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Zhang Xu – ‘Crazy Zhang’

    Zhang Xu (ca. 675 – 759 AD) (pronounced ‘jang shoe’) is one of history’s great eccentric artists.

    Chinese poetry and calligraphy flourished like never before during his lifetime. Yet his innovation still stood out.

    And his ‘crazy cursive’ style of calligraphy is a great example of the art reflecting the artist’s character…

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


    Zhang Xu (张旭 [Zhāng Xù]) was born in Wu County (today’s Suzhou, Jiangsu Province) in 675 AD.

    His maternal great-grandfather was the celebrated calligrapher Yu Shinan (558 – 638 AD) who served as an official during the Chen, Sui and Tang dynasties.

    And one of his maternal great-uncles was another well-known calligrapher, Lu Jianzhi (585 – 638 AD).

    Zhang worked as a relatively lowly government official. This still meant appointment to various roles and locations, including:

    • In the imperial court in Chang’an (today’s Xi’an, Shaanxi Province), in the mansion of the Tang crown prince
    • In Shangjing (in today’s Heilongjiang Province)
    • At the level of wei (尉) (a rank approximate to county magistrate) for Changshu County

    The High Tang: The golden age of Chinese culture

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

    Much of Zhang’s life took place a golden age of Chinese culture. Today, it is often referred to as ‘the High Tang’ (盛唐period. 

    It is generally considered to have lasted between 712 and 755 AD (although exact dates vary according to different historians)

    Tang poetry is believed by many to have reached its zenith during this time. Poets Du Fu (712 – 770), Li Bai (701 – 762 AD), Wang Wei (699 – 759 AD), and others wrote at this time. 

    Many of their poems were compiled into the famous 300 Tang Poems during the Qing dynasty. One of Zhang’s own poems made it into this collection (see below, ‘Poetry’).

    Great painters also appeared, including Wu Daozi (680 – 740 AD) and Han Gan (706 – 783 AD). 

    And, of course, calligraphy. In fact, many art historians consider to be the pinnacle of development and innovation in Chinese calligraphy’s long history.

    Unfortunately, the An Lushan Rebellion (755 – 763 AD) ultimately ended this period. 

    This violent civil war brought profound carnage and change to the Tang society and state for decades afterwards. (Zhang likely died about halfway through it).

    Contact with fellow literati 

    Zhang knew many eminent High Tang cultural figures.

    During his time in office, he met fellow legendary calligrapher and cursive-script practitioner Yan Zhenqing (709 – 785 AD)

    Yan is said to have come to him for instruction on more than one occasion. 

    The first time, he left disappointed when Zhang simply told him to ‘learn from nature’… The second, he taught Yan.

    He also tutored the great seal script reviver and master Li Yangbing (721 or 722 – 777 AD).

    And he was friends with China’s two greatest poets, Li Bai and Du Fu.

    One of the ‘Eight Immortals of the Cup

    Detail from Ancient Sages and Poets by Du Jin
    Detail from Ancient Sages and Poets (Ming Dynasty) by Du Jin, handscroll, ink on paper, 108.2 x 28 cm. Palace Museum, Beijing. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Zhang’s contemporaries noted his eccentricity and love of drinking.

    He is remembered as being one of the Eight Immortals of the Cup – a term coined by Du Fu. 

    It describes a group of Tang dynasty intellectuals, including the poet Li Bai, known for their love of drink.

    [] 李白一斗诗百篇,
    Li Bai could compose one hundred poems when drunk.
    Drunk, he would fall asleep in Chang’an restaurants, and declined the emperor’s invitation. He called himself an immortal of drink.  

    Zhang Xu the Cursive Sage could write a book after three cups of wine. 
    He would take his hat off in front of princes and nobles, and wave his brush over paper
    [and words appeared] like floating clouds and rising smoke.

    – Extract from ‘Ode to the Eight Immortals of the Cup’《饮中八仙歌》by Du Fu (712 – 770)

    Zhang using his hair to write

    In the Tang dynasty, many Chinese elites had long hair, which they tied up above their head. 

    One story has it that when Zhang was drunk, he would dip the end of his hair in ink and use it to write calligraphy by energetically swinging his head about. 

    This earned him the nickname ‘Zhang Crown-of-the-head’ (张颠).

    A relative writes asking for money

    Another story has it that a relative (in some accounts it’s a neighbour) wrote to Zhang asking for money.

    Zhang answered by telling him to simply bring his (Zhang’s) letter of reply to any educated people. They would no doubt be willing to buy it for a high price.

    The persistent old man’s letter requests

    Whilst Zhang working as a county magistrate in Changshu, an illiterate old man asked him for help writing a petty legal complaint.

    Zhang helped him, but was surprised when the man kept re-appearing to ask for similar letters. 

    Eventually, a vexed Zhang confronted the old man about this, asking him if he really felt this was worth Zhang’s time.

    The old man instantly explained his true motivation. He told Zhang that his father had been a calligrapher and that he still loved to collect beautiful calligraphy.

    Gongsun Daniang

    Gongsun Daniang was a famous Tang dynasty dancer. 

    Her dancing is considered to be one of the ‘Three Wonders of the Tang Dynasty’ (大唐三绝), a phrase coined by the Wenzong Emperor (809 – 840 AD).

    The other two are Li Bai’s poetry, and Zhang Xu’s calligraphy.

    It’s said that Zhang style of calligraphy was inspired by her dancing. 

    The comparison of dancing to calligraphy has long been popular. In the 20th century, scholar Lin Yutang wrote in his biography of Su Dongpo:

    [Calligraphy] is like secretly tracing the artist’s movements from the first to the last stroke, reading a whole chapter like this is like watching a dance on paper.

    – Lin Yutang

    In the past, there was a beautiful woman named Gonsun, she would dance with a sword moving in all directions.
    The audience, numerous like mountain colours, watched in awe, as heaven and earth swayed.

    – Extract from ‘Watching Gongsun Daniang’s Brother’s Sword Dance’ 《观公孙大娘弟子舞剑器行》 by Du Fu

    Zhang Xu’s calligraphy

    Zhang is especially famous for his cursive (or grass) script calligraphy.

    Before Zhang Xu, there were a few figures particularly famous for their cursive script, including:

    Zhang admired and studied these three exponents of grass script. 

    His own style is often labelled ‘crazy cursive’ (狂草 [kuáungcǎo]). 

    Many experts say that it reflects the full force of his vigorous personality and moods. And that his compositions reflect a level of almost trance-like concentration.

    His most famous piece is the Four Ancient Poets Model

    However, it should be noted that the Qing dynasty Stone Drain Treasure Book (1816) (石渠宝笈) argued that this piece is a forgery.

    Zhang Xu’s poetry

    Forty of Zhang’s poems survived trials of time. No small feat considering the scale of destruction of the An Lushan Rebellion.

    One of them made it into perhaps the most popular collection of Chinese poems today: the 300 Tang Poems.

    The mountains are bathed in spring’s radiance.
    The dark clouds may be thin, but don’t plan on going home.
    Even though it’s clear and not raining, 
    The clouds that cover everything will soak your clothes.

    – ‘Guest in the Mountain’《山中留客》by Zhang Xu

    Zhang’s legacy

    Zhang had already been immortalised by his friends and contemporaries during his lifetime. So, his legacy as the ‘sage of grass script’ lived on until today.

    However, other factors contributed to his legacy. 

    For example, one his disciples, Wu Tong, taught another great name in grass script calligraphy’s history, the monk Huaisu (737 – 799 AD).

    Detail from Autobiographical Essay by Huaisu
    Detail from Autobiographical Essay (777) by Huaisu, ink on paper, cursive (/grass) script, 28.3 x 755cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum, Taipei)

    And later on. The Tang dynasty’s most celebrated essayist, Han Yu (769 – 824 AD), further cemented Zhang’s reputation:

    Zhang Xu excelled grass script calligraphy only.

    He would express everything in calligraphy – whether he was moved by joy, anger, distress, destitution, sorrow, delight, loathing, admiration, drunkenness, boredom, or injustice.

    And whatever he saw – mountains, streams, peaks, valleys, birds, animals, insects, fish, flora, fauna, the sun, the moon, the stars, wind, rain, floods, fire, lightening, song, dance, warfare – all of heaven and earth’s transformations, joyous or troublesome – all these he infused into his calligraphy.

       So, Zhang Xu’s calligraphy simmers with unfathomable ghosts and spirits. He worked this way until the end of his life and so his name lives on.

    – Han Yu, ‘Preface to Seeing off Monk Gaoxian’ 《送高闲上人序》

    Jiang Kui (c. 1155 – c. 1221)writing during the Southern Song period, noted that:

    Zhang ‘Crown of the Head’ and Huaisu are the most unconventional in their [cursive script] methodology, but they did not violate its rules.

    – Jiang Kui, Sequel to the ‘Treatise on Calligraphy’ (1208)