‘The words are as pure as orchids, the breath is as long as bamboo;
The sentiment is as quiet as water, and the moral character is as lofty as mountains.’
Inscription and signature: Words adopted from Lanting xu, Chen Li, alias Lanfu.
In traditional Chinese culture, the natural attributes of the orchid, bamboo, water and mountain symbolised the moral qualities of human beings. The orchid is an emblem of the triumphant purity of noble men; bamboo is a robust evergreen capable of withstanding the winter snow; it has ‘jie’ (nodes), which is a homophone of ‘qijie’ (moral integrity) – it bends but never breaks. In Confucian teaching, water and mountain were metaphors for virtue, or for a higher state of mind. This is reflected in one of the most well-known Confucian dictums, ‘The wise man finds joy on the water, the benevolent man finds joy in the mountains’. The analogy between water and mind is commonly found in Chinese writings – Zhu Xi (1130–1200), the neo-Confucian philosopher of the 12th century once said, ‘If the mind can be compared to water, then one’s disposition is just like calm water, affection resembles flowing water, and desire is similar to waves of water’ (1). Nevertheless, Chen Li’s couplet, in part, may not be considered as simply copying Zhu Xi’s words. As he mentions in the inscription, he was putting together characters or phrases taken from the famous calligraphic piece, the ‘Lanting xu’ (Preface to the poems composed during a spring party at the Orchid Pavilion) by Wang Xizhi (written in 353). ‘Jizi’ (putting together words) or ‘jiju’ (putting together sentences) from a famous calligraphic piece was a popular practice when composing a couplet, enhancing its literary allusion and creating an aura by linking it to masterpieces of the past.
Chen Li (alias Lanfu, style name Dongshu) was a native of modern Guangzhou, who composed poetry from the age of nine. At the age of 17, he gained his ‘xiucai’ degree at the prefectural level of the imperial civil service examination; at 27, he obtained the ‘juren’ degree. However, between l833 and 1852 he made seven, unsuccessful, attempts at passing the ‘jinshi’ degree. He only took up minor positions such as ‘xundao’, or sub-director of studies, in Heyuan county in Guangdong, and director of the Xuehaitang Academy in Guangzhou. Failure to achieve his ambitions in officialdom turned him to scholarly research, and he later became a great scholar in a wide range of fields such as astronomy, geography, history, mathematics, poetry, phonology and linguistics, and wrote numerous books.
Chen Li was particularly renowned for his seal script. During his time, the models of seal script to be followed by practitioners were broadened, embracing a wide range of ancient styles such as those found on inscriptions rediscovered from stele, seals and bronzes. Unlike Liang Airu, who followed the Qin seal script, Chen Li chose the ‘Stone Drum’ inscription of Zhou Dynasty (c8th BCE) as his calligraphic model. These ‘drums’ are ten granite blocks in the shape of drums unearthed in the 7th century, each engraved with an inscription about rulers’ hunting activities. During the late Qing dynasty these inscriptions were regarded as an orthodox model for seal script study. In comparison with Liang Airu’s couplet, the brush line of Chen Li’s seal script appears relaxed, lacking constraint and rigidity.
1 Zhu Xi, ‘Zhuzi yulei’, Zhu Xi, chapter 5.
‘The Poetic Mandarin: Chinese Calligraphy from the James Hayes Collection’. pg.62.
© 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 2005, Domain, 2005, 62, 63 (illus.). cat.no. 9
The poetic mandarin: Chinese calligraphy from the James Hayes collection, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 23 Sep 2005–27 Nov 2005