BLACK POPPIES  brush and ink on paper  28″ x 20″  1996

This is a short essay on Zhiyong, who was one of the great masters of Chinese calligraphy. He lived about CE 540 – 609. I am an admirer of the art of calligraphy, based on the forms of the Chinese characters and done with brush and black ink. I write here about one artist-calligrapher and the way he used his brush – something that can be of interest to any painter.

Zhiyong’s brush-line is sensuous, slow in cadence, and very sculptural.

His vertical strokes are often heavier and thicker than his horizontal lines, and sometimes very full and rounded – giving a weighted, almost over-ripe motif that runs through the entire composition. That is a reflection of the way he worked with his brush, achieved by pressing the brush down more on the vertical – and drawing a finer line on the horizontal. He was bold and original in his use of lu feng – which means “revealed” or exposed brush tip – a technique which describes the way, at the start of a brush stroke moving from left to right (or moving vertically from the top of the stroke downwards), he brings his brush tip down onto the paper and goes directly into executing the line, without any hesitation or reverse stroke of the brush at the start. His strokes begin with a sharp, almost knife-like cut and then becomes thicker and heaviier as the brush moves down or to the right.

The characters chuan (river) and liu (flow) in cursive script (left) and regular script (right), by the 7th century calligrapher Zhiyong.

This characteristic “revealed brush tip” of Zhiyong contrasts with what was then the more conventional technique, called hui feng or “concealed tip”. In the case of hui feng, at the moment of beginning a stroke the calligrapher makes a slight counter-move in the opposite direction, which has the effect of folding-over the hairs at the brush tip before they are drawn to the right. The technique of concealed brush tip creates a more rounded, heavier starting point in a brush mark. These are exceedingly fine differences in the methods of brush-handling. But that is the subtlety of this art. Zhiyong’s brush-strokes begin with a sharp, clean line. At the end of the stroke his lines are usually quite rounded and even plump, an effect that is achieved by almost lying down the brush on its side so that the oval stomach of the brush engages the paper.

There is a trace of archaic form in Zhiyong’s style. His diagonal, upper-left to lower-right strokes (the na stroke) flare out to a broad, rounded shape in the lower right – like a dragonfly’s wing. In this exaggerated broadening of the diagonal stroke, Zhiyong echoes earlier styles, especially the elegant clerical script with its blade-like strokes.

Zhiyong’s character huo (fire) in both cursive and regular script.

This pendulous diagonal was a feature of sutra script, a distinctive brush style of monk-calligraphers, most of them anonymous, who copied out the Buddhist scriptures translated from Sanscrit into Chinese. Collections of sutra script from the 3rd century and after have been found at Dunhuang and other Buddhist monastic sites in central Asia, along the trade routes from India to China. The archaic flavour in Zhiyong’s brush work reflects the fact that he worked at a transitional moment in the late 6th – early 7th century, a generation before the Tang court at the capital in Changan created an academy of scholarship that fashioned a more standardized calligraphic style.

Zhiyong was a minor official and Buddhist monk who lived between 540 and 609 at Changan – now the city of Xian – in the western interior of China. A period of political fragmentation was then coming to an end. The new Tang dynasty (CE 618-906) unified the empire, and soon expanded Chinese military domination into Central Asia. Buddhism from India, and trade and travel and Sanscrit texts, would create at the capital of Changan a cosmopolitan city with a population of a million people. With the accumulation of new wealth and new ideas, the second emperor of the Tang, Taizong (598-649) became a patron of learning and the arts.

Zhiyong left an exceptional work, famous in the history of calligraphy, which I found in a cheap printed reproduction in Vancouver long before I first travelled to China. It is called the “Thousand Character Essay” – the Qian Zi Wen. This composition consists of one thousand different characters, which Zhiyong executed in two versions, arranged in parallel columns. One version is in kaishu, or regular script. The other, set opposite the regular script, is a cursive or caoshu rendition of the essay

Zhiyong’s character a (exclamatory expression) in cursive and regular.

The original text of the Thousand Character essay was composed in the middle of the 6th century, when one thousand different characters were copied from a stone inscription of writing done by the 4th century master, Wang Xizhe. A new composition, incorporating the individual characters copied from the 4th century text but re-arranged to create a new work, was designed to have the appearance as if it had been written by the 4th century master himself. Later artists took the famous essay and re-worked it in their own style. Zhiyong’s version of the Thousand Character essay was therefore created from an existing work, which already had a convoluted history of copying. Zhiyong re-wrote it in his own style – although his style echoes in some ways the graceful brush-strokes of his 4th century predecessor.

Zhiyong is said to have brushed six hundred ink-on-paper original versions of the essay. Only a single paper original is said to have survived, and resides in a private collection in Japan – although part of the text is missing. A photographic copy of this paper original can be seen in books. The ink marks are clear, the visible touch of Zhiyong’s brush at the start of each stroke sharp and distinct.

Zhiyong’s ren (benevolence) and ci (kind/loving), again in cursive and regular.

A copy of his original work was engraved on stone. Multiple rubbings could be made from the stone image – like a kind of printing. In the city of Xian in western China in the grounds of the museum known as Beilin there is a tall, grey stone – higher than a man – engraved on its surface with Zhiyong’s Thousand Character Essay. I saw it when I visited Xian in 1996.

In many cases the finest works of calligraphy are known only through copies or ink rubbings. Techniques of copying were highly developed a thousand years ago. Even copies of copies may preserve to a remarkable degree the brush work of the lost originals. In some cases ink rubbings survive but the engraved stones have long been lost.

Chinese calligraphy is exemplary of how human experience in the deep past can be so directly transmitted to us – how the gesture, the touch of the artists’s hand a thousand years ago moves through one material form to another, brush to paper, then paper and cutting tools to stone, and from stone to paper.