Fatima WU

A rubbing made from a stone engraved with Liu Gongquan’s calligraphy.

Liu Gongquan was a calligrapher of China’s Tang dynasty (618–907 CE). He was also a professor and tutor of the Hanlin Academy for three emperors.

Born during the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE), Liu Gongquan, also known as Liu Chengxuan, was from a family of intellectuals in Yao County in Shaanxi Province. His grandfather and elder brother Liu Gongcuo were well-known writers and calligraphers. Although Liu was talented in poetry and calligraphy, he did not achieve his scholar (jinshi) degree until he was about thirty. Well versed in the Confucian classics, he was given a post as a recorder of civil matters in the country. For most of Liu’s career he served as a professor and tutor of the Hanlin Academy for three emperors: Muzong (reigned 821–824 CE), Jingzong (reigned 825–825 CE), and Wenzong (reigned 826–840 CE). It was not an ideal job for an ambitious man, but Liu accepted his place with ease. Because all three emperors were also lovers of calligraphy, Liu had a friendly relationship with them and was known to criticize the emperors for their misdeeds.

When he was young, Liu surprised others with his talents in poetry, especially couplets, and music. During the reign of Wenzong, Liu was known to compose a poem in three steps, twice as fast as Caozhi (192–232 CE), who finished a poem in seven steps. Once when Emperor Wuzong (reigned 841–846 CE) was angry with a palace maid, he was pacified when Liu presented him with a poem written in Liu’s beautiful calligraphy. Not only was the maid forgiven, but also Liu was also rewarded with two rolls of colorful brocade.

In calligraphy critics rank Liu Gongquan with another Tang master, Yan Zhenqing (709–785 CE). Both artists were best in the standard (kai) script, with Yan’s brushstrokes described as “fleshy and round,” whereas Liu’s were “boney and thin.” The works of the two are described as “Yan tendons and Liu bones.” Liu also shared with Yan another virtue: He spoke the truth in the face of power and danger. To the Emperor Muzong, who was a puppet ruler manipulated by powerful factions in court, Liu used a metaphor to give advice. When asked the way to handle a brush, Liu responded: “When the heart is straight, so will [be] the brush.” Muzong understood and was touched.

Although Liu was adept in all three scripts of calligraphy—the standard (kai), the running (xing), and the cursive (cao)—his best can be found in the first. His standard script combined the styles of Chung Yu (151–230 CE), Wang Xizhi (303?–379? CE), Ouyang Sun (557–641 CE), and Yan Zhenqing (709–785 CE). “The Army of Divine Strategy’s Record of Imperial Virtue Stele” of 843 and “Stele for the Xuanmi Pagoda” of 841 are handed down to posterity via ink rubbings. Liu’s standard script was so valued in his time that an official would lose face if he could not obtain Liu’s writings in his late parents’ epitaph. Foreigners traveled to the Tang capital of Chang’an (Xi’an) to ask for Liu’s writings, which brought him great fortune. Liu spent his time collecting books, calligraphy, inkstones, and brushes. As a calligrapher, Liu was particular about brushes, the best of which were made of slender bamboo for easy handling and bristles of long goat hair for ink absorption.

Because Liu was not ambitious and did not join political factions in court, he was exempted from political upheavals. Leading a life of art and leisure, Liu was probably the longest-living calligrapher in Chinese history when he died at the age of eighty-eight.

Further Reading

Ecke Tseng Yu-ho. (1971). Chinese calligraphy. Boston: David R. Godine.

Harrist, R. E., Jr., & Fong, Wen C. (1999). The embodied image: Chinese calligraphy from the John B Elliot collection. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University in association with Harry N. Abrams.

Kwo Da-Wei. (1981). Chinese brushwork: Its history, aesthetics and techniques. London: George Prior Associated Publishers.

Zhao Lengyue. (Ed.). (1993). Ten calligraphers. Taipei, Taiwan: World Cultures Publishers.

Source: Wu, Fatima. (2009). LIU Gongquan. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1340–1341. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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