Engraved Calligraphy in China: Recension and Reception

By McNair, Amy | The Art Bulletin, March 1995 | Go to article overview

Engraved Calligraphy in China: Recension and Reception


McNair, Amy, The Art Bulletin


Since the Later Han dynasty (25-220), ink-written calligraphy has been seen as an expression of the writer's personality.(1) As a result of this equation of personality and style, traditional Chinese criticism has focused on the biography of the artist and the aesthetic appreciation of the artist's hand. These conventional concerns endure in the scholarship on Chinese calligraphy in the West, perhaps because much of it deals with ink-written calligraphy in public and private collections.(2) Understandably, museums and collectors have an interest in the idea of the unique autograph that can be explained in terms of the artist's biography or appreciated for its qualities of gesture and touch. In order to comprehend the history of Chinese calligraphy in its fullest scope, however, the role of stone-engraved calligraphy cannot be ignored. Engraved calligraphy has been produced since at least the fourth century B.C., in tremendous quantities. Stone steles, inscribed with epitaphs, didactic texts, or temple dedications, were displayed for public notice. Beginning in the tenth century, famous works of calligraphy in palace and private collections were copied and engraved in stone. The ink rubbings taken from the engravings were appreciated not for content but for their ability to convey calligraphers' styles. With the passage of time, original ink-written works and good early copies grew increasingly rare, so that the thousands of ink rubbings taken from stone engravings became the principal vehicle of transmission of the old masters' styles. Today, most of the canonical works of calligraphy from the first through the tenth centuries have come down to us only in the form of ink rubbings.

Not only did engravings play a vital role in the perpetuation of calligraphic styles, they also deserve our attention for another reason: they allow us to take a different line of inquiry about calligraphy. Much early engraved calligraphy is anonymous, so that we cannot see the artist in his work, while what represents the work of a known artist is not the original trace of his hand, so that we cannot marvel at his way with the brush. Once these traditional concerns are negated, we are free to pursue new questions. What has been the physical life of the work of art? What has been its critical life? Works of engraved calligraphy can reveal how the lives of art objects are shaped by artists, patrons, connoisseurs, and scholars through the historical processes of recension and reception. In many cases, works of calligraphy were physically altered through copying, engraving, revising, and reengraving, while the manner in which they were critically received often changed radically over time, even for original engravings that remained untouched. Neither the textual integrity nor the aesthetic significance of works of engraved calligraphy was ultimately "set in stone."

Recension in the Model-Letters Tradition

The two principal schools of engraved calligraphy are the model-letters tradition (tiepai), which arose in the tenth century, and the stele tradition (beipai), which has existed since at least the fourth century B.C. The model-letters tradition refers to the practice of engraving brief examples of personal handwriting, usually letters, into stone slabs. Some particularly celebrated letters were engraved singly, while others were gathered into multivolume compendia of many artists' work. Ink rubbings were taken from the stones and given as official tokens of merit (in the case of imperial compendia) or as gifts for study or collection (in the case of privately sponsored compendia). The letters collected in these compendia were all written by people who occupied the highest levels of society: the great majority are by men who were government officials or members of the imperial family. While a few are by women or Buddhist monks from elite families, there are none by professional calligraphers or eunuchs. The costly engraving projects were invariably sponsored by officials or the throne.

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