Fatima WU

Calligraphy by Yan Zhengqing.

Yan Zhenqing was a court scholar and calligrapher of the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE). He was imprisoned and strangled to death during a rebellion.

Yan Zhenqing, also known as “Yan Qingchen,” lived in Shandong Province until he relocated to Xi’an in Shaanxi Province. His parents were descendants of clans whose members either held important official positions in court or were renowned scholars. For example, Yan Zhitui (531–c. 590 CE) was the author of Home Instructions of the Yan Family (Yanshi Jiasun). Yan Shigu (581–645 CE), Yan Zhenqing’s grandfather, was a famous calligrapher and historian during the end of the Sui dynasty (581–618 CE). Yan’s maternal grandfather, Yin Zhongrong, also skilled in calligraphy, was the head secretary to Empress Wu (624–705 CE).

Yan had a difficult childhood because his father passed away when Yan was only three years old. Working hard, he passed the civil exam and became a scholar (jinshi) in 734. In that year he was married to the daughter of a prince. Even with these advantages, Yan’s career in politics was tumultuous. Being a man of integrity and loyalty, Yan was constantly a target for his opponents in court. Every time Yan emerged from a conspiracy or slander, he was either demoted or transferred. According to historical records, Yan was instrumental in pacifying the An Lu Shan Rebellion in 755. Again, when the court faced another rebellion in 783, Yan volunteered to go into enemy territory to negotiate with the head rebel, Li Xilie, who incarcerated Yan when he refused to surrender. Li, on the verge of defeat by the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) army, ordered a eunuch to strangle Yan to death. He was seventy-six.

Yan Zhenqing’s other love was calligraphy. When he was too poor to buy ink and brushes, he used a broom to write on the wall with yellow dirt. Beginning in 743 Yan deemed Zhang Xu (flourished 713–740), “the saint of cursive calligraphy,” as his teacher.

Another calligrapher, the monk Huaisu (737–798), was also Yan’s ally in calligraphy. Yan’s calligraphic achievements began rather late, around the age of sixty. His journey to artistic success can be divided into three stages: (1) the early stage before Yan was fifty, (2) the blooming stage of running and cursive (xing and cao) scripts before he was sixty, and (3) the final stage when his standard script (kai) reached full maturity. Famous cursive scripts done by Yan include “Begging for Rice Note” (764), “Mourning over My Nephew” (758), and “Fighting for a Seat Note” (764). After age sixty Yan became attracted to the standard script, which he wrote on big pieces of flat stone that were later engraved. “Ancestral Temple of the Guo Family Tablet,” done at age fifty-six, and “The Tablet of Songjing,” done at age sixty-four, were some of his prime examples in the standard script.

Yan’s unadorned calligraphic style breaks up the glamorous and formal style of the two Wangs (Wang Xizhi, 303–379? CE, and Wang Xianzhi, 344–388 CE) from the Jin dynasty (265–420 CE). (The Jin dynasty is a brief period during the North and South Dynasties in China.) His writings reflect the character of an honorable man who was righteous and magnanimous but true and simple. The imperfection and simplicity found in his works somehow manifest a form of aesthetics.

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. New Haven, CT: Art Museum, Princeton University.

Masterpiece of Chinese calligraphy in the National Palace Museum supplement. (1973). Taipei, Taiwan: National Palace Museum.

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

Kill one to warn a hundred.


Shā yī jǐng bǎi

Source: Wu, Fatima. (2009). YAN Zhenqing. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2543–2544. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

YAN Zhenqing (Yán Zhēnqīng 颜真卿)|Yán Zhēnqīng 颜真卿 (YAN Zhenqing)

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