Six Dynasties Calligraphy

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The Tradition of the Two Wangs


Some of the most famous calligraphers in all of Chinese history lived during the Six Dynasties period. At this time a wide appreciation for expressive writing styles also led to the first collecting and cataloguing of examples of the writings of individual calligraphers, even though some of these were merely fragments of personal correspondence preserved by chance.


Wang Xizhi (307?-365? AD) was the foremost among the calligraphers of the Eastern Jin period, and is revered today as the Sage of Calligraphy. He is best known for writings in cursive and running scripts. (Running script is a close variation of the standard script which features connections between individual characters and slightly abbreviated forms). Although his calligraphy was valued and collected from early on, few original works survive, and those that do are letters and notes. Because even as early as Tang times authentic handwritten examples of Wang Xizhi's calligraphy were rare, copies circulated, both legitimate reproductions and forgeries.


In which script type do you think the example below is written?

Wang Xizhi (Eastern Jin), Note accompanying a gift of oranges                                                              source



Wang Xizhi (Eastern Jin),  Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Manuscript, dated 353 AD (detail)                                                                source

Wang Xizhi's most famous work was the Preface to the Orchid Pavilion manuscript. In 353 AD, one year before his official retirement, Wang invited forty individuals to pass the Purification Rites festival with him at a famous pavilion in the Guiji area (modern day Zhejiang province) where he was serving as governor.  A poetry contest was held alongside a stream, down which cups of wine were floated; anyone of the forty-two in attendance who could not finish his composition by the time the cup arrived would have to pay the forfeit and drink. This gathering soon achieved legendary status, and references to it occur throughout the poetry and painting of later eras.


The handwriting of the preface that Wang Xizhi wrote to accompany the poems collected from this event is praised for its spontaneity, lively rhythmic energy, and variation. The internal construction of his characters and his overall use of space is also highly admired.


During this period, the theory that a reader could see qualities of the man behind the brush arose. 


Looking at the above example of Wang Xizhi's work, how do you think his personality might have been described?




As you look at each character, draw an imaginary box around it. What is the overall shape of the character? Do the components hold together along a central axis, or do they tend to "pull apart"? Can you find any inconsistencies in the way Wang Xizhi wrote similar characters or individual strokes?


Do you think this piece of writing was done methodically and carefully, or executed quickly?  How can you tell?




Wang Xizhi's seventh son, Wang Xianzhi, was also renowned as a calligrapher. In his own time, his reputation even eclipsed that of his father. By the end of the Six Dynasties period, however, Wang Xizhi was reinstated as China's foremost calligrapher, displaying what was considered to be the most classical and sophisticated style. Look at the example below of Wang Xianzhi's calligraphy and pay special attention to the way in which individual words are spaced. 


Can you identify a characteristic in Wang Xianzhi's writing that does not occur in that of his father?


Wang Xianzhi (Eastern Jin), Letter about a duck's head pill             source



Compare these two letters below, the one on the left written by Wang Xizhi and the one on the right by Wang Xianzhi. How many distinguishing features can you identify?

Wang Xizhi, On the Seventeenth (letter)  source

Wang Xianzhi, On the Twelfth (letter)  source


During the Six Dynasties period, calligraphy became an art form closely associated with the literate elite. Many members of the aristocratic class were like the Wang family, who had fled the political turbulence of the north and established new private estates in the south. The political and cultural center of the Southern Dynasties was situated in Jiankang (present-day Nanjing). The educated man developed his individual writing style as a means to express his inner self and to distinguish himself socially. The factors thought to contribute most to the maturation of a good calligrapher were his natural ability, a literary background, family connections, and exposure to a variety of written models, as the only way to master calligraphy was through practicing the major styles, basing innovations firmly on previous examples.



Because of the political division of north and south during the Six Dynasties period, a very different type of calligraphy flourished in the north. Almost all examples that exist today come in the form of memorial writings on stone tablets or steles. 


What script type is used in this example of a memorial stele?

Inscription on a memorial stele, Northern Wei dynasty     source


What qualities of this writing style do you think people considered especially apt for this particular purpose?

Buddhist sutra engraved on Mount Tai, detail                           source


During this period as well, important texts like the Confucian Classics and the Buddhist canon were engraved on the rock faces of sacred mountains like Mount Tai. Colossal in size, these writings make use of highly simplified character shapes.


What do you think were the benefits of sponsoring such a project? Who would possess the resources and authority to do so?


Throughout the Six Dynasties period, educated individuals practiced calligraphy in the style of the two Wangs. Compare the following cursive script example by Wang Zhi, a later generation Wang-style  calligrapher, with the letters of Wang Xizhi and Wang Xianzhi that we have compared above.


Which of the two Wangs do you think had the most influence on this particular calligrapher? Why?

Wang Zhi (Southern Qi), Letter beginning "One day, without spirit..."  source  





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