eighteen, Lady Wei married a provincial official named Li Ju (李矩). This is why she is sometimes also referred to as Lady Li

    Together they had a son, Li Chong (李充). He grew up to be a provincial governor and an excellent calligrapher, too.

    Throughout her life she is also known to have taught calligraphy to many students. Her most noticeable disciple was, of course, Wang Xizhi.

    Lady Wei and Wang Xizhi

    Three Passages: Ping’an, Heru, and Fengju by Wang Xizhi
    Three Passages: Ping’an, Heru, and Fengju by Wang Xizhi, 24.7 x 46.8 scroll, ink on paper, scroll, running script. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum’s Open Data collection)

    Like many Ancient histories, Chinese history often has stories that we might label ‘unsubstantiated’ or even ‘likely fabricated’.

    However, as unlikely as some of them may be, it is worth noting them for the sentiment they deliver.

    Below are two such anecdotes about Lady Wei and her famous pupil Wang Xizhi.

    Aged wizened vines

    ‘Aged wizened vines’ (万岁枯藤 [wànsuì kū téng]) is a phrase Lady Wei used to describe the appearance of characters written well.

    She wanted Wang Xizhi truly grasp the essence of this concept. So, she had him climb up actual aged wizened vines on a rockface.

    This taught Wang how strong, supple and tenacious these vines are. This sense of the vines was then carried over into his calligraphy.

    A cake maker’s compliment

    Lady Wei wanted to give Wang Xizhi some encouragement. So, she disguised herself as an old lady and sold cakes in the market place.

    At her cake stall, she stood facing the chopping board and skilfully kneading and tossing cakes over her shoulders. Each cake landed exactly where it needed to be on the iron griddle where it was then baked.

    A crowd soon gathered and watched in amazement at her dexterity and speed.

    Wang Xizhi was in the crowd, too. He didn’t recognise his teacher.

    When he involuntarily gasped at how brilliant her technique was, Lady Wei replied that it ‘wasn’t as good as Wang Xizhi’s calligraphy.’

    Wang replied that he wished his technique was as good as the lady’s cake making.

    This compliment, seemingly from a complete stranger, spurred Wang to study and practice calligraphy even harder.

    Lady Wei’s calligraphy and style

    Lady Wei is known to have been particularly excellent at writing in both clerical script (the formal style popular for official work) and simpler official style of regular script.

    She immersed herself in practicing the regular style of Zhong Yao (151 AD – 230 AD), a minister of the famous historical figure Cao Cao.

    She was heavily influenced by Zhong Yao’s calligraphy, but added her own touch to it, too. 

    For example, where his characters had been relatively square-shaped, hers became more rectangular. And she also used thinner strokes than him.

    Unfortunately, none of her original calligraphy survives. Though copies of her work have. The most well-known is the Famous Concubine Inscription (Míng Jī Tiē 名姬帖).

    (Unfortunately I can’t find a photo of this piece with image rights right now!)

    Lady Wei’s teachings and theory on calligraphy

    A book on calligraphy named Battle Formation of the Brush (笔阵 [Bǐzhèn]) is attributed by many to Lady Wei. However, some doubt that she wrote it.

    Either way, this book influenced on Chinese calligraphy theory through the centuries. 

    It discusses how important and powerful an art calligraphy is. And reflects on how calligrapher’s psychology can influence the outcome of their work.

    Here is a quote from the work related to the thickness of characters:

    善笔力者多骨,不善笔力者多肉,多肉微肉者谓之筋书,多肉微骨者谓之黑猪。多力丰筋者圣,无力无筋者病。
    Good writers’ brushstrokes are like bone, bad writers’ brush strokes are like meat; writing that’s meaty without much bone is ‘fleshy’, writing that’s boney without much meat is ‘piggy’. Powerful writing is divine, weak writing is like a sick person.

    Battle Formation of the Brush by Lady Wei

    Death and legacy

    Lady Wei passed away in 349 AD, at the age of 78.

    Today she is remembered as one of China’s greatest and most influential calligraphers. He elegant and natural style was ground-breaking for its time.

    Even if the theory attributed to her wasn’t originally written by her, much of its essence can still be seen in the legacy she left behind.