Exhibitions/ The Embodied Image

The Embodied Image: Chinese Calligraphy from the John B. Elliott Collection

September 15 / 2000–January 7 / 2001
Exhibitions are free with Museum admission.

Exhibition Overview

The most important and comprehensive display of calligraphy ever assembled in the West, this exhibition brings together some one hundred works of art from the two principal collections of Chinese calligraphy in the United States. More than fifty-five masterworks from the John B. Elliott Collection of the Princeton Art Museum at Princeton University—perhaps the finest such collection outside Asia—are integrated with a number of similar masterpieces from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, most notably from the John M. Crawford Jr. Collection, and loans from six private collections. Spanning the period from the fourth century to the modern era, the exhibition explores the stylistic range and individuality of many of the leading artists of the last one thousand years.

In China, calligraphy is regarded as the quintessential visual art, ranking above painting as the most important vehicle for individual expression. By the fourth century, writing had become a fine art in China, and earlier scribal styles were transformed into highly regarded instruments of personal articulation. After a brief review of the evolution of the principal script types—from the first writings engraved on "oracle bones" beginning in the late fourteenth century B.C., to the perfection of standard script in the seventh century A.D.—and an extraordinary survey of the varied writing styles attributed to the fourth-century "calligraphic sage" Wang Xizhi, the exhibition presents a chronological survey of the immensely varied personal interpretations of these script types that flourished from the eleventh to the twentieth century on hanging scrolls, handscrolls, and album leaves.


The exhibition was organized by The Art Museum, Princeton University.

The exhibition was made possible by the Publications Committee of the Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University, the National Endowment for the Arts, The Henry Luce Foundation, Inc., The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Martha Sutherland Cheng, the Joint Committee on Chinese Studies of the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Social Sciences Research Council; and anonymous donors.

Written Chinese evolved through five basic script types: seal script, the earliest historical script form, which appeared in the Shang dynasty (ca. 1600–1050 B.C.); clerical script, a standardized scribal form of writing with a brush that evolved under the Han dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220); running script and cursive script, both representing increasingly abbreviated forms of the standard character forms; and standard script, the modern form of Chinese writing that achieved its first fully realized form in the seventh century, during the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907). All of these scripts continue to be practiced today.

According to Chinese tradition, the key figure in the transformation of writing into art was Wang Xizhi (303–361). It is likely that not a single autograph work by Wang survives today—instead, his style is preserved in a wide variety of later copies. The Elliott Collection boasts an exceedingly rare tracing copy of a letter by Wang, known as Ritual to Pray for Good Harvest, that probably dates to the seventh century, when the Tang dynasty emperor Taizong (r. 626–49) declared Wang's style to be the orthodox paradigm. Later dynasties, following this precedent, used official patronage of Wang's style as a means of political legitimation by identifying the court with scholarly orthodoxy. The exhibition illustrates such patronage with a group of rubbings of Wang Xizhi's writings. The earliest and rarest examples, on loan from the Robert H. Ellsworth Collection, came from an imperially commissioned compendium of model calligraphies engraved in 992, at the outset of the Song dynasty (960–1279).

As a result of civil service examinations that placed a premium on the command of literature, history, and calligraphy, the Song dynasty witnessed the emergence of a new meritocracy of scholar-officials as a potent cultural force. Wary of the court's attempt to codify writing styles and critical of the declining standards in calligraphy caused by the proliferation of inferior copies of model texts, a small circle of leading scholars championed spontaneity and self-expression through highly personal brush styles that captured "a picture of the mind."

One of the most innovative calligraphers in this circle was the noted poet Huang Tingjian (1045–1105), and two of his masterpieces are featured in the exhibition. Biographies of Lian Po and Lin Xiangru, from the Crawford Collection, was written about 1095, shortly after Huang was exiled to Sichuan, and is one of the artist's two surviving masterworks of "wild cursive" writing. The handscroll, which measures nearly sixty feet in length and contains some 1700 characters, transcribes a first-century B.C. account of the rivalry of two court officials; it may well reflect Huang's feeling that his banishment was the result of someone's personal malice. Huang was still living in exile in 1100 when he wrote Scroll for Zhang Datong for his nephew. Now in the Elliott Collection, the scroll preserves one of the most powerful examples of Huang's large-scale running script, in which daringly asymmetrical characters pulse with energy from Huang's tightly-grasped brush.

Huang's friend, the renowned connoisseur and collector Mi Fu (1052–1107), steeped himself in the tradition of calligraphy and eventually became the most sophisticated and brilliantly inventive calligrapher of his time. Mi's Three Letters from the Elliott Collection, datable to 1093–94, illustrate the grace and complexity of his running script in his favorite format—intimate personal correspondence. Each letter expresses a different mood, and in each case the content has shaped the writing. Mi's desire to reflect his emotions in his writing is epitomized by Poem Written in a Boat on the Wu River of about 1100 from the Crawford Collection. Written with ecstatic abandon, this masterpiece of cursive writing gives a vivid sense of the drama described in Mi's poem through changes in brushline, character size, and ink tone.

After the conquest of northern China by the Jurchen in 1127, the rulers of the so-called Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279) sought to assert their legitimacy through an active program of artistic patronage. Emperor Gaozong (r. 1127–62), the first Southern Song ruler, consciously adopted a style of calligraphy derived from that of Wang Xizhi as a means of promoting his own orthodoxy. Six examples of imperial calligraphy in the exhibition—by Gaozong, Empress Yang Meizi (1162–1232), and Emperor Lizong (r. 1225–64)—illustrate how Gaozong's new writing style established a precedent that was followed by subsequent Song rulers as well as by other members of the court. These imperial writings, all done in the intimate format of the album leaf or oval fan, show a certain suave elegance but, according to the late Song calligrapher Zhao Mengjian (1199–before 1267), represented in the exhibition by a handscroll from the Crawford Collection, they lacked a solid structural framework of "supports and walls." This weakness was not remedied until the next generation, when Zhao Mengjian's relative, Zhao Mengfu, reinvigorated writing with a creative revival of antique styles.

In 1279, the Southern Song dynasty fell to the Mongols, who had earlier founded the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368). Disenfranchised by early Mongol rulers and living in enforced retirement, members of southern China's scholarly elite rejected the artistic styles of the fallen dynasty as degenerate and sought moral and aesthetic renewal through a return to earlier traditions. This was the artistic revolution led by Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322), who undertook a comprehensive study of earlier styles. Drawing on the structural principles of Tang dynasty calligraphy, Zhao created a new form of standard script that rapidly became the model for calligraphy throughout China, which went so far as to inspire a new typeface for woodblock-printed books.

In no other period has the work of a single calligrapher so dominated the practice of this art. Zhao's achievement is epitomized by his monumental Record of the Miaoyan Monastery (c. 1309–10) in the Elliott Collection. In this work Zhao succeeded in renewing the debased tradition of Wang Xizhi by synthesizing features from various Tang dynasty models into a single coherent style. Zhao's equally profound influence in running and cursive scripts is illustrated in the exhibition by three of his other works, as well as by related works by members of his family and his immediate followers.

Zhao's friend Xianyu Shu (1246–1302) grew up in north China, but moved south to Hangzhou after the Mongol reunification. Continuing to practice the bold, spontaneous calligraphic style inherited from such early Song literati masters as Huang Tingjian and Mi Fu, his writing had a profoundly liberating influence on Zhao's art. Like Zhao, he is represented in the exhibition by four works, which date from 1299 to 1301.

The overthrow of the Mongols in 1368 and the establishment of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) marked a return to native Chinese rule. Early Ming emperors revived imperial sponsorship of the arts as part of a broader program of political legitimation through cultural restoration. By the early fifteenth century, a succession of talented calligraphers at court, especially Song Ke (1327–1387) and the brothers Shen Du (1357–1434) and Shen Can (1379–1453), had successfully systematized Zhao Mengfu's complex standard script, creating an exacting "chancellery style" that became the model for all government documents as well as for all students who aspired to government office. The complex layers of tradition interwoven in this style are suggested by Song Ke's Thirteen Colophons to the Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Gathering, done in 1370, two years after the Ming dynasty was founded. The handscroll, on loan from a private collection for this exhibition, shows Song's creative response to a text that Zhao Mengfu composed in 1310 as he studied a rubbing of Wang Xizhi's most famous calligraphic work. In this handscroll, Song displays his mastery of four distinct scripts: standard, running, draft cursive, and modern cursive.

With the waning of imperial patronage during the late fifteenth century, innovations in calligraphy shifted to cultural centers in the south. In the first half of the sixteenth century the arts of painting and calligraphy were dominated by a tight-knit group of scholar-artists living in Suzhou. Rebelling against the constrictions of the court chancellery style, these artists revived the individualistic manner of the early Song masters. Large-character poems by Wen Zhengming (1470–1559) in the Elliott and Crawford collections recall the monumental running-script of Huang Tingjian, while a handscroll in "wild cursive" script by Zhu Yunming (1461–1527) in the Elliott Collection goes beyond Song models in its free-wheeling manner of execution. Breaking down the spatial integrity of characters within columns, Zhu creates an abstract field of lines and dots that recall the skeinlike drip paintings of Jackson Pollock. Zhu's characters disintegrate before our eyes, pulled apart by an irresistible centripetal force. As characters part and scatter, the distinction between image and ground, between the spaces within characters and the spaces surrounding them, are blurred.

Toward the end of the sixteenth century, Dong Qichang (1555–1636), a native of Songjiang (near modern day Shanghai) came to dominate the theory and practice of calligraphy. Disparaging the achievements of calligraphers in nearby Suzhou, Dong stressed the need to study the works of Wang Xizhi and Tang dynasty masters. In Poem Commemorating an Imperially Bestowed Feast of 1632, for example, Dong follows the monumental style of the Tang master Yan Zhenqing (709–785). Other writers who sought to achieve a monumental style at this time were Zhang Ruitu (1570?–1641) and Mi Wanzhong (active ca. 1595–after 1631), both of whom worked in the Ming capital.

Paradoxically, the late Ming interest in antique models led to a great diversity of experimental styles that placed a premium on idiosyncrasy and strangeness. Wang Duo (1592–1652) dedicated his career to copying works by Wang Xizhi, as in his Calligraphy after Wang Xizhi of 1643 from the Elliott Collection, but his re-creations of early models completely reconfigure them. Unlike Wang Duo, Fu Shan (1607–1684) refused to serve the Manchus after their conquest of the Ming in 1644, expressing his opposition of the new Manchu Qing dynasty (1644­–1911) through the rejection of the refined, orthodox style of calligraphy promoted by the Manchu court. Preferring his calligraphy be "awkward and not skillful; ugly, not charming; deformed, not slippery; spontaneous, not premeditated," Fu used eccentrically archaistic characters and obscure alternate forms that distorted classical models. Fu's spectacular twelve-panel poem entitled Frank Words of Farewell for Wei Yi'ao of 1657 in the collection of H. Christopher Luce was a farewell gift for Fu's friend. The text, which describes how Wei Yi'ao preferred wine to official duties, implies that Wei indulged his taste for drink as a form of political protest. The eccentric style of Fu's calligraphy, which combines regular, running, seal, and clerical elements in a wild cursive style, reinforces the themes of drunkenness and defiant individuality.

While the early Qing emperors greatly admired the calligraphy of Dong Qichang, which became the semi-official style of government documents, a variety of eccentric styles were practiced by artists such as Gao Fenghan (1682–ca. 1747) and Jin Nong (1687–1764) working in the southern commercial center of Yangzhou. Jin Nong's Appreciating Bamboo, written in a blocky form of clerical script, reflects the ongoing interest in stone inscriptions as an alternative to the Wang Xizhi tradition.

During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, scholars seeking more reliable models of antique writing meticulously collected and studied ancient inscriptions recovered from stone monuments and bronzes. Seal script, in particular, enjoyed a major revival at this time, as exemplified by the works of Qian Dian (1741–1806), Wu Dacheng (1835–1902), and Wu Changshi (1844–1927), all of which were represented by loans from the Luce Collection. The exhibition ends with a series of monumental writings in couplets and a group of letters—two distinct forms that emphasize calligraphy's dual role as a public art, suitable for embellishing architectural spaces or stone monuments, and as a private art, capable of conveying the most personal qualities of the writer.