Tang Dynasty (618 - 907)
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                             Tang Dynasty Territory

Emperor Tang Tai Zong, Lee Shi-Min


Chinese calligraphy reached the highest peaks both in the Jin and Tang Dynasties. When people talk about the Tang Dynasty as the golden age of Chinese culture, they praise calligraphy as one of the Tang's crowning achievements. In the Tang Dynasty the government set up academies for studying calligraphy. Calligraphy was used to evaluate a person and was considered as a way in selecting talents. There were six subjects in the National Academy and calligraphy was one of them. The whole society, from the emperors to ordinary people, treated calligraphy passionately. In the early Tang Dynasty, Tang Tai Zong ( ) loved Wang Hsi-Chih's calligraphy and spent money to buy out his works from the populace. Because of his favor, most calligraphers at that time studied Wang Hsi-Chih's styles. 


From the Wei and Jin to the South and North Dynasties, the popular scripts included Kai, Hsin, and Tsao Styles.  All calligraphy styles were widely seen in the Tang Dynasty. For example, Lee Yang-Bing was good at Zuan Shu which was rarer compared to other styles throughout Chinese dynasties. Calligraphers specializing in Tsao Shu included Zhang Shui, Huai Su, and Sun Guo-Ting. (Zhang Shui had instructed monk Huai Su. People often peered their achievements and referred them as “Mad Zhang & Crazy Monk ( 顛狂僧 )” for their unrestrained personalities and calligraphy styles.) As for Kai Shu, many calligraphers in the Tang Dynasty reached another peak after Wei Bei and set standards for generations to follow.  



There were also renowned Kai Style calligraphers like Yu Shi-Nan, Oh-Yang Sheun, Chu Sui-Liang and so on. In the mid-Tang period, Yen Jen-Ching made a drastic change from the elegant and slender strokes created by Wang Hsi-Chih, to a broad, muscular, and rigid ones. His works look solemn, dignified, and majestic. Another master, Liu Gong-Chuan, created a slim style compared to Yen’s yet still full of energy. Yen’s calligraphy was considered sinewy and Liu’s was considered bony.


As calligraphy became extremely popular in the Tang Dynasty, various calligraphy theories were published. Tang Tai Zong ( 太宗 ) pointed out that the essence and spirit were the soul of calligraphy and the mind was the muscle of each character. Oh-Yang Sheun explained The Eight Methods of The Character Yong ( 字八法 ). Yen Jen-Ching stated how his teacher Zhang Shui passed to him the secrets of using a brush. He also pointed out that the calligraphy should look like drawing on sand with an awl ( 劃沙 ) which has been the core of all Chinese calligraphy theories for centuries. Hsu Hao ( 徐浩 ) revealed the relationship between the bone and muscle of calligraphy. Zhang Huai-Guan's book Shu Duan ( ) included various topics in theories, history, and the developments of calligraphy styles. He enumerated ten different scripts throughout the history and elaborated the characteristics of each script. Another influential and important calligraphy theory was Sun Guo-Ting's Shu Pu ( ) written in Tsao Shu. He treatise addressed various issues and theories about calligraphy. Especially in inheriting existing techniques and creating new styles, he emphasized the importance of studying early calligraphy masterpieces and models but not being confined by them. 


Yen Jen-Ching & Tang Shuan Zong's Ode for the Wagtail



In 847, the famous scholar and connoisseur Zhang Yen-Yuan ( 張彥遠 ) completed ten volumes of Record of Famous Paintings of Successive Dynasties ( 歷代名畫記 ). In 849, Zhang published ten volumes of Catalog of Calligraphy Masterpieces ( 法書要錄 ). These monumental and encyclopedic compilations included historical developments, theories, essays, and criticism of calligraphy up to the year 820. In his preface to Catalog of Calligraphy Masterpieces, Zhang claimed that "readers who obtain these two books will possess all they need to know about Chinese painting and calligraphy."




Famous Calligraphers of the Tang Dynasty


Emperor Tang Tai Zong ( ) 599-649

Lee Shi-Min was not only a great warrior but also a great calligrapher. He deeply admired the art of the Calligrapher-Sage Wang Hsi-Chih and spent money to acquire every available work of Wang's he could find. It is said Tang Tai Zong dispatched a censor to acquire the original copy of Wang's Prologue to the Orchid Pavilion from a monk who owned it by improper means, and later buried it with him in his imperial tomb in 649.





Wang Hsi-Chih and the legend about Prologue to the Orchid Pavilion ( 蘭亭集序 )



A duplicated copy of Wang Hsi-Chih's Prologue to the Orchid Pavilion


Tang Tai Zong's Essay on a Jin Temple ( 晉祠銘 )





Yu Shi-Nan ( ) 558-638

Yu Shi-Nan was born during the rule of the Chen Dynasty. He learned the calligraphy of the monk Zhu Yong ( ), a seventh-generation descendent of the Calligrapher-Sage Wang Hsi-Chih, and thus is considered to be the direct lineage of Wang Hsi-Chih. His calligraphy displayed humble, mild and peaceful manner. 

Yu lived through the short Sui Dynasty and then served Emperor Tang Tai Zong until he passed away at eighty. After Yu's passing, Tang Tai Zong lamented the loss of this great scholar with whom he had enjoyed discussing calligraphy. Then the prime minister, Wei Zheng ( 魏徵 ), recommended a younger scholar-calligrapher, Chu Sui-Liang, to the emperor.


Commemorative Tablet on the Temple of Confucius







Oh-Yang Sheun ( ) 557-641

Oh-Yang Sheun was born in the Sui Dynasty and served at the Sui court as a top scholar. Later when the founder of the Tang Dynasty, General Lee Yuan, succeeded the last ruler of the Sui Dynasty, Oh-Yang was honored as a great scholar. He served under the Tang Dynasty as a censor and scholar at the Hong-Wen Academy ( 弘文館 ) where he also taught calligraphy. He was one of the principal contributors to the Compilation And Categorization of Literatures And Articles ( 藝文類聚 ). He was often considered the best Kai Shu calligrapher of the Tang Dynasty. His fame reached overseas as envoys to the Tang court from Korea came to acquire his calligraphy.

His disciplined and compact styles of writing marked the maturity of the Regular Script (i.e., Kai Shu.) The most characteristic aspect of Oh-Yang's calligraphy is precipitous ( 險勁 ) strokes and structures, which in turn, make it very difficult for most beginners to emulate his style because a minimal error or deviation will result in wide divergences in strokes, structures, and the overall look.

Oh-Yang left a number of masterpieces engraved on commemorative stone tablets and those works have remained to be excellent models for practice and emulation over 1,000 years. Their influences on later calligraphers are indisputable. Even the great calligrapher Yen Jen-Ching had studied Oh-Yang's styles diligently before he invented his style which later impacted greatly on Liu Gong-Chuan. Since then, most calligraphy students start learning Kai Shu by choosing either styles of Oh-Yang, Yen, or Liu. 



Buddhist Heart Sutra attributed to Oh-Yang Sheun





Chu Sui-Liang ( 遂良 ) 596-659

Chu Sui-Liang studied Yu Shi-Nan's calligraphy first. Later, he studied works by Zhong Yao and Wang Hsi-Chih. They say Tang Tai Zong collected many Wang Hsi-Chih's works but no one could tell which one was real or forgery except Chu Sui-Liang. 

In his later years, Zu created a very sensitive style which the critics described as a frail lady who appeared unable to bear the weight of her own silk garments. In essence, those slender brushstrokes indeed require delicate and subtle strength during writing and later inspired Sung Hui Zong in developing his Skinny Golden Style ( 金體 ).







Lee Yong ( ) 678-747

Lee Yong studied Wang Hsi-Chih's Hsin Style earlier. He coherently blended the informal Hsin Shu with the formal Kai Shu. As his calligraphy was so frequently requested for commemorative stone tablets, the poet Du Fu wrote that Lee's stelae "shone over the four corners of the nation." Lee Yong's famous saying was: "Anyone whose calligraphy looks like mine is vulgar; anyone who learns from my calligraphy is lifeless."

LeeYong1.jpg (984224 bytes)





Wu Ze Tien ( 武則天 ) 623-705

Wu Ze Tien was the only empress in Chinese history. “Birds” were encrypted in her Fei Bai Style writing. Fei (flying) Bai (white) is not a unique form of the five major styles of Chinese calligraphy. It's a style with special effects created by using a flat brush without the sharp brush tip. (When Tsai Yong saw people painting at the Hong Du Gate, he was inspired and invented the Fei Bai Style. They say Oh-Yang Sheun was also good at this style.)





Zhong Shao-Jing ( 鐘紹京 ) ?-?

Zhong's calligraphy was so frequently requested that almost all horizontal boards and signs of famous palaces and buildings were inscribed by him during the time of Empress Wu Ze Tian. 

Buddhist scriptures written in small-scale characters by Zhong Shao-Jing





Lu Jian-Chih ( 陸柬之 ) 585-638

Lu Jian-Chih was a nephew of Yu Shi-Nan. He studied his uncle’s calligraphy earlier, then he changed to the Two Wangs ( 二王 ).





Sun Guo-Ting ( 過庭 ) 648?-703?

Sun Guo-Ting was a true follower of Wang Hsi-Chih's style. He was a famous calligrapher in Tsao Style and a theoretician. His Preface to the Treatise on Calligraphy ( 書譜序 ) is an eternal masterpiece written in cursive style.






Zhang Shui ( 張旭 ) ?-?

As the originator of Wild Cursive Style ( 狂草 ) and a nonconformist in spirit, Zhang Shui acted altogether against convention, earning the name "Crazy Zhang." While intoxicated, he was inspired and would proceed to create his wonderful cursive calligraphy in front of the dignitaries. Besides Zhang Chih of the Han Dynasty, Zhang Shui also won the title “Sage of Tsao Shu ( 草聖 ).” Emperor Tang Wen Zong regarded Zhang Shui's cursive script together with Lee Bai's poem and Pei Ming's sword playing as the three exquisite talents of the Tang Dynasty. According to Zhang Yen-Yuan, Zhang Shui taught the methodologies of calligraphy brushstrokes to Wu Dao-Zhi ( 吳道子 ), the "Sage of Painting ( 畫聖 )."

A work attributed to Zhang Shui


ZhangShui1.jpg (788059 bytes)

Four Old Poems attributed to Zhang Shui


Buddhist Heart Sutra attributed to Zhang Shui









Tang Shuan Zong ( 唐玄宗 ) 685-762

Emperor Tang Shuan Zong was a brilliant military leader and talented artist. He was also a consummate calligrapher, as evidenced by the wild spirit of his forceful yet graceful calligraphy.

TangShuanZong.jpg (555396 bytes)

Ode for the Wagtail





Lee Yang-Bing ( 李陽冰 ) ?-?

Lee Yang-Bing specialized in Zuan Style with extremely slender strokes. He considered his Zuan Shu only after the Prime Minister Lee Si ( 李斯 ) of the Chin Dynasty. 





Yen Jen-Ching ( 真卿 ) 709-785

General Yen Jen-Ching studied Chu Sui-Liang's calligraphy earlier. Later, he became a disciple of Zhang Shui. He abandoned the existing rules of the earlier Tang Dynasty and created a brand new style. He is considered one of the most innovative and influential calligraphers in Chinese history after Wang Hsi-Chih.

YenJenChing1.jpg (468666 bytes)    YenJenChing2.jpg (23776 bytes)    YenJenChing3.jpg (181657 bytes)





Hsu Hao ( 徐浩 ) 703-782

Hsu Hao and Yen Jen-Ching were contemporaries and friends and respected each other. People described his calligraphy as a thirsty horse galloping toward a river. His work showed his mild, humble, and honesty personality.






Lee Bai (

Probably the most famous Chinese poet, Lee Bai was also a good sword player and calligrapher.





Huai Su ( 懷素 ) 725-785 or 735?-800?

Known as the Drunken Monk, Huai Su also enjoyed wine as his teacher Zhang Shui did. His calligraphy was like snakes and dragons racing, resembling strong wind, a turbulent storm or lighting and thundering. His Tsao Shu was peered with Zhang Shui’s.


The extant masterpiece of Huai Su's Autobiography written in Tsao Style was attributed to Huai Su. His cursive script was similar in spirit to his free and unrestrained personality. Huai Su's calligraphy was therefore greatly admired by famous contemporaries, poets, and other calligraphers. In 777, Huai Su transcribed some of these gifts with a preface in Wild Cursive Script to his famous Huai Su's Autobiography. The long scroll of calligraphy extant today was presumed to be written by Huai Su or someone who copied his original work. In this work, the artist used a fine brush to write larger characters. The strokes are rounded and dashing, almost as if they were steel wires curled and bent. The tip of the brush is exposed where it is lifted from the paper, leaving a distinctive hook - hence the description "silver hooks and steel strokes" for his calligraphy. A continuous cursive force permeates the entire piece. The brush skirts up, down, left, and right as it speeds across the paper. With the crescendo and accelerando of the brush motion, viewers may imagine the brush as if it were a sword, or an arrow, or a group of music notes, revealing varying speeds and feelings. The calligraphy appears heavy and light in different sections. This work appears very much like a symphony with distinct rhythms, harmonies and movements where the instruments are all wonderfully orchestrated for an overall sense of feeling and depth. In addition to the strokes, the dots suggest breaks for the flowing strokes. In the relentless force of the brushwork, the centered brush swirled and danced to create character after character and line after line, only to be punctuated by the impeccably placed dots. Despite this piece being Wild Cursive Script, it also shows patterns of regularity. Many Westerners have witnessed this awesome work of Chinese cursive style and are deeply impressed.





Liu Gong-Chuan ( 柳公權 ) 778-865

Liu Gong-Chuan combined the elegant and angular strokes of Oh-Yang Sheun's style with the fullness and weight of Yen Jen-Ching's style to create his own Kai Shu style, which demonstrates structure, discipline, and clarity. It is said that his Kai Style calligraphy became so famous that if there were any officers who did not ask him to write for their family steles they were considered not showing filial piety. In reply to the emperor's inquiry about the best way to use the brush, Liu advised that "An upright heart makes for an upright brush," pointing out that our brushwork always reflects our personality - and implying that it is possible to improve both!

LiuGongChuan1.jpg (63213 bytes) 






Famous Calligraphers of the Five Dynasties


Yang Ning-Shi ( 楊凝式 ) 873-954

As a highly regarded calligrapher for his brushwork, Yang Ning-Shi was also nicknamed the "Eccentric Yang” for his eccentric behavior. Huang Ting-Jian was deeply impressed when he witnessed his works at the temples in Luo Yang ( 洛陽 ). Yang's calligraphy and Wu Dao-Shuan’s painting were the two talents of Luo Yang.



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