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Asian art

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Calligraphy (couplet in running script)


Zuo Zongtang


1812 - 1885


‘A merciful nature is the source of longevity;
The wise mind resembles the complexity of a pearl shell’s twists.’
Inscription and signature: Written for Zicheng as he requested. Zuo Zongtang.

A native of Xiangyin, Hunan province, Zuo Zongtang (alias Jigao, style name Pucun) was an eminent figure of 19th-century China. His fame as a military leader and statesman almost overwhelmed his achievements in calligraphy. He studied geography and military strategy in his youth, and received the ‘juren’ degree in 1832. Recognition of his talent by Zeng Guofan (elder brother of Zeng Guoquan), one of the most important military leaders in modern history, and Emperor Xianfeng (r 1851–1861), initiated his long military career. As the left hand of Zeng, he served the Qing regime for some 30 years, suppressing various rebellions including the Taiping uprising (1).

In spite of his arduous duties, Zuo Zongtang was a renowned calligrapher, even during his own times. Although his best-known calligraphy is ‘xiaozhuan’ (lesser seal script), a style developed during the Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE), his skill in ‘xingshu’ (running script), is excellent too, as demonstrated in this couplet. The derivation of his style from ‘xiaozhuan’ is observable. As one can see, here the smooth and regular manner of the seal script has been merged into the elegance of the running script style.

Although the couplet is undated, on the basis of a seal on the work it is tenable that it was done during the last decade of his life. The characters contained in this seal, ‘Qinggong taibao’ refer to an honourable title, Grand Guardian of the Heir Apparent, that was bestowed on him by the imperial house after Zuo Zongtang recaptured the city Hangzhou from the Taiping rebels in 1864.

1 See Ke, Shaoming, et al. 1977, in ‘Qing shigao' (History of the Qing dynasty), Zhonghua Press, Beijing, ‘Biography’ 412; Hummel, W. Arthur(ed). 1943 ‘Eminent Chinese of the Ch’ing period, United States Government Printing Office, Washington, pp 762–67.

‘The Poetic Mandarin: Chinese Calligraphy from the James Hayes Collection’. pg.66.
© 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.


Other Title


Place where the work was made


Media category


Materials used

pair of hanging scrolls; ink on paper


a - right scroll, 141 x 34.8 cm, image

a - right scroll, 182 x 41.1 cm, scroll

b - left scroll, 141 x 34.8 cm, image

b - left scroll, 182 x 41.1 cm, scroll

Signature & date

Signed c.l. part b, in Chinese, inscribed in black ink "... Zuo Zongtang".
Signed l.l. part b, in Chinese, stamped in red ink “Daxueshi zhang [artist's seal]".
Signed l.l. part b, in Chinese, stamped in red ink “Qinggong taibao gejinghou [artist's seal]".
Not dated.


Gift of Dr. James Hayes 2003


Not on display

Accession number


Artist information

Zuo Zongtang

Works in the collection



Where the work was made

Shown in 1 exhibition

Exhibition history

Referenced in 2 publications


Jackie Menzies (Editor), The Asian Collections Art Gallery of New South Wales, 'Landscape Painting', Sydney, 2003, 158 (colour illus.).

LIU Yang, The poetic mandarin: Chinese calligraphy from the James Hayes collection, Sydney, 2005, 66, 67 (illus.). 11