Religious Writings

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Cao Fashou, with others. Northern Wei sutra copy of the Avatamsaka sutra, detail             source


Religious calligraphy continued to be of great importance during the Tang.  Until the widespread use of printing in China after the Tang dynasty, religious texts were copied by hand. Buddhist texts in particular were copied in great numbers by monks or by individuals. Copies of the entire Buddhist canon were undertaken by imperial decree, and often the work of many individual calligraphers went into the completion of various sutra texts, which could be quite long. When sutra texts were commissioned, it was common practice to have the most talented calligraphers do the first and last scrolls, with the work parceled out to other scribes in between.


How could making or commissioning a handwritten copy of a Buddhist sutra benefit an individual?



What special requirements do you think the copying of a religious text would demand?



The brush used for sutra copying was different in shape from a regular calligraphy brush, with a much shorter tip.

Do you notice a difference in the overall shape of the characters when compared with the secular writings in this unit? What do you think might account for this difference?

Decorative refinements, such as the use of specially made papers and gold or silver inks, were employed in the copying of religious texts, but rarely occur in secular examples.


What attitudes toward different types of writings might account for this difference?


Who do you think might have commissioned this sutra copy?



Tang dynasty Sutra, in gold ink on blue paper  source

Shi Weize, Da zhi zhan shi memorial (736 AD), detail      source

Tang dynasty Sutra copy, detail  source


Compare the two examples of calligraphy above. The sample on the left is a secular memorial inscription and is executed in the clerical script.


Do you see any similarities in style or shape of characters? If so, what do you think might account for the similarities?




Move on to Individualist Styles