‘[Your] knowledge embraces eight thousand volumes of books;
[Your] literary grace goes beyond that shown in the ‘Three hundred poems’.’
Inscription and signature: Xiuxian, style name Dishan.
This couplet is borrowed from a poem by Du Shenyan of the Tang dynasty (1) which was written in praise of a courier named Li Sizhen, who was dispatched as an envoy to Hedong (in modern Shanxi). The ‘Three hundred poems’ in the second line normally refers to ‘Shijing’ (Book of odes), an anthology of poems dating from the late 12th to 6th centuries BCE. In general the lines are a compliment to a scholar for his outstanding knowledge and elegant writing style.
Cao Xiuxian (alias Hengsuo, style name Dishan ) was a native of Xinjian in Jiangxi province. In 1736 he gained the rare opportunity of taking a special imperial ‘jinshi’ examination that was set for candidates with extraordinary talents, and he excelled in it. As a successful courtier, he held senior positions in various ministries, including the Ministry of Rites and the Council of State. Because of his profound knowledge and high moral character he was appointed Grand Tutor to the Heir Apparent. He was also one of the chief editors of the multi-volumed ‘Siku quanshu’ or ‘Collectanea of imperial books’, compiled under imperial auspices in 1787. After his death, Emperor Jiaqing (r1796–1820) conferred the posthumous title of ‘wenke’ (cultivated and scrupulous) on Cao, in recognition of his literary accomplishments and firm loyalty to the government (2).
Cao was an eminent calligrapher of the time; Qianlong once called him ‘dashoubi’ (‘a compelling brush’). Both Dong Qichang and Zhao Mengfu’s styles are natural and unrestrained, elegant and refined. However, for some scholars they lacked strength and vigour. Thus it became the fashion during the reigns of emperors Yongzheng (r 1723–1735) and Qianlong to use the Tang dynasty calligrapher Yan Zhenqing’s calligraphy as the preferred model. Over this foundation, the elegant styles of Dong and Zhao were then adopted. Cao’s work shows the influence of Yan, in its grandeur and loftiness, as well as the gracefulness of Dong’s and Zhao’s styles.
1 Du Shenyan (c 645–708), ‘Written for Li Sizhen while he was dispatched as an envoy to Hedong (He li dafu sizhen fengshi cunfu hedong)'.
2 For life of Cao Xiuxian, see Ke, Shaoming, et al. 1977, 'Qing shigao' (History of the Qing dynasty), Zhonghua Press, Beijing, 'Biography' 321.
‘The Poetic Mandarin: Chinese Calligraphy from the James Hayes Collection’. pg.48.
© 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 scroll; 107.2 x 29.8 cm; image
a - right scroll; 147.5 x 35.2 cm; scroll
b - left scroll; 107.2 x 29.8 cm; image
b - left scroll; 147.5 x 35.2 cm; scroll
Signature & date
Signed c.l. part b, in Chinese, inscribed in black ink "... Dishan, Xiuxian".
Signed l.l. part b, in Chinese, stamped in red ink “Xiuxian Zhiyin [artist's seal]".
Gift of Dr. James Hayes 2003
Not on display
Where the work was made
Shown in 1 exhibition
The poetic mandarin: Chinese calligraphy from the James Hayes collection, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 23 Sep 2005–27 Nov 2005
Referenced in 2 publications
James Hayes, Look, 'Calligraphy - a very fine art', pgs. 28-31, Sydney, Sep 2005, 28 (colour illus.), 29-31.
Unknown, The poetic mandarin: Chinese calligraphy from the James Hayes collection, Sydney, 2005, 48, 49 (illus.). cat.no. 2