Skip to content

Yan Zhenqing – The ‘Pure Official’

    The Tang dynasty official, military commander, and calligrapher Yan Zhenqing (709 – 785 AD) has been praised for centuries as the embodiment of the ideal Confucian official.

    Even his progress in calligraphy into old age reflects this. One of Confucius’ Analects most famous passages reads:

    子曰:“吾十有五而志于学,三十而立,四十而不惑,五十而知天命,六十而耳顺,七十而从心所欲,不逾矩。”

    Confucius said: “At fifteen I set my mind upon learning. At thirty, I took my stand. At forty, I had no doubts. At fifty, I knew the will of heaven. At sixty, my ear was attuned. At seventy, I follow all the desires of my heart without breaking any rule.”

    – The Analects (2.4)

    Unfortunately for posterity, Yan’s peak artistic period in his seventies was abruptly halted – he was executed.

    Let’s learn more about his upright life and calligraphy.

    709 – 734 AD: Family background and early life

    Yan Zhenqing (颜真卿[Yán Zhēnqīng]), courtesy name Qing Chen (清臣 [Qíng Chén] – ‘pure official’), was born in 709 AD in Wannian, near the Tang dynasty capital of Chang’an (today’s Xi’an).

    He came from a distinguished family of officials they had lived by the capital for five generations.

    His paternal great-great-grandfather was Yan Shigu (581 – 645 AD), a well-known politician, scholar and skilled calligrapher.

    And before that, his clan was linked to Confucius’ favourite disciple, Yan Hui. This was something Yan Zhenqing was conscious and proud of throughout his life.

    Detail from Record of the Magu Immortal’s Altar (771)
    Detail from Record of the Magu Immortal’s Altar (771 AD) by Yan Zhenqing, ink on paper, grass script. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum’s Open Data collection)

    During the Tang dynasty, the elites were a mixture of military and aristocratic types. They often proudly preserved their genealogy and paid tribute to their ancestry.  

    Yan Zhenqing’s father, Yan Weizhen, was a middle ranking official. He died when Yan was just three years old.

    Yan’s mother taught him to read and write and a paternal aunt further educated him in poetry.

    It’s said that in order to practice calligraphy as a youth, he would use loess (the yellow soil common in northern China) to practice writing on walls with brooms.

    One of his elder brothers, Yan Yunnan (694 – 762 AD), was also a strong influence on him. Yan once recounted an anecdote:

    Our family had a crane with a broken leg. When I was small, I would play by writing on its back. Yunnan rebuked me severely, saying, “Even though it cannot fly away, is it not terribly inhumane to have no consideration for its wings and feathers?” I have remembered that all my life.

    – Quoted in Amy McNair, The Upright Brush: Yan Zhenqing’s Calligraphy and Song Literati Politics (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1998), p. 33

    Yan passed the imperial exams in 734, aged 25, and married the same year.

    During the Tang dynasty, these exams accounted for between 6 – 16% of officials’ routes to office. They involved demonstrating good physique, speech, literary composition, calligraphy, and deep knowledge of The Thirteen Classics.

    Tutorage under Zhang Xu (‘Crazy Zhang’)

    Detail from calligraphy piece 'Four Ancient Poems' by Zhang Xu
    Detail from Four Ancient Poems (undated) by Zhang Xu, ink on five-coloured paper, cursive (/grass) script, 28.8 x 192.3cm. Liaoning Provincial Museum, Shenyang. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    A 22-year-old Yan is said to have sought out the great Zhang Xu as a tutor. 

    Zhang was an official and a talented calligrapher and poet. He was known for his eccentric behaviour, including dipping his long hair into ink and using it to write calligraphy. Hence his nickname: ‘Crazy Zhang’.

    Zhang was also known as ‘Grass Sage’ (草圣 [Cǎo Shèng]) because of his skill at grass script – the striking-looking fully cursive script.

    Unfortunately, Zhang appears to have shown little interest in instructing Yan. He merely advised the younger man to ‘learn from nature’.

    Disappointed, Yan left to accept his official minister post. However, when he was 38, he left his post to once again try and learn under Zhang. 

    This time, he was successful, and Zhang greatly helped yan develop as a calligrapher.

    735 – 755 AD: Early career

    After passing his exam, Yan’s career got off to a good start. 

    He worked in the capital and in 736 was selected to sit for another exam, the Examination for Selecting the Preeminent, an exam that focused on literary abilities in poetry and prose writing.

    After passing this, he was appointed the prestigious position of editor at the palace library. 

    His mother passed away in 738 and he returned home for a custom mourning period of three years. 

    He returned to the capital in 741. And the following year he selected to sit another – even more prestigious – exam: the Examination for Erudites of Outstanding and Extraordinary Literary Expression. This was supervised by the emperor himself. 

    Yan passed this in first rank and was appointed to District Defender of Liquan. This prestigious area contained the royal summer palaces and mausoleums.

    His career progression continued throughout the following decade. He roles included:

    • Investigating censor
    • Palace censor
    • Military roles (including Vice Director for the Ministry of War).

    During this time, Yan began to gain a reputation as both a skillful calligrapher and outspoken official.

    These aspects would go on to define his life…

    Yan’s during the An Lushan Rebellion (755 – 763 AD)

    The An Lushan Rebellion was one of the most significant and destructive rebellions in China’s history

    Its impact is believed by many to have fatally damaged the Tang dynasty. The dynasty did last for another century and a half, but it never regained the same levels of power and prestige as before the rebellion.

    The half century leading up to it (essentially all of Yan’s life up until that point) is still considered a golden age for Chinese civilisation and culture. It is often referred to as the High Tang. 

    It began when the most powerful imperial general, An Lushan (703 – 757) revolted against his political enemy, Chief Minister Yang.

    An, along with 150,000 troops, first marched eastwards to the secondary capital of Luoyang, which they sacked.

    Later, the rebels entering the main capital of Chang’an and the emperor Xuanzong (r. 712 – 756 AD) had to flee.

    Weeks later, the emperor had to agree to the execution of his favourite concubine, who soldiers believed was linked to the political intrigues that had caused the rebellion.

    Meanwhile, the general An declared himself emperor of a new dynasty, but soon after he was murdered by a eunuch. 

    The rebellion continued on under An’s son and former generals.

    It would take until 763 before the rebellion was over. And many more decades after that before the dynasty recovered from the violence and disruption it had caused.

    Yan’s heroic actions during the rebellion: Resistance at Pingyuan

    753 AD: Preparations and poker face

    In 753, Yan had been sent to be the governor of Pingyuan, a walled city (located in today’s Shandong Province). It was just 186 miles (300 km) from An Lushan’s headquarters in Youzhou (today’s Beijing).

    Civil war was brewing across the empire when Yan arrived in Pingyuan. So he began preparations for a siege immediately by preparing moats, recruiting 10,000 troops and storing supplies.

    At the same time, An Lushan sent generals to meet and asses Yan Zhenqing. Yan’s goal was to buy time by persuading them that he was harmless to them and oblivious to their intentions. 

    He greeted the enemy generals cordially, taking them on rambling excursions in the surrounding countryside. Meanwhile, preparations within the walled city could continue in secret.

    Yan’s ruse appears to have worked. 

    755 AD: War begins and Yan shows decisiveness

    It wasn’t long before An Lushan’s forces had swept across large areas of China, even taking its second capital, Luoyang. 

    The rebel leader had persuaded some government troops to switch to his side, and kidnapped (or killed) others. He sent a messenger, Duan Ziguang, to Pingyuan. 

    Duan brought the heads of three loyalist officials who had resisted the rebel forces with him… His offer to Yan was clear: switch to the rebel side or share the same fate.

    Yan now showed himself to be the exact opposite of the distracted official the rebels thought he was. 

    First, he ordered Duan to executed by being cut in half. Next, he had the officials’ heads buried with full ceremony.

    And then he dispatched his troops to join forces with other government troops nearby, where they scored an important victory against the rebels after a day’s fighting.

    757 AD: Defence and then abandonment of Pingyuan

    Pingyuan was soon targeted again by An Lushan’s forces. However, Yan managed to organise backup from nearby government troops. 

    Afterwards, he transferred power over to a colleague and continued to organise defence around the north east of China.

    But then Pingyuan was surrounded again. Knowing that defence was not as likely this time time, Yan travelled about 560 miles (900km) southwest through the winter to Wudang (in today’s Hubei Province).

    The fact that he was not martyred at Pingyuan would trouble him for the rest of his life…

    In the meantime, the imperial court had regrouped in about 430km (700km) west of Wudang, in Fengxian(today’s Shaanxi Province). The emperor was pleased with Yan and promoted him to the post of Minister of Justice.

    Yan, however, went beyond modesty and asked to be punished rather than praised for his actions:

    … integrity would demand that I risk death amid danger and defend the orphaned city to the last, but I believed that returning to indict myself at the imperial court would be better than being seized by rebel hands….
       My humble desire is for You Majesty to censure heavily this one official, myself, in order to demonstrate the justice of Heaven and to let the subcelestial realm know there are laws that must be appreciated.

    – Quoted in Amy McNair, The Upright Brush: Yan Zhenqing’s Calligraphy and Song Literati Politics (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1998), p. 42

    The emperor replied:

    Though you did not hold Pingyuan, your efficacy was great. From afar you returned to court, profoundly aiding our aspirations.

    – Ibid.

    758 – 785 AD: Later career

    758 – 764 AD: Praise doesn’t change Yan

    Yan made a point of criticising other officials for improper behaviour. This was a Confucian principle that in practice few ever stuck as rigidly to as Yan did.

    Because of this, he was sent to work away from the court in Chang’an 758 AD. This was also the year he composed his famous Draft of a Requiem for my Nephew (see below).

    Over the course of the following years, he was assigned posts in locations across the empire.

    These included:

    • Raozhou (in today’s Jiangxi Province), about 621 miles (1000km) from the capital (Chang’an)
    • Shengzhou (in today’s Zhejiang Province)
    • Pengzhou (Sichuan Province)

    and more.

    764: Letter on Controversy over Seating Protocol

    Section from 17th century ink rubbing of Letter on Controversy over Seating Protocol by Yan Zhenqing
    Section from 17th century ink rubbing of Letter on Controversy over Seating Protocol (764 AD) by Yan Zhenqing, ink on paper, in running-cursive script. Original stele is in Stele Forest Museum, Xi’an, Shaanxi Province. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    The Letter on Controversy over Seating Protocol is one of Ya Zhenqing’s most well-known calligraphic masterpieces. 

    It was originally done in ink on seven sheets of paper. And it contains 1,194 characters written in a mixture of running and cursive script.

    Yan’s Song dynasty admirer Mi Fu (1051 – 1157) wrote of it:

    《争座位帖》有篆籀气,为颜书第一。字相连属,诡异飞动得於意外。
    Letter on Controversy over Seating Protocol has the air of seal script about it and is Yan’s best work. Its characters are intentionally connected to in a flying movement, yet their fantastic shapes and forms are not premeditated.

    – Mi Fu, History of Calligraphy

    The content is a letter from Yan to the official Guo Yingyi essentially telling him off for having seated a court eunuch at the head of a table.

    This act, Yan warns him, is not simply incorrect protocol, it is also a sign of incorrect morality.

    765 – 785 AD: Upright, too upright

    Section from Record of the Magu Immortal’s Altar by Yan Zhenqing
    Section from Record of the Magu Immortal’s Altar (771 AD) by Yan Zhenqing, ink rubbing, regular script. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    Owing in part to his persistent – or perhaps, consistent – criticisms of other officials, Yan was demoted in the 760s. 

    This was the same decade he turned 60 (in 769). And in the last two decades of his life, he worked across various parts of the empire. This included postings in Jizhou, Fuzhou, Huzhou, and more.

    During this time, his calligraphy continued to improve. Perhaps due to his demotions, he began to experiment and innovate more.

    The Emperor Dezong ascended to the throne in 779. This caused changes in many ministers’ roles. Yan was promoted to junior instructor of the heir apparent. His appointment stated:

    His establishment of virtue and pursuit of its practice put him in the first of the four classes, and his admirable literary works and great learning make him kindred to all the philosophers.

    – Quoted in Amy McNair, The Upright Brush: Yan Zhenqing’s Calligraphy and Song Literati Politics (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1998), p. 129

    On the surface, this looks like a return to favour for Yan. However, the minister behind, Lu Qi, it was primarily motivated by his dislike of Yan’s outspokenness.

    This new role, whilst prestigious, actually had less power than the role Yan had been in prior to it.

    What made this particularly shocking was the fact that Lu Qi was the son of one of the officials whose heads Yan had so loyally buried during the incident at Pingyuan (described above).

    And things got worse…

    783 – 785: Yan’s capture and execution

    In 783, a Tang military commisioner named Li Xilie revolted against the Tang. He sacked the city of Ruzhou (in today’s Henan Province) and set up a camp nearby. 

    Lu Qi then ordered Yan to travel to Li Xilie’s camp and demand he surrender to the government. Despite the risk in this, the elderly Yan – ever the loyal and upright official – accepted the order.

    Once Yan arrived, he was immediately taken captive by Li Xilie. At first, he was treated well. Li wanted to persuade Yan to defect to his (Li’s) side. Yan outright refused, allegedly stating:

    … I am nearing eighty. In my official career, I have reached the post of grand instructor. I will preserve the virtue of my elder brother in death and beyond. How could I be coerced by the likes of you?

    – Quoted in Amy McNair, The Upright Brush: Yan Zhenqing’s Calligraphy and Song Literati Politics (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1998), p. 141

    Yan’s refusal to entertain Li’s offer led to him being imprisoned in harsher conditions. Meanwhile, letters to the court by Yan’s friends and family asking for him to be ransomed were intercepted by Lu Qi. 

    In 785, Yan was hanged. 

    He was posthumously given the rank of Minister of Education and the title of ‘文忠’ (wén zhōng) – which translates literally as ‘culture/cultured loyal.

    Yan’s calligraphic style

    Along with Ouyang Xun (557 – 641 AD)Liu Gongquan (778 – 865 AD) and Zhao Mengfu (1254 – 1322 AD), Yan Zhenqing is known as one of the ‘four great masters of the regular script’ (楷书四大家 [kǎishū sì dàjiā]). 

    This is the most popular form of script in China today.

    He created at least 20 regular script masterpieces during his life. But he was also skilled in other styles, such as the running script (sometimes translated as ‘walking script’) and grass script. 

    Yan was an innovator whose style marked a distinct break from the popular style of the early-Tang dynasty.

    Before him, styles were generally seen to be thinner and harder-edged. But he introduced a more muscular and square style.

    His regular script is so distinct that it is also known as ‘Yan script’ (颜体 [Yǎn tǐ]). It served as a model for many of his predecessors, including during his life time and afterwards.

    书如其人

    The calligraphy reflects the man

    – Chinese saying

    Yan’s style is often described as reflecting his personality: upright, natural and powerful. Though it contains many corrections, it reflects a consistent and clear mind at work.

    One distinctive feature of Yan’s brushwork is his use of the semi-horizontal zhé (磔) brush stroke (sometimes called the ‘dismemberment’ or ‘axe’ stroke).

    His often had an interesting curved tip at it’s end. This is done using skilful timing and positing of the brush tip.

    What impresses many about Yan is that his calligraphic abilities got better as he got older. He is said to have practiced hard for many years before his talent blossomed.

    In the last ten years of his life (he was executed at age 76), he produced 10 masterpieces.

    The Song dynasty revival of Yan’s legacy

    Ouyang Xiu was the first prominent Song figure to promote Yan’s reputation. Ouyang’s influence on the subsequent generation of literati, such as:

    and others. 

    Yan’s influence on Song dynasty calligraphy was extremely strong. The only other comparable figures were Wang Xizhi (303 – 361 AD) and his son Wang Xianzhi (344 – 386 AD)

    Wang Xianzhi was particularly promoted by the early Song emperor Huizong (r. 1100 – 1126 AD). Huizong was a clearly a genuine lover of art and calligraphy, but he also used them as political tools to influence culture.

    Ultimately, Yan was popular because of the Confucian virtues his biography demonstrated. His calligraphy also served as a counterweight to Wang Xizhi’s for both aesthetic and political reasons.

    The aesthetic element was due to his characters being done with an upright brush. This helped create a sturdy, solemn impression for many of his pieces in regular and even running script. 

    Unlike Wang, Yan served in high office for a long time. So, politically, he was seen as more Confucian figure than Wang Xizhi.

    The particular virtues he exhibited were ones that officials (which many of the literati were) most identified with and most reaffirmed their importance.

    Requiem for my Nephew

    Yan Zhenqing’s Draft of a Requiem for my Nephew (祭姪文稿 [Jì zhì wéngǎo]) (sometimes translated as Requiem for my Nephew or Eulogy for a Nephew) was written in 758 AD, about midway through the An Lushan Rebellion.

    It details the life and death of his nephew Yan Jiming, who was killed by rebels in Changshan, western China.

    It is written in the ‘running’ or ‘semi-cursive’ style of Chinese calligraphy. It’s not known where the final version this piece is a draft of is.

    However, the fact that it is a draft adds some authenticity and interest to it. Yan’s many corrections remain clearly visible, so we gain insight into the great calligrapher’s working process.

    It has been compared to another running style script masterpiecePreface to the Orchid Pavilion by Wang Xizhi. Both pieces share a similarly fluent and strong style.

    Draft of a Requiem for my Nephew (758 AD) by Yan Zhenqing
    Draft of a Requiem for my Nephew (758 AD) by Yan Zhenqing, ink on hemp paper, running script. 28.3cm x 75.5cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei.

    Poem for General Pei

    Yan’s Poem for General Pei is a short piece of calligraphy (just 93 characters) that is probably Yan’s most experimental and innovative work.

    I say probably because it’s not completely certain that it was by him. However, there are good arguments for it being his work. And as with much of his own reputation, it centres around Confucian virtue.