(China 1747 – 1806)
a - right scroll; 166.7 x 35.8 cm; image
a - right scroll; 198.5 x 40 cm; scroll
b - left scroll; 166.7 x 38.8 cm; image
b - left scroll; 198.5 x 40 cm; scroll
‘The green of the bamboo hillocks enhances the couch of Ruzi;
The red of the peony garden sets off Yuhou’s study.’
Inscription and signature: Feng Minchang, style name Yushan.
This couplet would have been a gift to a scholar friend. Intended as a compliment, it alludes to two distinguished historical figures, thus likening the recipient to them. The first line hints at a story recorded in the Han dynasty official history ‘Houhanshu’, which tells how when Chen Fan was governor of Yuzhang (in present Jiangxi) he only entertained one guest, Xu Ruzi, a retired scholar with a high moral reputation. Chen made a couch specially for Xu, which was suspended from the ceiling after Xu left, so no one else could use it. The second line alludes to the Tang dynasty prime minister Li Bi (722–789). The emperor conferred on Li the title of Yehou (Duke of Ye). Disgusted by the political struggles at court, he withdrew to the southern sacred mountain Hengshan and lived there for almost ten years, keeping over 10 000 books in his study.
Feng (alias Boqiu, style name Yushan) was a native of Qinzhou in Guangdong. A ‘jinshi’ of 1778, he was a ‘bianxiu’ (compiler) at the imperial Hanlin Academy. He held several senior official positions such as deputy secretary of the Ministry of Revenue, and retired to Guangdong, where he became a renowned educator. Feng was both a prolific writer and a distinguished calligrapher (1). From Qianlong’s reign onward an ongoing interest in learning calligraphy from earlier models emerged as an alternative to the Wang Xizhi tradition. Many scholars preferred the more vigorous models of the ancient inscriptions recovered from bronzes and stone monuments, particularly the calligraphy engraved on stele from the Northern dynasty (439–581). This trend is called ‘beixue’ (school of stele study). Feng is considered one of the pioneers of this school, particularly in his native province of Guangdong. As well as being an advocate of the Northern stele calligraphy style, Feng also favoured the calligraphy of Huang Tingjian (1045–1105) of the Northern Song dynasty, whose influence is seen in this work, particularly in the thickness and strength of the stroke, which is dramatised by the great range of ink tones. The work shows a vigorous strength different from the graceful style current at the time in the mandarin circle.
1 See Ke, Shaoming, et al. 1977, 'Qing shigao' (History of the Qing dynasty), Zhonghua Press, Beijing, 'Biography' 272.
‘The Poetic Mandarin: Chinese Calligraphy from the James Hayes Collection’. pg.51.
© 2005 Art Gallery of New South Wales
The couplet, written on two narrow pieces of paper or silk, and hung either side of a large painting or doorway, is one of the most common forms of calligraphic art and has a long standing history in China. They first appeared in the Five Dynasties period (907-979) as pairs of plaques, carved after written master copies, to decorate architectural columns, courtyards and garden doorways. Couplets for indoor display, written on paper or silk, came into existence in the 17th century and gained great popularity in the Qing dynasty. The couplets themselves are either taken from classical poetry or contemporary literary works composed by the calligraphers themselves and their friends. A couplet is made up of two parts called the head and the tail. The two lines of verse are antithetically parallel. Formerly it was a very common practice to send them to friends or relations on such occasions as marriages and birthdays, or as condolences to families of deceased persons.
Asian Art Department, AGNSW, August 2003.
LIU Yang, The poetic mandarin: Chinese calligraphy from the James Hayes collection, Sydney, 2005, 50 (illus.), 51. cat.no. 3
The poetic mandarin: Chinese calligraphy from the James Hayes collection, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 23 Sep 2005–27 Nov 2005