Individualist Styles

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Individualism became an important strain in painting, calligraphy, and poetry during the middle to later years of the Tang dynasty.† As the central political sphere declined, there was an upsurge in localized unorthodox creative activity which seemed to stand outside all previous traditions. Daoist painters got drunk and painted with their hair or dragged each other across the paperís surface, and their Chan counterparts sought similar release from societal constraints in calligraphy through the use of a new style of writing aptly named "wild cursive."† The moral and civic value attached to modeling oneself on the great early Tang masters of the standard script from Taizong's court was still recognized, but the new emphasis on individuality, the spontaneous, and the uninhibited marked a profound shift in calligraphic practice from an ultimately conservative tradition to one that favored self-expression and change.


As court calligraphers throughout the Tang period were engaged in setting and maintaining a standard for elegant writing in the Wang tradition, the actual forms of calligraphy championed by the court became increasingly conventionalized and stagnant.  Wild cursive, a radically modified version of the draft cursive script of the Han dynasty, can be seen as a reaction against the atrophied writing styles of later Wang tradition calligraphers.†



Zhang Xu (active 710-750 AD) was said to be the originator of the wild cursive script.† He enjoyed considerable fame in his own day, and is counted among the Tang poet Du Fuís "Eight Drunken Immortals."


Although wild cursive seems to break radically from all past traditions, Zhang Xu did base his writing style on one of the more prominent earlier calligraphers.† It is believed that he was further influenced by the Daoist practice of automatic writing in sand.


Zhang Xu's calligraphic style is widely praised, especially by later scholars, yet one of the by-products of his style is a pronounced deformation of word structures.†


Of the calligraphers presented in this unit, whom do you think Zhang Xu took as his primary model?What seems to be a salient feature of this writing style, judging from the small sample at left?


Zhang Xu (active 710-750), Four Letters on ancient poems, written in wild cursive script, detail                                                   source


What philosophical traditions in China might have valued extreme unconventionality more than placing oneself clearly within an established tradition or school?




Below is a larger section of the detail of the letter shown above.Can you recognize characters that you've seen before? Can you tell where the brush must have changed speed or received great pressure?How many people do you think would be able to read this letter?


Zhang Xu (active 710-750), Four Letters on ancient poems, written in wild cursive script, detail                                   source

The example at left is also Zhang Xu's calligraphy. Compare this sample with the two of Zhang Xu's wild cursive shown above.† 




In what script type is this written?  Does it resemble the style of any of the early Tang court calligraphers?


How do you think each of these two writing samples was executed?What factors do think account for the differences in appearance?† 


What made the running and draft scripts more attractive for writers and collectors alike than standard script?†† †

Zhang Xu, Preface to the Lang guan shi ji (641 AD), detail   source

Zhang Xu was also the teacher/model of two calligraphers of the following generation who were revered for their unorthodox and highly individualistic styles.The monk Huaisu (735?-800? AD, example shown below) was a man of letters; also known as the "Drunken Monk," he followed Zhang Xu's wild cursive mode of writing.In one of the extant examples of his calligraphy, Huaisu complains about eating bitter bamboo shoots, and also admits his unbounded passion for liquor and fish.The sample of Huaisu's writing below is an autobiographical essay that includes comments on his own study of calligraphy.


What kind of impression of the calligrapherís personality or temperament does the example below give you? Is this a carefully composed piece of writing?

What religious or philosophical traditions do you think had the most formative impact on this mode of writing?

Huaisu (735? - 800? AD), Autobiographical Essay                              source

Yan Zhenqing (709-785 AD) was a leading figure among loyalists to the Tang throne during the politically turbulent eighth century.He was a dedicated and brilliant military figure who suffered great personal loss at the hands of aspirants to the throne yet remained unswerving in his loyalty to the legitimate ruling house.† 

Because of his reputation as a staunchly moral and principled individual, Yan Zhenqing's forceful and majestic individual style assumed the heroic proportions of his own life. One of the requisite techniques of Chinese calligraphy is maintaining the brush's upright position in order to transfer more directly and powerfully the flow of energy from hand to paper.From Yan Zhenqing's time forward, saying someone wrote with an "upright brush" carried an especially strong tone of moral approbation.His calligraphy was particularly influential among literati of the Northern Song, including Su Dongpo and Huang Tingjian.


Evaluative writings on calligraphy often equate the structure ("architecture") and line quality of the written word with the physical human self.Some examples are criticized for being too "fleshy" while lacking in bone structure.How do you think Yan Zhenqing's regular script calligraphy would be portrayed in these terms?Why do you think this type of analogy was considered appropriate? 


Yan Zhenqing (709-785 AD), Memorial inscription (745 AD)        source

Compare details from Yan Zhenqing's regular script inscriptions (examples below right) with two examples from the more orthodox court tradition that favored the elegance and ease of Wang Xizhi style calligraphy, represented by Chu Suiliang from the time of Taizong (below, top left) and Li Yong, the foremost Wang tradition calligrapher of the first half of the eighth century (below, bottom left).


Where can you identify similarities in the shape and angularity of brush strokes?


Which brush strokes seem to have been made with the most force or pressure?


Do you think a particular example stands out in terms of presenting a forceful or distinct personality?Why or why not?† 




Is Yan Zhenqing's handwriting easily distinguishable from other examples you've looked at throughout this unit?What would you identify as its most distinctive quality? 



Yan Zhenqing (709-785 AD), 

Encomium inscription (771 AD), detail                     source

Chu Suiliang (596-658 AD), Meng 

Fashi memorial inscription (642 AD), detail                        source 



Li Yong (678-747 AD), Memorial to General Li Sixun (720 AD), detail                source

Yan Zhenqing (709-785 AD), Encomium inscription (771 AD), detail                          source


Although the majority of calligraphers during the Tang period made their most distinctive contributions to the development of a mature standard or regular script, the cursive script type would in time be the most favored for its ability to express the individual calligrapher's aesthetic preferences and inner character.


Compare these two examples of cursive script, one by Huaisu (left) and the other by Yan Zhenqing (below).


Do either of these seem to be a more intentionally aesthetic object?Why or why not?



Huaisu (735? Ė 800? AD), Autobiographical Essay, detail           source



The content of the letter written by Yan Zhenqing, left, recounts the political  circumstances under which his nephew was executed. 


Yan Zhenqing (709-785 AD), Lament for a nephew (letter), detail    source


Although it is riddled with mistakes and corrections, this example of Yan Zhenqing's writing has been especially valued by connoisseurs. 


What qualities do you think might make this more attractive than a polished, well-executed piece of calligraphy?

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