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Asian art

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Couplet in running script


Huang Danshu


1757 - 1808


‘In a mundane world, with the orchid the pure spirit reaches the extreme;
And the modest mind of a worthy person resembles the bamboo.’
Inscription and signature: For the appraisal of Mr Danting; written by Huang Danshu.

In traditional Chinese culture, numerous features of nature symbolised human moral qualities. The orchid was prized primarily for its delicacy. Its fragrance was thought to be ethereal, yet so pervasive as to ‘steal into one’s sleeves’ almost unnoticed, thus symbolising the exemplary character of the superior gentleman. Bamboo has a hollow interior, which suggests an unassuming, open mind. Apparently this couplet was a gift extolling the high moral character of the recipient.

It is uncertain whether or not Huang himself composed the couplet. It was included in ‘Yinglian yehua’ (Remarks on selected couplets), compiled in 1840 by Liang Zhangju (1775–1849), and in ‘Zhizu zai ji xiexu yingqie’ (An assembly of calligraphy and couplets by the Zhizu Studio) by Zheng Kaixi (who gained the ‘jinshi’ in 1814).

Huang Danshu (alias Tingshou, style name Xuzhou) was a native of Shunde, Guangdong province. He gained the provincial ‘juren’ degree in 1795, but failed in the metropolitan ‘jinshi’ examination. He was appointed an educational administrative position at Kaiping County in Guangdong and later became the administrator of the famous Yuxiu Academy in Guangzhou. Huang was admired in that region for his ‘sanjue’ (the Three Perfections), in poetry, calligraphy and painting. Having published three anthologies of poetry, he was honoured, along with three other scholars, as one of the Four Masters of the Lingnan (Guangdong) region.

Huang is best known for his ‘caoshu’ (cursive style) and ‘lishu’ (clerical style) calligraphy. Yet what is demonstrated in this couplet is running script, which is written elegantly, reflecting early Qing taste which favoured the running and cursive scripts of the past masters. During the Jiaqing reign (r1796–1820), a new trend in calligraphy emerged, in which the seal and clerical scripts were emphasised because of the enthusiasm in ancient stele inscriptions, yet the preference for running and cursive scripts persisted. Ever since emperors Kangxi and Qianlong had declared the styles of Dong Qichang and Zhao Mengfu to be the orthodox paradigm, the tradition of tiexue (the study of classical calligraphy models) was enhanced by imperially commissioned compendiums of model calligraphies, engraved on stone and widely distributed as prints. It is no surprise then, that mandarins all excelled in running script.

‘The Poetic Mandarin: Chinese Calligraphy from the James Hayes Collection’. pg.55
© 2005 Art Gallery of New South Wales


Place where the work was made


Media category


Materials used

pair of hanging scrolls; ink on paper


a - right scroll, 126.8 x 30.2 cm

b - left scroll, 126.8 x 30.2 cm

Signature & date

Signed l.l. part b, in Chinese, inscribed in black ink "... Huang Danshu".
Not dated.


Gift of Dr. James Hayes 2009


Not on display

Accession number


Artist information

Huang Danshu

Works in the collection



Where the work was made

Shown in 1 exhibition

Exhibition history

Referenced in 2 publications


Jane Wynter (Editor), Foundation Newsletter #14, Sydney, Jun 2009.

LIU Yang, The poetic mandarin: Chinese calligraphy from the James Hayes collection, Sydney, 2005, 54 (illus.). 5