Famous calligraphers in Chinese history.

By Fei Gao on Jun 06, 2022

1.Huai Su 怀素

Huai Su was a bonze of Tang Dynasty, but incredibly artistically talented. He’s famous as “The Saint of Cursive Calligraphy 草圣”.

(Extract from A Biographical Note 自叙帖 by Huai Su, done in either 776 or 777 AD.)

2. Zhang Xu 张旭

Another highly regarded calligrapher who was equally famous as Huai Su. Interestingly, he was also crowned as “The Saint of Cursive Calligraphy 草圣” so there might have been a little disharmony… Nevertheless, he was, according to historical materials, also a dipsomaniac. It was said that he would start writing after he was drunk with his hair dipped into ink, and he himself would be amazed by his “drunk work” after he sobered up.

(Extract from rubbings of Zhang Xu’s cursive calligraphic work A Note of Collywobbles 肚痛帖.)

3. Li Bai 李白

If you’re familiar with Chinese literature or poetry, this name may not be new to you. Li Bai was one of the greatest poets in Chinese history, known as “The Celestial Poet 诗仙”. But his calligraphic talent was no less outstanding.

(A Note up Yangtai 上阳台帖 by Li Bai, done in744 AD.)

Of course, there’re much more to say about Tang, but again this has already been a very long answer so far so I prefer to skip those less significant parts.

Coming into the Song Dynasty when Chinese fine arts, along with literature, calligraphy and eduacation, had reached another zenith, the concept of discipline and accentuation on chirographic techniques started to diminish, and the aesthestic standard had shifted its focus from skills to imageries and artistic conceptions. Thus no more disciplined calligraphic works like ones of Tang, now it’s the new, liberal and free era of art! More creative and innovative elements were added into calligraphic styles in the Song Dynasty, making the spectrum wider and wider. The title “Big Four of Song 宋四家” (you may notice that Chinese people looooove to give titles to famous guys) refers to four most outstanding and influtential calligraphers of Song, but for the sake of wordiness reduction, I only put here the most well-known one.

4. Su Shi 苏轼

Being probably the most well-known peot of Song Dynasty, this guy was equally superb in calligraphy. His calligraphy was presented with extraordinarily strong individuality and personality, mostly related to his bumpy life. So there was a great change in his artistc style between earlier works and later works of his. It contains a childlike and imaginative individuality.

(A Note at Cold Food Festival 寒食帖 by Su Shi, known as “The Thrid Best Walking Script Work in the World”… alright I’ve got nothing to say about this title.)

(Former Chibi Fu 前赤壁赋 by Su Shi.)

(Latter Chibi Fu 后赤壁赋 by Su Shi.)

Art in Song Dynasty was in such prosperity that not only scholar-like chirographers, but even military generals can be skilled calligraphers as well. Yue Fei 岳飞, the highly respected and regarded national hero and general in Song Dynasty, was also admired for calligraphic achievements:

(Rubbings of “Return Us Our Homeland” 还我河山 plaque.)

(Rubbings of “Serving Our Nation with All My Loyalty” 尽忠报国 plaque.)

In spite of all of above, the most shining part in Song’s calligraphic achievements was the creation of the Slender Gold 瘦金体, an extraordinarily and marvellously innovative style. By a simile, the Slender Gold had cut off all the flesh of the strokes, yet still pulling the character upright, forceful and stable. More intriguingly, the Slender Gold was invented by Zhao Ji 赵佶, a complete failure as an emperor who failed to organise any forms of defense against Jin’s (a nordic nomadic country) assault at the capital and had himself captured by his enemies. Nonetheless, the Slender Gold has got the royalty and majesty of an emperor in it, so it’s very difficult to master.

(Zhao Ji’s work in Slender Gold.)

Sadly, the Song Dynasty was at last taken by the Mongols. In Yuan Dynasty, despite being ruled by the Mongols, the developments of Chinese calligraphy didn’t stop but kept moving forwards. A phenomenal calligrapher of Yuan was Zhao Mengfu 赵孟頫, who was a direct descendant from royal family of Song Empire. Zhao Mengfu founded his own characteristic calligraphic style known as Zhao Style 赵体, which is remarked by some people as the paragon of the splendours of former calligraphic achievements and is thus extremely hard for its learners to attain mastery.

(Wuxing Fu 吴兴赋 by Zhao Mengfu.)

(Zhao Mengfu’s Regular Script work.)

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