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Yu Shinan – The Man of Five Merits

    Yu Shinan (558 – 638 AD) served the Chen, Sui, and Tang dynasties.

    He is an important figure in the history of Chinese calligraphy.

    The Tang dynasty Taizong Emperor, himself a keen calligrapher, greatly admired Yu’s work and character.

    Yu Shinan’s life and career

    Yu Shinan (虞世南 [Yú Shìnán]), courtesy name 伯施 [Bó Shī], was born in Yuezhao (today, Guanhaiwei, Zhejiang Province).

    He was born durin the late Southern and Northern dynasties (420 – 581 AD) period, lived through the short-lived Sui dynasty (581 – 618 AD) and died in the early Tang dynasty (618 – 907 AD).

    His father was Yu Li (虞荔 [Yú Lì]) was the son of a Southern dynasty crown Prince and a concubine. So, the Yu’s were a part of the ruling elite’s aristocracy.

    And his brother Yu Shiji (虞世基 [Yú Shìjī]) was a Sui and later Tang dynasty official who was put to death by palace coup-leaders in 618 AD.

    Yu had wanted to take his brother’s place, but wasn’t able to. (The coup ringleader was himself killed the following year).

    During Yu’s life, his class – the elites – were generally martial aristocrats. So, it wasn’t unusual that Yu went on to work as an official and a general throughout his life. 

    Before this, he would have received a typical Confucian education that emphasises the Chinese classics.

    The early Tang dynasty

    Today, the Tang dynasty (618 – 907 AD) is remembered as one of – if not the most – culturally successful dynasties in Chinese history. An large number of great calligraphers, poets, and painters emerged from this time.

    It reached its height during the High Tang period (712 – 765 AD), which came several decades after Yu’s death. However, Yu’s calligraphy and poetry significantly contributed to the later era’s flourishing.

    One of his poems made the 300 Tang Poems, a famous collection of Tang poems collated in the Qing dynasty.

    垂綏饮清露,
    流响出疏桐。
    居高声自远,
    非是藉秋风。
    A cicada extends its head to drink fresh dew,
    whilst continuously rattling from its branch.
    Its noise carries off into the distance, 
    Not aided along the way by the autumn winds.

    – ‘Cicada’ by Yu Shinan

    Yu’s friendship with the Taizong Emporer

    The Taizong Emporer (598 – 649 AD) was one of the most successful and cultured emperors in Chinese history. 

    A keen calligrapher and poet himself, he both worked with and discussed both political and artistic matters with Yu Shinan.

    It’s said that no matter what the issue, Yu was unfailingly honest with Taizong.

    One story has it that he persuaded Taizong to give a relative a simple funeral to save on expenses. Another that he advised Taizong not to publish a poem he (Taizong) had written.

    The five merits of Yu Shinan

    Taizong famously complimented Yu Shinan as being a man with five wonders (五绝 [Wǔ Jué]). He said Yu possesed:

    • Morality
    • Loyalty
    • Erudition
    • Literary talent
    • Excellent calligraphy

    Yu Shinan’s calligraphy

    Yu was known for his skill in the regular (or standard) calligraphy script and the running (or semi-cursive) script, too.

    Not many original versions of his work survive. But the ones that do demonstrate both his original style and range.

    Zhang Huaiguan, the Tang dynasty calligraphy critic, noted that Yu had absorbed the ‘grandeur’ of Wang Xizhi’s style. And that it was at once firm and flexible.

    Zhang also compared Yu and Yu’s contemporary, the great calligrapher Ouyang Xun. The two had taught together at the Institute for the Advancement of Literature.

    Ouyang’s style, Zhang said, was like a brave general who made bold moves into the enemy’s territory. But Yu’s style was more like a protocol official who would rarely make mistakes.

    Yu’s style therefore, he said, was superior because of how refined and restrained it was.

    Examples of Yu Shinan’s calligraphy

    Stele Dedicated to Confucius’ Temple

    Yu’s Stele Dedicated to Confucius Temple (孔子庙堂碑 [Kǒngzǐ miàotáng bēi]) was created in 626 AD.

    A stele (occasionally called a stela) is a stone monument slab. And a rubbing (a form of tracing) of the monument is a way to capture the original characters.

    The only known rubbing of a stele by Yu Shinan is based on a monument that disappeared shortly after. Today, a copy based on a Song-dynasty copy of it has been created in Xi’an.

    The original stele had 35 rows of 64 standard script characters in each column.

    Princess Ru Nan’s Epitaph

    The Draft of the Epitaph for Princess Ru’nan (汝南公主墓志高 [Rǔ nán gōngzhǔ mùzhì gāo]) was written for the Taizong Emperor’s third daughter, who passed away young.

    It commemorates the princess, praising her intelligence and reflecting on the sadness of her passing.

    It has 222 characters arranged in 18 lines of running script.

    Draft of the Epitaph for Princess Ru'nan (636 AD) by Yu Shinan
    Draft of the Epitaph for Princess Ru’nan (636 AD) by Yu Shinan, ink on paper, running script, 26.3 x 39.5CM. Shanghai Museum. (Image source: Alamy)