Cary Y.Liu

Wang Hsi-chih

Wen C. Fong

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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.

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Cary Y.Liu

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.

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Wang Hsi-chih

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

the issue.

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.

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Wen C. Fong

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

Cary Liu.

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

7, 2001.

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

The Embodied Image: Chinese Calligraphy from the John B.

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

Services, 609-258-4656.

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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