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Zhiyong: The Hardworking Calligrapher-Monk

    Zhiyong (6th century AD) was a calligrapher and Buddhist monk.

    He is said to have been one of the hardest working calligraphers ever.

    So hard-working that he would regularly fill baskets withs stacks of his worn-down brushes. He even buried these in a ‘Tomb for Retired Brushes’.

    And he is said to have copied out the One Thousand Character Classic 800 times in two different scripts.

    Family background and early life

    Zhiyong (智永 [Zhìyǒng]) is believed to have been born in Kuaiji (today’s Shaoxing in Zhejiang Province) at some point in the middle of the sixth century AD.

    He was a seventh generation descendent of the most celebrated calligrapher in Chinese history: Wang Xizhi (303 – 361 AD)

    Zhiyong’s line came from Wang’s fifth son, so his surname was Wang, too. However, he is usually referred to as just Zhiyong. His brother, Zhikai, was also a celebrated calligrapher.

    During the Sui dynasty, he moved to the capital city of Chang’an (today’s Xi’an). Already a Buddhist monk, he joined the Ximing Monastery there.

    The Sui dynasty (581 – 618 AD)

    The Sui dynasty only lasted 37 years (/two emperor’s reigns).

    However, it was a pivotal point in Chinese history. It was the first time China had been unified in nearly 300 years.

    It also laid the foundations for the Tang dynasty (618 – 905 AD), which is still seen as one of the greatest – if not the greatest – dynasties in Chinese history.

    The Sui dynasty left the Tang with a great foundation for prosperity. They completed the first section of the Grand Canal, which would transform China’s economy.

    However, the also Sui pushed for change and territorial expansion too hard, which ultimately led to their downfall.

    Zhiyong’s influence on contemporary calligraphy

    Zhiyong was well-placed to influence the development of calligraphy. 

    The unification of China under the Sui meant culture could spread further and quicker across the empire.

    Zhiyong helped to synthesise the styles of his Wang Xizhi and his seventh son, Wang Xianzhi (344 – 386 AD) (who has long been held in almost as high regard as his father).

    Detail from Chunhua Original Model Books by Wang Xianzhi
    Detail from Chunhua Original Model Books by Wang Xianzhi, cursive script, Song dynasty ink rubbing. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    This had an enormous impact on subsequent Tang dynasty calligraphy, perhaps the most important era of development in the art’s history.

    One of the calligraphers he most influenced was his fellow Sui Dynasty official Yu Shinan (558 – 638 AD). Yu would go on to be a high official during the Tang and set the standard for a regular script.

    Draft of the Epitaph for Princess Ru’nan 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)

    Yu’s relationship with the first tang emperor, Taizong (598 – 649 AD) also contributed calligraphy’s development. The emperor used his authority to heavily promote the work of Wang Xizhi.

    The result was a distinct Tang style that was influenced by but different from the two Wangs. It was described well by in a Song dynasty treatise on calligraphy:

    Ouyang Xun, Yu Shinan, Yan Zhenqing, Liu Gongquan all learned from one another. Tang calligraphers executed calligraphy fit strict dimensions. They did not revive the free style of the Wei and Jin dynasties.

    Sequel to ‘Treatise on Calligraphy’ (1208) by Jiang Kui

    Zhiyong’s calligraphy style

    Zhiyong’s style carried the hallmark of Tang dynasty’s calligraphy: elegant but compact and balanced characters.

    Writing about 500 years later, perhaps the greatest Song dynasty calligrapher and poet Su Shi (1037 – 1101 AD) wrote that Zhiyong’s desire to preserve the calligraphic styles of his family held him back from innovation.

    He also stated Zhiyong’s style was deliberately terse and aloof.

    However, many others have more given Zhiyong more unreserved praise. Dou Ji, a tang dynasty calligraphy scholar, praised Zhiyong’s style and delared it a model for all.

    Sayings related to Zhiyong

    A number of sayings are said to have their origins with Zhiyong.

    • 铁门限 (tiě mén xiàn): Word for word, this translates as ‘metal door threshold’. One of its meanings is to pursue something to its limits. It relates to Tang dynasty writings that claimed so much admiring traffic passed through Zhiyong’s temple doors that the floor there had to be reinforced with metal.
    • 退笔冢 (tuí bǐ zhǒng): This can be directly translated as ‘retired brush grave/mound’. It’s a reference to Zhiyong’s habit of burying his worn-down brushes. So, today it is shorthand for hardworking calligraphic practice.

    Zhiyong’s copy of the Thousand Character Classic

    Detail from Zhiyong's version of the Thousand Character Classic in regular and running scripts.
    Detail from Zhiyong’s version of the Thousand Character Classic in regular and running scripts. (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

    The Thousand Character Classic (千字文 [Qiānzí Wén) is an early sixth century poem by Zhou Xingsi (470 – 521 AD). 

    It has been used as a primer for children to learn Chinese characters for centuries. This is because: 

    • It is made up of one thousand characters, none of which is repeated
    • Its lines are well-written and rhyme
    • It covers important themes related to Chinese culture and civilisation

    Zhiyong is said to have copied it out 800 times in both regular and cursive script.

    He did this in characters made to resemble Wang Xizhi’s calligraphy. And then he distributed copies to monasteries across eastern China.

    Today, the only surviving ink copy of this work is held in Japan (above). And a stele (a stone monument) from the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 AD) period exists in Xi’an, China.