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From China, Strokes of Genius That Unified a Nation

A New York exhibition chronicles the history of calligraphy as a political, cultural and personal art.

October 29, 2000|SCARLET CHENG | Scarlet Cheng is a regular contributor to Calendar

NEW YORK — The highest form of art in the eyes of Chinese traditionalists is possibly the most intimidating to Westerners: calligraphy, the art of writing with a brush. "The Embodied Image: Chinese Calligraphy From the John B. Elliott Collection" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York traces the development of calligraphy, using more than 110 examples from the most lauded practitioners of two millenniums.

This is, according to the museum, "the most comprehensive exhibition of its kind ever assembled in the West."

The show's title is a bit misleading, for it combines, for the first time, two of the finest collections of Chinese calligraphy in the country--indeed, according to Michael K. Hearn, Met curator of Chinese art, outside China itself. The exhibition consists of the Princeton University collection, donated by Elliott, and that of the Met, which includes many works donated by John M. Crawford Jr. Elliott and Crawford, two American businessmen, found both the sublime and the collectible in Chinese art, especially since they started amassing their collections when such works were both available and affordable. To tell the story properly, the Met borrowed an additional 20 pieces from private collectors.

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The earliest evidence of a Chinese writing system dates from the Shang dynasty (BC 1600-1100) in the form of "oracle bones"--tortoise shells upon which questions to the gods were incised. (The Met has one on display.) Politically and culturally, writing would become the mighty unifier of a far-flung nation in which dialects were often unintelligible to those from different regions--a situation that exists to this day.

Most scholars agree that by the early Six Dynasties (222-589), calligraphy was regarded as an art form, particularly by aristocrats of southern China. Key to this development was the idea that calligraphy reflected the writer's mind and personality--that the path of ink on paper, with all its slashes, turns and jabs, was an expression of his qi, or life spirit.

To begin to unravel the long history of Chinese calligraphy, the work of one man, Wang Xizhi (303-361), and his subsequent rise and fall in the shifting standards of calligraphic art, provides a paradigm. Even his personal life, in which he was said to be indifferent to official life, was to become a role model for future literati--often retired or ejected civil servants who turned to tending gardens and working in their study as a retreat or a form of veiled protest against the establishment (since unveiled protest generally resulted in torture and death).

By the Tang dynasty (618-907), when script styles were being codified, Wang was considered a master, apotheosized by the Emperor Taizong (who reigned from 626 to 649), who had amassed most of his known works. One scholar compiled a list of the existing opus--14 categorized as "standard script," a blocky style considered the baseline of styles to this day (and adapted to printed text), 360 as "running script," the freer style used in general handwriting. Three other major styles well-educated Chinese can usually read are the Seal Script, the Clerical Script and the Cursive Script.

The supreme irony is that there is no extant work of Wang's left. What does exist are copies of his writings, or copies of copies, either made through tracings from originals (now lost) or through carved stone stele. The show includes seven tracings and stone rubbings, including the prized "Ritual to Pray for Good Harvest"--two lines of calligraphy copied, presumably from an original, during the Tang dynasty. Although written rapidly, says art historian Robert E. Harrist Jr., one of the curators of the original, smaller show at Princeton University, the "brush strokes are carefully formed and create a sense of disciplined energy flowing down the page."

Mounted on a hand scroll, this treasure passed over the centuries through noted hands, including those of two celebrated emperors who lived 600 years apart. The Sung Emperor Huizong (whose reign was from 1100 to 1126) and the Qing Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795) were among those who affixed their own seals and inscriptions around the holy text. (Huizong himself invented one of the most celebrated original styles in Chinese calligraphy--a thin, elegant script with jaunty serifs--so rare there is not an example of it in the show.)

Art connoisseur Qianlong, palpably eager to identify himself with a revered tradition, went so far as to add his own calligraphy to the left and right of Wang's script. In one reproduction of Wang's text, he had the two lines adjusted so they would be the same length. "In an effort to create a new orthodoxy," says Hearn, "he completely showed his ignorance of the true appreciation of calligraphy. That was often the case--the tension between the individual and individualistic expression in China and the imperial orthodoxy really marked one of the ongoing dynamics that we're able to map in this exhibition."

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