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From China, Reverence
This article by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on March 24, 1999. All rights reserved.
They were known as "dragon bones" and for
centuries farmers in the Anyang region of central China had been regularly
turning them up with their ploughs.
The bones, many incised with blackened markings, had value for these
rural folk. They could be sold to apothecary shops where they were
ground up as potent ingredients in the preparation of traditional
Chinese medicines. It was not until the 1930s that facts came to replace
the millennia-old fiction and these "dragon bones" were identified
as artifacts almost ancient enough to belong to a time when dragons
roamed the earth.
With inscriptions dating from about 1300 B.C., these "dragon bones"
were in fact the divining oracles, used by the priests of the royal
court of the ancient Shang dynasty. Working with shoulder blades of
deer and oxen, and the carapaces of tortoises, the priest drilled
the bone with a hot poker. The appearance of the crack that appeared
on the bone surface, as well as the sound made in the process, provided
answers to the priests questions.
These oracle bones, on which cracks were defined, incised, and interpreted
by the elite priesthood, represent the earliest examples of Chinese
written language. The evolved forms of their script-like characters
can still be recognized in written Chinese scripts. Today the Chinese
written language, uniform across the nation, unites a huge population
where a multitude of spoken dialects render the verbal forms unintelligible
one to the other.
An ancient oracle bone, in this case a tortoise carapace, is among
the startling features of "The Embodied Image: Chinese Calligraphy
from the John B. Elliott Collection," a new exhibition that is
being billed as a landmark contribution to the understanding of Chinese
calligraphy and civilization, that opens at the Art Museum, Princeton
University, on Saturday, March 27.
The exhibition features 55 major examples of Chinese calligraphy ranging
in date from the 3rd century to the modern period, many of which have
never been published and will be on view for the first time. Works
are drawn from the collection of John B. Elliott in the Art Museum,
holdings that date from the 4th through the 20th century, together
with works on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Gest Oriental
Library, and private collections.
Standing in the show’s first gallery where written documents are outnumbered
by early, three-dimensional examples of Chinese calligraphy, curator
Cary Y. Liu discusses the challenges of presenting Chinese calligraphy
to a Western audience. Liu is one of three curators who have put together
this show. Sharing the curatorial tasks are Dora C.Y. Ching, project
coordinator, and guest curator Robert E. Harrist Jr., Columbia University
professor of art and archaeology.
Although the show will attract Chinese scholars from the United States
and abroad, the curators set the stage for the newcomer to calligraphy
with ancient objects that create a cultural context for the art form
and its place in its native culture. The show, spreading over four
galleries, also sets up a dialogue between monumental, public calligraphy
and more intimate writing forms.
Close by the oracle bone, and contributing to the historical
context for this dazzling display of centuries of calligrapher’s art,
the show opens with two Neolithic pots, each decorated with sophisticated
geometric designs applied with brush and pigment. From the most distant
past, the brushwork on these pots displays the vitality and rhythm
that would so characterize Chinese art — and most particularly
calligraphy — down through the ages.
Ritual bronze vessels were another early repository for written expression.
Two examples of ancient Shang dynasty bronze work display both a pictographic
expression of eyes, and a bronze inscription, cast with the vessel,
which, like any trophy, describes how it was cast as a reward for
the recipient’s military service.
A modest stone stele also stands in the first gallery. Through imposing
physical form and association with the power of state, religion, and
family, the stele acquired a unique importance in China as a bearer
of engraved writing. Represented in photographic form only is an inscribed
mountainside, carved with the text of a Buddhist sutra.
Chinese calligraphy, known as shu-fa, or "the way of writing,"
is an ancient and enduring aspect of the culture. From earliest times,
script styles evolved depending on the intended purpose, from public
monumental scripts to private self-expressive styles. The historical
script styles, dating back to the inscriptions on Shang bronzes, include
seal, clerical, standard, running, and cursive script. Calligraphy
continues to flourish in China today, as does the popular saying,
"Writing is like the person."
Because the legacy of the past is transmitted through the written
character, there is a personal and public reverence for writing, which
accounts for calligraphy — more than painting, sculpture, or architecture
— being the most venerated art form in China. The title of the
show, "The Embodied Image," describes the way the Chinese
written characters endure as embodied images of ideas and things.
"The graphic patterns that make up the written characters are
seen as images of the human mind at work, striving to discern order
in the phenomenal world and to impose meaning on a chaotic flow of
perceptions and feelings," writes Harrist in his catalog essay.
Written with an animal-hair brush, brushstrokes do not represent forms
in nature directly, but they evoke kinetic forces that animate nature
itself. Over centuries, calligraphy was recognized as embodying the
unique physical presence and creative personality of the individual
writer and a revelation of character and mood.
Arranged in three sections, the exhibition opens with an introduction
to the origins of Chinese writing in which oracle-bone writing and
text cast in bronze are shown in relation to script types written
in brush and ink on bamboo, silk, and paper.
The second section examines in chronological order four major stages
in the development of Chinese calligraphy, starting with the calligraphy
of Wang Hsi-chih (A.D. 303-361), the most venerated and influential
calligrapher in China, who elevated calligraphy to an art form and
through whose influence calligraphy came to be seen as an embodiment
of the mind and personality of the writer. Here, too, is a new, public
monumental script style developed in the T’ang dynasty. Then comes
the intimate, expressive calligraphy styles that emerged around scholar-artists
in the Sung dynasty (960-1279) — a literati who came to believe
that their most expressive calligraphy came when they were drunk.
In the Yuan dynasty that followed (1279-1368), there is a reformulation
of a monumental calligraphy style seen in the earliest forms.
The show’s final section focuses on the calligraphy of the succeeding
Ming (1368-1644) and Ch’ing (1644-1911) dynasties, extending into
the modern period, when calligraphy styles ranged from innovative
and highly idiosyncratic to a revival and reinterpretation of the
archaic styles of the distant past.
Wang Hsi-chih (303-362 A.D.), the most famous and venerated
of all calligraphers, is almost present in this show. In a softly-lit
display case is "Ritual to Pray for Good Harvest," a tracing
copy of two lines of a lost letter. This brief sequence of some 13
characters has been mounted and embellished over time by a succession
of written comments, known as the colophon, added by the document’s
owners and admirers. Writes Tung Ch’i-ch’ang, who became owner of
Wang Hsi-chih’s letter around 1600, "These two lines of 13 characters
are worth more than 10,000 scrolls."
Liu seems awed by the representation of the hand of the legendary
Wang Hsi-chih, the root of all subsequent calligraphy. "What’s
fascinating to me is that Wang Hsi-chih is taken as the embodied image,
as expression of self, but that this expression has its own root in
the oracle bone which embodies magical forces."
Noting that the act of writing itself was part of the ritual observances
of both Buddhists and Taoists, Liu says, "the commission of thought
to writing brings its own merit. Words are not abstract things —
they have real power."
Inspired by Wang Hsi-chih, what began as texts of private correspondence
grew into monumental displays of calligraphic virtuosity. A massive
hanging scroll by Wen Cheng-ming (1470-1559) "Poem on Lake T’ai-yeh,"
hanging in the third gallery, some 10 feet high, is reminiscent of
the kind of huge American canvases that would have been seen in SoHo
in the 1970s. No longer the humble handscroll to be admired by a single
reader, this work was created for artistic display.
Yet calligraphy’s wedding of expressive form with meaning is its crucial
and distinguishing feature. In his catalog essay, "Reading Chinese
Calligraphy," Harrist questions the received wisdom that a work
of calligraphy transcends its linguistic meaning. In the United States,
part of the temptation to view and appreciate calligraphic masterworks
purely on the basis of form derives from the particular moment at
which they become visible in our culture — the post-World War
II Abstract Expressionist moment. This moment of recognition and connection
— seen in the works of such Western artists as Jackson Pollock
and Franz Kline — has contributed a fair amount of confusion to
Princeton University has a long history of interest in Asian art beginning
in the 1880s when Chinese and Japanese pottery were included in its
founding collection, the gift of a member of the Class of 1843. In
the 1890s, the connection grew as a number of Princeton graduates
became missionaries to China. One such graduate, Dubois S. Morris,
Class of 1893, served for 30 years as a Presbyterian missionary, collecting
paintings to use as a teaching tool, a collection he eventually donated
to the museum. The foundation of the Princeton collection was built
by professor George Rowley, who taught at Princeton from 1925 to 1962.
Wen C. Fong, a member of the Class of 1951, was a student of Rowley’s.
Now Princeton professor of art history and curator of Asian art, he
is also consultative chairman of the Asian Art Department at the Metropolitan
Museum of Art in New York. Fong teaches almost exclusively with original
works of art, believing that collecting is never an end in itself
but an imperative for training students. He characterizes the university’s
holdings as "the only historically comprehensive selection of
Chinese calligraphy outside China."
Fong’s classmate, John B. Elliott, established this premier calligraphy
collection motivated by a desire to form a collection for teaching
and the advancement of the understanding of Chinese civilization and
culture. Elliott died in 1997.
The last time the university’s Chinese collection was in the spotlight
was in May, 1996, during the visiting exhibition of treasures from
the National Palace Museum of Taipei, at the Metropolitan Museum of
Art, when Princeton mounted a complementary show of Chinese flower
paintings from its own collection and from the Met, also curated by
Following its showing at the Art Museum, the exhibition will travel
to the Seattle Art Museum, February 10 to May 7, 2000. New York audiences
will not see the show until it arrives at the Metropolitan Museum
of Art on September 15, 2000, where it will remain on view to January
Liu notes that in Chinese literature, a man’s immortality is through
his writing which, in turn, is captured in his calligraphy. With this
show of ancient treasures on display, these immortals are with us
— Nicole Plett
Elliott Collection , Art Museum, Princeton University, 609-258-3788.
First day for the major exhibition that runs to June 27. Also "Chinese
Ceramics: Selections from the Collection of Nelson Chang, Class of
1974," to September 26. Free. Saturday, March 27, 10 a.m.
Museum hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.,
and on Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m.
Also on March 27, the Art Museum has an international symposium in
conjunction with the show, "Character and Context in Chinese Calligraphy,"
in McCosh 50 from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The symposium is free but
pre-registration is requested by fax to Cynthia Horr, Princeton Conference
A catalog accompanies the show, published by the Art Museum, and written
by Robert E. Harrist Jr. and Wen C. Fong, with contributions by Qianshen
Bai, Dora C.Y. Ching, Chuan-hsing Ho, Cary Y. Liu, Amy McNair, Zhixin
Sun, and Jay Xu. The essays examine aspects of the culture of calligraphy
from religious writing, the esthetics of the strange or unusual, to
the significance of stele, couplet, and letter formats. Introductory
essays discuss the "four revolutions" in the history of calligraphy
and the importance of reading calligraphy to its practice and appreciation.
Available at the Art Museum Shop, $75 (cloth) or $45 (paper).
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