(China 1824 – 1855)
a - right scroll; 156.7 x 37.7 cm; image
a - right scroll; 212.5 x 44.3 cm; scroll
b - left scroll; 156.7 x 37.7 cm; image
b - left scroll; 212.5 x 44.3 cm; scroll
‘The jade zhi mushrooms and purple bamboo shoots grow profusely;
When evening dew falls, windswept tree branches become calm and neat.’
Inscription and signature: For the appraisal of Shengjie, Zeng Guoquan, alias Yuanfu.
The first line of the couplet was taken from a poem written by Su Shi (1037–1101). In a note to the poem, Su tells that he once had a dream in which he went into a garden and saw some serpent-like purple vines growing upon a well. He was told by the owner of the garden that these were ‘shizhi’ (stone fungi). This line describes the scene he saw. The ‘zhi’ (fungus) in traditional Chinese culture combines the marvellous with the immortal and is said to grow and flourish only when the monarch is merciful and humane. The fungus was also a key ingredient in elixirs. The second line of the couplet is from another poem by Su Shi, originally brushed on a fan. Su describes a serene scene in which one could leave behind all disturbing affairs (1). The ideas of immortality and eremitism are often intermingled in traditional Chinese culture, so the assembling of such poetry would be a literary amusement.
Zeng Guoquan (alias Yuanfu, style name Shuchun) was born into a rich family of landowners in Shuangfeng, Hunan province. In 1855, he passed a special examination and was selected as a candidate (‘gongsheng’) to study at the Guozijian Imperial Academy in Beijing. Unfortunately, activities in the capital were disrupted by the rebel movements associated with the Taiping Rebellion (1851–64). Consequently, Zeng joined his celebrated elder brother General Zeng Guofan (1811–72) to help him suppress the rebellion, and like him became a successful military commander. Reverting to civilian employment thereafter, he held various government posts and was honoured with the title of Grand Guardian of the Heir Apparent. After his death, Emperor Guangxu honoured him with the posthumous title of (Zhongxiang) (loyal and supportive) (2).
Zeng’s couplet is written in ‘xingshu’ (running script). He preferred to apply ink gracefully, keeping it light in tone, rather than making it dark and weighty. This charm and elegance is in striking contrast to his rough military life. The style of the writing is close to that of the Ming calligrapher Dong Qichang.
1 Su Shi, ‘Stone fungi, with a note (Shizhi, bingyin)', and ‘Written on Shen’gong’s fan at the backyard of Guangling (Guangling houyuan ti shengong shanzi)'.
2 See Ke, Shaoming, et al. 1977, 'Qing shigao' (History of the Qing dynasty), Zhonghua Press, Beijing, ‘Biography’ 200; Hummel, W. Arthur (ed). 1943 ‘Eminent Chinese of the Ch’ing period, United States Government Printing Office, Washington, pp 749–51.
‘The Poetic Mandarin: Chinese Calligraphy from the James Hayes Collection’. pg.76.
© 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, 76, 77 (illus.). cat.no. 16
The poetic mandarin: Chinese calligraphy from the James Hayes collection, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 23 Sep 2005–27 Nov 2005