In China, calligraphy is traditionally considered the finest art form, as the artist’s goal is to express his skill, knowledge, personality and character all by using only line, ink tone and movement. Through this multi-faceted process, the calligrapher communicated with his viewer — with a message that continues to resonate today.
This powerful example of calligraphy by the erudite scholar-official Zheng Xie can, as we shall discover, be appreciated from a number of different vantage points.
Zheng Xie (1693–1765), Calligraphy. Hanging scroll, ink on paper. Estimate: $60,000–80,000. This work is offered in the Fine Chinese Paintings auction on March 16 at Christie’s New York
1. Visual impact
This hanging scroll is large, as are the characters written on it. The ink tone is uniformly dark and rich and the brush strokes are angular and geometric rather than graceful and elegant.
Chinese is traditionally read vertically from top to bottom, right to left; here, the characters are written in a set order of strokes, so that anyone who can write Chinese is able to follow how the calligrapher formed the strokes. In this way, we are able to trace how each stroke and character was formed and follow the creation of the composition in our mind’s eye.
Zheng Xie creates a strong sense of rhythm by varying the thickness of his strokes — some are short and stubby, and others are broad and thick; some are open and expansive, and others appear cramped and crowded. He also alternates between making some characters more print-like, while other strokes become abbreviated and cursive, adding dynamism and energy to the work as a whole.
Characters that show the varying thickness of strokes employed by Zheng Xie: 1. Short and stubby; 2. Broad and thick; 3. Open and expansive; 4. Cramped and crowded; 5. Some characters, like this one, are print-like; 6. Other strokes become abbreviated and cursive
2. A poet at work
There are some who approach Chinese calligraphy as if it were a work of abstract art, without interest in the meaning of the composition. But the writers of these inscriptions were keenly aware of the meaning, and Zheng Xie was a poet himself.
This poem focuses on creating an atmosphere of quiet and calm at the end of a hectic day of government service. It tells of a secluded spot in nature where the author retreats and what he finds there to enrich and comfort him:
Outside the city, where is the foliage most lush? / By the decorated walls where the settling sunlight filters through the pine forest. / A single note comes from the pure-sounding stone, and the sky seems like water, / At evening on the river the reflection of the moon is like frost. / The monks are calm at this remote place, and I often visit, / Floating like a cloud from my government office; I am pained when I must depart. / On the trellis are grapes like ten thousand pearls, / The autumn wind must have rememberd that this old man loves to eat them. (Translated by Jonathan Chaves)
Can this sense of quiet and melancholy be seen in the calligraphy? That is for each viewer to say.
3. Imitation as a form of flattery
Chinese calligraphy and painting are learned by copying the works of past masters, their achievements providing a firm foundation from which one can build one’s own style.
Looking at Zheng Xie’s calligraphy, we see the firm, vertical strokes; the dramatic, flaring diagonals; and the preference for boldness and strength over elegance that Zheng learned from the first master he copied, Huang Tingjian (1043–1105), who was said to have wielded his brush as though it was a sword.
Here we see Zheng’s preference for boldness and strength over elegance, something he he learned from the first master he copied, Huang Tingjian (1043–1105)
His style is also characteristic of the clerical script used for official documents during the Han dynasty and which Zheng studied intently and favoured.
4. A break with tradition
Zheng Xie was part of a group of Qing dynasty artists who turned away from the classical tradition defined by fluidity and refinement, based especially on the style of the ‘Sage of Calligraphy’ Wang Xizhi. Instead, these erudite artists sought out and studied old Han dynasty clerical script writings that were preserved on stone stele carvings and rubbings, which had been largely ignored in preceding centuries.
In this austere, bold and somewhat awkward style of the past, they found a new energy, innovation and fresh expressivity for their work. This trend gained momentum and was widely influential into the modern period.
5. Personal character
For a work of calligraphy to be truly successful, it must reveal the personality of its writer — it is believed that an immoral person cannot produce a truly fine work of art.
Zheng Xie was born in the Yangzhou area and was reportedly impoverished in his youth. He learned to paint from his father and managed to study to the point that he achieved the rare goal of passing the highest level of the imperial examination system. From there, a career in the government was largely assured, and Zheng was appointed as magistrate in Shandong.
During his tenure, he was noted for his efforts to assist the poor, especially during times of disaster, through building shelters and distributing grain. However, these actions caused conflict with some of the wealthier citizens and his fellow officials.
Zheng resigned from the government because he refused to curry the favour of his superiors
Finally, after 12 years, Zheng resigned from the government because he refused to curry the favour of his superiors. Instead, he returned to Yangzhou, then a prosperous community supportive of artists, and made his living by selling his paintings and calligraphy.
He is well known by his nickname, Banqiao, which literally means ‘Plank Bridge’ and evokes an image of rusticity and functionality. His distinctive and innovative artistic style, as well as his strong personality, marked him as one of the key figures of the Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou.
6. Unique style
When we examine Zheng Xie’s unique brand of calligraphy, preferring awkwardness to easy refinement, we see a man who refused to play political games and compromise his principles. We see the energy that he used to take actions to alleviate the sufferings of others. We see his deep and original understanding of the past. In his unmistakably distinctive style, we also glimpse the unique character of someone who was called an ‘Eccentric’.
Zheng’s signature illustrates his distinctive style of calligraphy and the unique character of a man who was called an ‘Eccentric’
Since the Song dynasty, the connection between calligraphy and painting has been often expressed. Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322) explicitly used calligraphy brushstrokes to form the various elements of his landscape paintings. Zheng Xie embraced the same idea, but it was his calligraphy that was informed by his paintings — he derived his calligraphy brushwork from the strokes he used to paint the orchids and bamboo that he is best known for today.
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