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Zhang Zhi – The Grass Script Sage

    Zhang Zhi is one of only few calligraphers are credited with creating a whole new form of the art.

    As the likely creator of the earliest form of grass script (also known as cursive script), Zhang is remembered as the ‘Grass Sage’.

    Unfortunately, no original copies of his pieces exist today. However, his influence other his peers, successors, and the art of calligraphy in general, is profound.

    Family background and early life

    A Walled Compound with a Watchtower Tomb mural in Anping, Hebei Province from the year 176 AD

    Zhang Zhi (张芝 [Zhāng Zhī]) (literary name 伯英 [Bó Yīng]) (? – c. 192 AD). was born in early part of the Han dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD), in today’s Yuanquan, Gansu Province. The precise year of his birth is unknown.

    He was born into a well-known family. His paternal grandfather, Zhang Dunzeng, served as the Chief of Hanyang County (in today’s Hubei Privince).  

    And his father, Zhang Huan, was one of the ‘three brights of Liangzhou’ (凉州三明 [Liángzhōu sān míng]) – outstanding military leaders from Liangzhou in Gansu Province.

    Zhang received a good education and was known to be upright. Despite this, he didn’t manage to pass the imperial exams. Some believe this explains why he worked so hard at calligraphy.

    Fanatical about practicing calligraphy as a boy

    It’s said that Zhang was obsessed with practicing calligraphy as a boy. He often did this with his brother, too.

    One perhaps apocryphal story is that Zhang’s father hired a craftsman to build a stone table and inkstone for them beside a pond. (I have seen a similar story mentioned elsewhere about Wang Xizhi).

    The brothers would practice here and then wash their brushes and inkstones in the pond. They did this so much that the pond turned black. This gave birth to the Chinese phrase, ‘to be at the pond’ (临池 [línchí]), which means ‘to practice calligraphy’.

    Today, exact location of the pond is claimed to be in the old town of Shanzhou district, Sanmenxia city, Henan Province. It is a popular tourist destination. 

    Another apocryphal story is that Zhang would have to boil the silk he practiced writing on to clean it (paper wasn’t invented yet; silk and bamboo were used). And he would often try and think of ways to repair his brushes, which were in constant use.

    Later life and career

    Very little is known about Zhang’s life and career. This might be, at least in part, due to him not obtaining an official post.

    Some later commentators mentioned that he had at least two sons, one of whom was himself a talented calligrapher.

    It is known, however, that he died in 192 AD.

    Zhang Zhi’s Legacy

    section from rubbing of the Eight Day of the Eight Month by Zhang Zhi
    Section from a copy of the Eight Day of the Eight Month by Zhang Zhi

    Still remembered today

    Not long after Zhang’s lifetime, the great Wang Xizhi remarked that he felt he (Wang) would never surpass Zhang’s cursive style.

    Many centuries later, the Song dynasty poet and calligrapher Su Dongpo lamented:

    I heard that a principle of calligraphy in the past was: it’s better to have some defects in your calligraphy that to write too fast.
    Today’s calligraphy is too arrogant, people always emphasise standing out from the crowd;
    Zhong [Yao – inventor of regular script] and Zhang have already been forgotten, I’m afraid this viewpoint is out of date.

    – Su Dongpo

    But he was wrong on his final point! Over 900 years after he wrote these lines, people are still discussing both Zhong and Zhang!

    The ‘Grass Sage’

    He was given the nickname ‘Grass Sage‘ (草圣 [Cǎo Shèng]) by the Wei dynasty calligrapher Wei Dan (179 – 253 AD).

    Today, Zhang Zhi and the Tang dynasty calligrapher Zhang Xu (creator of today’s cursive script) are the two most well-known cursive script calligraphers.

    One of the Four Sages of Calligraphy

    The Four Sages of Calligraphy (四贤 [sì xián]) is a list ancient calligraphers said to have excelled the most at art form. Aside from Zhang, the others are Zhong Yao, Wang Xizhi (‘the Sage of Calligraphy’) and his son Wang Xianzhi.

    Zhang Zhi’s Zhangcao style of calligraphy

    Zhang is famous for the zhangcao (章草 [zhāngcǎo]) style of calligraphy. The ‘zhang’ (章 [zhāng]) here – which means ‘chapter’ or ‘section’ – is not the same character as Zhang’s name (张 [Zhāng]).

    This script is seen as a transitional form between what today is called clerical script and today’s cursive script.

    The clerical script it was based on was used across the empire for official communications (and for artistic calligraphy). Clerical script is an imposing but beautiful style of formal Chinese. It requires careful, detailed production within strict proscribed dimensions and stroke orders.

    Zhang’s cursive script was not only useful because it could be written quicker. It also enabled the writer to fit characters on narrower spaces. After all, a lot of characters were written on thin bamboo or wooden strips at the time.

    ‘To busy to write cursive script’

    In Chinese, the the phrase ‘too busy to write cursive script‘ (匆匆不暇草书 [cōngcōng bùxiá cǎoshū]) is a reference to Zhang’s work.

    It is meant to reflect the amount of concentration needed to write cursive script. This in turn reflects the ideal essence of cursive script: it is done quickly but purposefully and with care.

    Examples of Zhang Zhi’s calligraphy

    As with many calligraphers from his era and later, no original copies of Zhang’s calligraphy survive today. Given the time and materials used for calligraphy in Zhang’s day, this should not be a surprise.

    How we do have copies of his work. These were often traced and versions that were copied. So, it’s accepted that they must be at least slightly inferior to the original versions.

    Photo of Champion Model by calligrapher Zhang Zhi
    Champion Model by Zhang Zhi
    Detail from Champion Model by Zhang Zhi
    Detail from Champion Model by Zhang Zhi