The copying of sutras, the sacred texts of Buddhism and Daoism, was an act of devotion as well as a means of propagating the faith. It required a special brush, paper of a conventional size with a vertical grid, and the use of the strictest, most formal script. This hallowed fragment of a Daoist religious text meets all of those requirements yet has an elegance and fluency that elevate it beyond normal sutra writing.
Commissioned in 738 by Princess Yuzhen, a daughter of Emperor Xuanzong (r. 712–56), this writing exemplifies the sophisticated court style of the High Tang period. The small script is balanced and harmonious, with every hook, stroke, and dot perfectly defined and executed. Applied with a stiff, long-pointed brush, each stroke shows clean, crisp movements and graceful, saber-sharp turns. Individual characters are straight, upright, and firmly built, with a rectangular frame of supports and walls. The construction of the characters reveals an analytical process: different types of brushstrokes are seen as forces (shi) in a dynamic composition, each having a perfect form and a “method” (fa) of interacting with the other strokes; each character, with its elegant, carefully considered deployment of those forces, exemplifies a model of physical equilibrium and spiritual repose.
In the early seventeenth century, this sutra was acquired by the influential painter, calligrapher, and theorist Dong Qichang (1555–1636), who regarded it as one of the finest extant examples of Tang-dynasty small writing. Dong reluctantly lent the sutra to a Mr. Chen for inclusion in a set of rubbings of model calligraphies, the Bohai cangzhen, but held back twelve columns for safekeeping. Dong was justified in his apprehension; the surviving forty-three columns that we celebrate today are those that were removed from the sutra by the unscrupulous Mr. Chen.
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