‘Exploring the Way at the Three Mao Grottoes;
Cultivating immortality on the Peaks of Five Saints.’
‘Three Mao Grottoes’ refer to Mount Mao located southwest of present-day Zhenjiang in Jiangsu province. The name was taken from the three Mao brothers, who in the mid 2nd century BCE made the three main peaks their home and became immortal. Daoists have crowned Mount Mao as one of the greatest sacred mountains in China. The ‘Peaks of Five Saints’ refer to either the mountain region located in Lushan in Jiangxi province or one other in Yongji, Shanxi province – both traditionally regarded as Daoist sacred mountains.
Liang Airu (alias Yuanwen, style name Qingya) was a native of Shunde in Guangdong. He obtained the ‘jinshi’ degree in 1814, and was appointed secretary of the Grand Secretariat. He made a comprehensive study of the earlier styles of calligraphy and soon excelled in different types of scripts. He was also a well-known poet and painter.
The couplet is written in what is known as ‘zhuanshu’ (seal script), which developed during the Qin dynasty (221–207 BCE) as a standard for the new empire, and was ascribed to Li Si (d208 BCE), the chief minister of the time. One of Li’s inscriptions has been preserved. The so-called Yishanbei stele was inscribed during the Qin first emperor’s inspection tours in 219 BCE. The original stele was destroyed before the early 8th century, but was re-erected with inscriptions re-engraved in 993, and is now in Xi’an. It was the script on this stele (so-called ‘xiaozhuan’ or ‘lesser seal’ script) that Liang Airu followed. A typical feature of this script is the uniformity of size and shape of the characters. The brush strokes are round and have a supple quality. The evenness demonstrates painstaking execution. In comparison with the seal script of the Qin period, Liang’s strokes are fuller.
During the late Qianlong and Jiaqing periods, there was some anxiety that the current style had been overshadowed by the suave elegance of Dong Qichang and Zhao Mengfu, and some scholars turned to the script and style popular from monuments of the Qin to Northern dynasties. They wanted to reinvigorate calligraphy with a creative revival of antique styles. Liang Airu’s couplet was composed against such a background.
‘The Poetic Mandarin: Chinese Calligraphy from the James Hayes Collection’. pg.56.
© 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.
Place where the work was made
Qing dynasty 1644 - 1911 → China
pair of hanging scrolls; ink on paper
a - right scoll; 136.4 x 31 cm; image
a - right scoll; 200 x 36.8 cm; scroll
b - left scroll; 136.4 x 31 cm; image
b - left scroll; 200 x 36.8 cm; scroll
Signature & date
Signed c.l. part b, in Chinese, inscribed in black ink "... Qingya".
Signed l.l. part b, in Chinese, stamped in red ink “Liang Airu Yin [artist's seal]".
Signed l.l. part b, in Chinese, stamped in red ink “Qingya [artist's seal]".
Gift of Dr. James Hayes 2003
Where the work was made
Shown in 2 exhibitions
The poetic mandarin: Chinese calligraphy from the James Hayes collection, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 23 Sep 2005–27 Nov 2005
Beyond Words: Calligraphic Traditions of Asia, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 27 Aug 2016–30 Apr 2017
Referenced in 2 publications
James Hayes, Look, 'Calligraphy - a very fine art', pgs. 28-31, Sydney, Sep 2005, 28, 29 (colour illus.), 30-31.
LIU Yang, The poetic mandarin: Chinese calligraphy from the James Hayes collection, Sydney, 2005, 56, 57 (illus.). cat.no. 6