Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

The Engraved Model-Letters Compendia of the Song Dynasty

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

The Engraved Model-Letters Compendia of the Song Dynasty

Article excerpt

THE EARLY DEVELOPMENT of engraved calligraphy compendia in China is important as an instance of how histories of art are created and contested. It also illustrates how China's cultural and political elite used styles of art for purposes of propaganda. Yet no detailed history of the origins and development of engraved model-letters compendia (fatie) exists, to my knowledge, in any Asian or Western language. This paper is offered as a survey of the Song-dynasty engraved model-letters compendia, from their source in the classical tradition of the Six Dynasties and Tang periods, to the creation of the first compendium in 992, to the steadily increasing numbers of compendia created from 992 to the fall of the Song in 1279. Traced over a period of nearly 300 years, the contents of the compendia reveal the process of how histories of art evolve. Which calligraphers were chosen, which of their works were included, and what percentage of the compendium their work occupied are significant, as well as who the sponsors were and when they were published. An analysis of this information will show how the compendia embodied the political tensions between the scholar-official class and the throne during the Northern Song and how, in the Southern Song, the throne came to accept scholars' ideas about which calligraphers were important historically.



The stylistic lineage of Wang Xizhi (303-61) and his relatives and followers in the Northern and Southern Dynasties (317-589), Sui (581-618), and Tang (618-907) periods has been termed "the classical tradition" by scholars in the West. Imperial sponsorship was largely responsible for the dominant position this stylistic lineage has long enjoyed. Several influential rulers practiced Wang Xizhi's calligraphic style and engaged in discussions of the authenticity of his extant works, notably Emperor Ming of the Liu Song (r. 465-72), Emperor Wu of the Liang (r. 502-49), Emperor Yang of the Sui (r. 604-17), and Emperor Taizong of the Tang (r. 626-49).

The style of Wang Xizhi was part of the mantle of southern culture that Tang Taizong donned to help him unify the realm after his military conquest from the north. He studied calligraphy with Yu Shinan (558-638), who had himself studied with the Sui-dynasty monk Zhiyong, a seventh-generation descendant of Wang Xizhi. Taizong also attempted to gather all the extant works of Wang Xizhi into the palace collection. To get them, he confiscated the collections of his political enemies and sent out scouts to appraise and buy other works. In the notorious case of the Orchid Pavilion Preface (Lantingxu), he resorted to a cruel ruse to obtain it from an elderly monk. Soon after assuming the throne, he had amassed a large number of "authentic" pieces, from which various types of copies were made. One type was the tracing copies produced by the court calligraphers; another was the free-hand copies produced by his high officials, Yu Shinan, Ouyang Xun (557-641), and Chu Suiliang (596-658). The copies were distributed to court nobles, whose sons were instructed in calligraphy by Yu Shinan and Ouyang Xun at the palace school. When the official history of the Jin dynasty (265-420) was compiled, the emperor himself wrote an Imperial Postscript to the biography of Wang Xizhi, in which he declared Wang the greatest calligrapher of all time.(1)

Tang Taizong fixed the style of Wang Xizhi as the imperial signature with such finality that it was maintained as such through the Tang dynasty and beyond. While warfare wracked the central plains during the Five Dynasties period (907-60), the classical tradition of calligraphy was preserved at the courts of the Shu kingdom, the Southern Tang dynasty, and the kingdom of Wu Yue. As the armies of the Song dynasty conquered these states, their calligraphers and calligraphy collections gravitated to the Song capital. …

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