Calligraphy and Seal Making
Calligraphy and Seal Making
Masters of Calligraphy. The Tang dynasty (618-907) required that its officials practice the art of calligraphy, and the study of calligraphy was one of the six disciplines in higher education. Ever since that time calligraphy has been considered a cultural symbol of China and a sign of an individual’s character and personality. Because Tang emperor Taizong (ruled 626-649) loved his adviser Wang Xizhi, the four best-known early Tang calligraphers—Yu Shinan (558-638), Ouyang Xun (557-641), Zhu Suiliang (596-659), and Xue Ji (649-713)—all followed Wang’s style. Ouyang Xun and two other calligraphers who learned from Wang Xizhi—Yan Zhenqing (709-785) and Liu Gongquan (778-865)—established the three schools of Tang calligraphy. They developed the new style of kaishu (normal script). Ouyang’s writing is stiff and vigorous, with open structure and strong strokes, showing the influence of the lishu (clerical script) style. Yan’s calligraphy is dignified and full, with thin, straight, and firm horizontal strokes and curving, thick vertical and diagonal strokes. His writing, which was called “The Second Calligraphy of the World,” is natural and unrestrained, with tight and majestic structure. In contrast, Liu absorbed the power of Yan’s calligraphy but invented a writing style that is lean, stiff, and stern. Zhang Xu (who flourished in the seventh and eighth centuries) and Huai Su (725-785) earned the nick-names “Lunatic Zhang” and “Crazy Su” because their caoshu (cursive script, grass writing, or rough writing) has been compared to scudding clouds, running water, violent thunderstorms, or lively music and dancing. During the Song dynasty (960-1279) Emperor Taizong (ruled 976-997) purchased the best-known calligraphy of past dynas-ties and had it printed in ten volumes. Most of this calligraphy was written by the “Two Wangs”—Wang Xizhi (321-379) and his son Wang Xianzhi (344-386). They dominated calligraphy during the Song period, except for the “Four Master Calligraphers of the Song Dynasty”: Cai Xiang (1012-1067), Su Shi (1037-1101), Huang Tingjian (1045-1105), and Mi Fei (1057-1107)-all of whom were unconventional. Cai’s writing is natural, steady and smooth, round and vigorous, harmonious and balanced. Su was a great author and painter, and his writing is artistic and flowing. He could write in several styles. His “grass writing” is characterized by its changing strokes: long and thin or short and thick. Huang’s calligraphy has been likened to the movement of an oar through waves: tight in the
middle and radiating outward at the ends of strokes. Mi was excellent at using a brush, and his writing has been described as running like a horse, fast and calm, shifting and powerful, with strong rhythms and clear structural features. The calligraphers of the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), including the great master Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322), all lacked creativity, trying to follow the style of Tang or Jin calligraphers rather than create new styles. Though he lacked originality, Zhao’s calligraphic skill was renowned. He could write in any style and with amazing speed. His writing is adept, smooth, graceful, and powerful, with a harmonious and natural structure. The only creative Yuanera calligrapher may have been Yang Weizhen (1296-1370), who was also a writer and known as the “Literary Ghost” for his fantastic fairy tales and stories of historical events. He was aloof from politics and material pursuits and loved nature. His writing is alternately tight and open, with varying thin and thick strokes, a modulating rhythm, and a surprising pattern. The calligraphy of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) is also conservative, an attempt to copy the calligraphy of past dynasties. The only truly creative Ming calligraphers were Song Ke (1327-1387), Zhu Yunming (1460-1526), Wen Zhenming (1470-1539), Xu Wei (1521-1593), and Dong Qichang (1555-1636), with their cursive script, which became more popular than zhuanshu (seal script) and lishu (official script).
Theories of Calligraphy. The study of calligraphy during the Tang dynasty was widespread. Of the many calligraphy books published during the era, the best are Shupu (Guide to Calligraphy) by Sun Guoting (648-703) and Shuduan (Analysis of Calligraphy) by Zhang Haiquan (seventh and eighth centuries). Zhang’s work introduced and analyzed the artistic features and historical evolution of ten calligraphic styles. Sun fully and profoundly expounded on the rules of calligraphy. During the Song dynasty Mi Fei, Su Shi, and Huang Tingjian all wrote influential books on calligraphic theory. Mi’s work was the most influential. For instance, he characterized the calligraphic styles of the “Four Masters” with four characters: le, miao, hua, shua. When they were writing, he believed, Cai was “carving” Huang was “tracing”; Su was “painting”; and he was “brushing.” The theory of Zhao Mengfu in the Yuan era was as influential and conservative as his calligraphy.
Seal Cutting. Seal cutting before the Tang era was more practical than artistic. Seal art was initiated by Emperor Taizong, who loved painting and calligraphy and ordered a craftsman to cut the characters Zhenguan (Emperor’s View) into a seal that was to be stamped on the paintings and calligraphic works he owned and appreciated. More-over, Prime Minister Li Mi engraved the name of his study room onto a seal, with thick and round lines appearing steady, ancient, and simple. As a result, the seal as a means of personal and official identification evolved into an artistic medium, as artists cut words into seals that had no practical use. Folk seal art developed in a natural and simple style characterized by “normal script” or “clerk script” characters, but the nine-line jiudiezhuan (multiple-line seal) of the upper classes revealed the negative impact of the disintegrating social and political system on art. The official seals of the Song dynasty still followed the multiple-line pattern, but the lines became thinner, softer, more numerous, and more complex. Meanwhile, the artistic development of the xianzhang (idle seal), which used the titles of studies, halls, buildings, or years, surpassed that of the official seal. The popularity of the idle seal has been partially attributed to the use of red seal ink. A red seal applied to a painting or calligraphic work enhanced its artistic effectiveness. The adaptation of tablet inscriptions (scripts carved into stone tablets) to seals challenged the style of the official nine-line seal. There also emerged a new seal called huayayin (sophisticated security seal), which turned a personal name into a mysterious symbol, or cipher, that was hard for others to recognize. The first systematic record of the seal in Chinese history, Xuanhe yinpu (Xuanhe Guide to the Seal), was published in 1119-1125 and greatly promoted the development of seal art. In 1341-1368 Wu Qiuyan published the first scholarly work on sigillography, Learning from the Ancients, which describes the evolution of calligraphic and seal arts and techniques and denounces the nine-line seal style. Meanwhile, instead of cutting seals into metal or ivory, cutters began engraving seals into softer and more colorful stones, ending the long-lasting division of labor between seal designer and seal cutter. Now an artist could design and cut a seal by himself. As a result, many literati were attracted to seal art, and seal cutting went from a craftsman’s job to an artist’s work. This change led to the further development of seal art. The yuanzhuwen (round and red seal script) invented by Zhao Mengfu during the Yuan dynasty was the first step in bringing calligraphic art to seal art. His yuanzhuwen had thin, vigorous, graceful, and flowing lines and varying compositions. By the Ming dynasty the rising “Seals of Flowering Schools” stood in sharp contrast to the “Ancient Seals” from before the Tang era. Wen Peng (1498-1573) created the School of Wu, the first school in seal art. His seal cutting shows the influence of an ancient style. It is steady, balanced, classic, and graceful. He Zheng (P-1605) absorbed various styles of ancient seal arts and tablet inscriptions and established the School of Wan (Anhui Province). He used several cutting methods to create seals that appear ancient, simple, and vigorous, with thick, heavy, and powerful lines, stiff turnings of characters, and a variety of structures. Wen and He were followed by a group of seal artists, including Su Xuan (1553- ?), Wang Guan (flourished 1600-1631), and Zhu Jian (circa 1570- ?). Zhu was not only a great seal artist but also an influential seal theorist. He spent fourteen years writing Yinpin (Seal Articles) and many other books on the subject.
Laurence Sickman and Alexander Soper, The Art and Architecture of China (New York: Penguin, 1984).
Michael Sullivan, The Arts of China, fourth edition, expanded and revised (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).
Wang Qisen, Zhongguo yishu tongshi (Jiangsu, China: Jiangsu Arts Press, 1999).