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Collection

An image of Couplet by LI Wentian
Alternate image of Couplet by LI Wentian Alternate image of Couplet by LI Wentian

LI Wentian

(China 1834 – 1895)

Title
Couplet
Place of origin
China
Period
Qing dynasty 1644 - 1911 → China
Media category
Calligraphy
Materials used
pair of hanging scrolls; ink on paper
Dimensions

a - right scroll; 151.7 x 34.7 cm; image

a - right scroll; 174.5 x 40.1 cm; scroll

b - right scroll; 151.7 x 34.7 cm; image

b - right scroll; 174.5 x 40.1 cm; scroll

Signature & date
Signed c.l. part b, in Chinese, inscribed in black ink "... Zhongyue, Li Wentian". Signed l.l. part b, in Chinese, stamped in red ink “Lishi Zhongyue [artist's seal]". Signed l.l. part b, in Chinese, stamped in red ink “Wentian zhiyin [artist's seal]". Not dated.
Credit
Gift of Dr. James Hayes 2003
Accession number
278.2003.a-b
Location
Not on display
Further information

‘The unfiltered wine is ready to drink, and the decanted wine is being warmed;
The spring is just beginning, and the flowers are blossoming.’
Inscription and signature: Composed for Juchen as he requested. Assembling poems from writings by Liu Xiaobiao and Jiang Wentong. Li Wentian, alias Zhongyue.

The first line was taken from Liu Xiaobiao’s (462–521) annotation on ‘Shishuo xinyu’ (New account of tales of the world) by Liu Yiqing (403–44), where the author rather idealistically describes the sweetness and rewards of peasant life: carefree gatherings at tree groves during the slow season, drinking, chatting and enjoying nature (1). The second line is derived from a poetic prose composed by Jiang Yan (444–505) and portrays the magnificent scenery of Tuyuan, a vast landscaped garden built in Kaifeng by Prince Liu Wu, son of the Han dynasty emperor Xiaowen (r179–57 BCE), where he often hosted sumptuous feasts (2). The unity of opposites between the two lines – the enjoyment of nature and the lives of people from different classes – gives the couplet a contemplative quality.

As with the previous couplet, the work is written in regular script. The execution of this script in Li Wentian’s hand, however, involved techniques of brush manipulation that were adapted from other script types. Unlike the common form of regular script, which is slender and symmetrical, Li’s writing absorbed bold lines, energetic hook strokes and a strongly horizontal emphasis to create the manner of writing seen in these two couplets. Li was an eminent scholar of epigraphy and a collector of rubbings of inscriptions taken from bronzes and stele, and the great influence of antique writing in his calligraphy is obvious. More specifically, his calligraphy absorbed the spirit and character of the Northern Wei stele script, which focused on strength and simplicity. On the basis of classical calligraphy models such as that of Ouyang Xun (557–641) of the Tang dynasty, yet drawing on the structural principles of the Northern Wei style of script, Li created a new form of regular script that rapidly became the model for followers, particularly in the Guangdong region.

1 See Fang Xuanling (Tang), 'Jinshu' (History of the Jin dynasty), Zhonghua Press, Bejing, 1974, 'Biography of Xie An'; and Liu Yiqing (420–79), Shishuo xinyu, Guji Press, Shanghai, 1993, in 'yanyu' section.
2 Jiang Yan, ‘A descriptive prose on Duke Liang’s Tuyuan (Liangwang tuyuan fu), in Xu Jian (active 8th century), 'Chuxue ji', chapter 24.

‘The Poetic Mandarin: Chinese Calligraphy from the James Hayes Collection’. pg.85.
© 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.

Bibliography (1)

LIU Yang, The poetic mandarin: Chinese calligraphy from the James Hayes collection, Sydney, 2005, 84 (illus.), 85. cat.no. 20

Exhibition history (1)

The poetic mandarin: Chinese calligraphy from the James Hayes collection, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 23 Sep 2005–27 Nov 2005