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Xue Ji – Early Tang Artist & Calligrapher

    Xue Ji was a Tang dynasty (618 AD – 907 AD) official, painter, calligrapher, and poet.

    He had the honour of being praised in the poems of China’s two greatest poets: Li Bai (701 – 762 AD) and Du Fu (712 – 770 AD).

    He is also remembered as one of the early Tang dynasty’s four great calligraphers. 

    Family background and early life

    Xue Ji (薛稷 [Xuē Jì]) (649 – 713 AD) was born in Fenyin (in today’s Wanrong County in Shanxi Province) at the beginning of the Tang dynasty.

    His paternal great-grandfather, Xue Daoheng (薛道衡 [Xuē Dàohéng]), was a minister for internal history during the Sui Dynasty (581 AD – 618 AD).

    And his paternal grandfather, Xue Xingcheng (薛行成 [Xuē Xíngchéng]), was a county magistrate.

    His maternal grandfather was Wei Cheng (also known as the Duke Wenzhen of Zheng). He was an official historian of the Sui dynasty and a famous chancellor during the early Tang. 

    Xue had access to Wei’s extensive art and calligraphy collection. This included original works by the great calligraphers Ouyang Xun and Yu Shinan.

    His father, Xue Renwei (薛仁伟 [Xuē Rénwěi]) appears not have been an official. And his cousin, Xue Yao (薛曜 [Xuē Yào]) was also a well-known calligrapher.

    Xue Ji received an excellent education with intensive tutoring. He is said to have shown signs of literary talent as a youth.

    Xue Ji’s Official Career

    It’s not known exactly when Xue ji passed the imperial exams. But we do know that he reached high levels in the government during his career.

    He was born in the same year that the Taizong Emperor died (r. 626 – 649 AD). This was a period of great economic and cultural flourishing, which would continue for another century. 

    Thereafter, a litany of emperors and empresses followed. Xue worked throughout most of these reigns:

    • Gaozong (r. 649 – 683 AD)
    • Zhongzhong (r. briefly in 684, then again between 705 – 710 AD)
    • Ruizong (first r. 684 – 690 AD)
    • Wu Zetian (r. 690 – 705 AD)
    • Shang (r. 710 AD, 17 days)
    • Ruizong (second r. 710 – 712) 
    • Xuanzong (r. 712 – 756)

    He worked in several roles, including as Junior Guardian of the Heir Apparent and as Duke of Jinguo.

    He had a good relationship with the emperor Ruizong, whose daughter married Xue Ji’s son Xue Boyang (薛伯阳 [Xuē Bóyáng]).

    During the Ruizong Emperor’s second short reign (r. 710 – 712 AD) Xue worked in the high-ranking role of Minister of Ceremonies. During this time, he also occasionally gave political council to the emperor.

    However, Xue came to a bad end in 713, the second year of the Xuanzong Emporer’s reign. He had allegedly failed to report on a palace coup plot by the emperor’s aunt, the Princess Taiping.

    Like the princess and several other plotters, Xue was ordered to commit suicide. He obeyed this order.

    Xue Ji’s ‘Three Perfections’

    Xue Ji was a good exponent of the Chinese artistic category of ‘the Three Perfections’. It describes someone good at calligraphy, poetry, and painting.

    In Xue’s time, all three were increasingly being associated with one another. This is quite natural as they required the same tools that officials and scholars used daily (the ‘Four Treasures of the Study’)


    From the following dynasty onwards, more complex theories on the relationships between these arts developed. Song dynasty (960 – 1279 AD) calligrapher, painter, and poet Su Shi, for example, would write in the 11th century:

    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

    Based on contemporary critics’ comments, ranking Xue Ji’s three perfections in order of distinction would perhaps look like this:

    1. Painting
    2. Calligraphy
    3. Poetry

    Unfortunately, none of his art remains, only comments by his contemporaries on its excellence. It seems that he had a particularly talent for painting cranes. 

    However, ink rubbings of some of his calligraphy pieces have survived. And fourteen of Xue’s poems are included in the Collected Tang Poems compilation compiled in the eighteenth century. The total collection has 49,000 poems.

    Xue’s entry in the Xuanhe Catalogue of Paintings

    Xue is featured in the famous Northern Song Xuanhe Catalogue of Paintings (1120 AD).

    This is a document detailing the royal palace’s collection of over 6,000 paintings. It was written near the end of the reign of the Huizong emperor, who was famously a fan of collection – and doing – calligraphy and painting.

    Each artist featured in the Catalogue is given a brief biography that often includes comments on their work. Xue is praised in his for his rare skill in depicting cranes:

    故言鹤必穪稷,以是得名,且世之养鹤者多矣,其飞鸣饮啄之态度,宜得之为详,然画鹤少有精者[…]
    Though he was good at all sorts of bird, flower and figural subjects, he was especially skilled at painting cranes. At the time, many people raised cranes. So, they knew their appearance whether they were flying, chirping, drinking, or pecking. However, very few painters had skill in depicting them […]

    – Xuanhe Catalogue of Painting, chapter 14

    One of the four early Tang calligraphy masters

    The Tang dynasty is often divided up into three main periods:

    • The Early Tang (618 – 713 AD)
    • The High Tang (713 – 755 AD)
    • The Middle tang (755 – 820 AD)
    • The Late Tang (820 – 907 AD)

    (These dates can vary for discussions outside of the arts. For example, some historians consider that from a political power standpoint, the High Tang period was 650 – 755.)

    Xue Ji is regarded as one of the four early Tang calligraphy masters. The other three are Yu Shinan (558 – 638 AD), Ouyang Xun (557 – 641 AD), and Chu Suiliang (596 – 638 AD).

    The Tang dynasty in general is seen by many as one of or the greatest period in Chinese history. The Early Tang period is particularly important for this as it build on the unification by the Sui dynasty and grew China’s military and economic power significantly. 

    It unified and refined artistic styles that had existed in different parts of the country before unification. 

    Example work: Chan Master Xinxing Monument

    Xue’s Chan Master Xinxing Monument (信行禅师碑 [Xìnxíng Chánshī Bēi]) is seen by many as his major work.

    It was a stone inscription of approximately 1,800 characters, created in 706 AD. Like many ancient Chinese monuments, it doesn’t exist today but ink rubbings of it survive.

    The original text was written by Prince Jing of Yue (Li Zhen), a member of Tang royal family, before being written by Xue Ji. Its content discusses Master Xinxing, a Buddhist Sui dynasty official. 

    The elegant characters are said to reflect Xue’s move from the influence of Yu Shinan’s style to that of Chu Suiliang’s. In a nutshell, this amounted to more slender strokes and more incorporation of elements from running (/cursive) script into regular (/official) script.

    Conclusion

    Xue Ji career covered multiple emperors. And his artistic prowess is substantiated through contemporary praises and surviving ink rubbings of his work. 

    Despite his tragic end—being ordered to commit suicide over unreported palace coup plots—Xue’s contributions to Chinese culture and art are immeasurable. 

    His legacy prevails through the remnants of his work and the profound influence he had on his contemporaries.