VOLUME 1, No.3 JOURNAL April 2000
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Matthew outlines the history of script types and talks about the art of Hu Lunguang (cont.)

A character and a pictorial seal (both 1992) by Hu Lunguang. The text of the left seal reads "A mind in the service of remote places." (情寄八荒之表)
Modern cursive (jin cao) rose with the advent of standard script around the second or third centuries.  Like running script, it is based on standard, but more distantly so.  It is more extreme than running script in its abbreviation of character forms, often reducing and connecting strokes to the point where entire characters can be written in a single brush movement.  Its curving forms are more abbreviated than the multiple strokes and dots of draft cursive, to which it otherwise bears some resemblance.  Another distinction between the two is that, unlike draft cursive, modern cursive permits ligatures between characters:  sometimes two or three characters are connected in a chain.

A final form of cursive, wild cursive (kuang cao), was developed in the eighth century  by Zhang Xu (act. 710-750).  Nicknamed "insane," he would get drunk and, gathering his hair into a ponytail, write huge characters.  Nothing of this remains.  Extant examples are inauthentic, but examples of Zhang's standard script show him to have been a powerful and disciplined calligrapher not always so mad as stories portray him.  His first follower was Huai-su (735?-800?), a Buddhist monk, whose few remaining works have won him the reputation of being history's greatest practitioner of wild cursive.

Wild cursive is characterized by an extreme concision of form, often little more than a curling line that, in a subtype of wild cursive called one stroke script (i pi shu), can wind from character to character down an entire column without interruption.  The inherent difficulty of reading modern and wild cursive is compounded by the freedom of formal invention exercised by individual artists. There have been attempts to regulate the forms of cursive characters, like Yu You-ren's (1879-1965) Biao Jun Cao Shu  (Standardized Cursive Script, Beijing, 1936).  But such efforts have not been warmly received, and the lack of system in the subtypes of cursive script leaves them without a consistent form for each character even as it makes them havens of individual expression.

A seal of Buddha images by Hu Lunguang carved in 1989 into the face of a Ming brick.
In summary, the broad classes of script---formal, running, and cursive---can be closely likened to Roman equivalents.  The three formal script types are written in the same way as the west's hand-printed lettering:  in both, characters or letters are carefully written one element at a time, with the writing instrument lifted between strokes.  Likewise, running script in China functions like running script or longhand in the west:  in both, abbreviated forms closely akin to their formal antecedents are written in a fast style with many elements linked in continuous movements of the writing instrument.  Finally, all types of Chinese cursive script except cursive seal are the equivalents of the forms of western shorthand.  East and west, both employ graphic forms so brief and hence distant from the formal and running hands that they constitute a new graphic vocabulary that must be learned independently of the other, more interrelated script types.

In a side point, Matthew also noted that the distinction between script type and script style is often confused, even in the literature.  Script type refers to the five basic types just discussed, which encompass all calligraphic styles.  Style is the combination of characteristics unique to any calligrapher, regardless of whether these characteristics change over his life or from piece to piece.  They may change, for example, in works he has written in different script types or in different styles.

In other words, script type is the most general level of classification of calligraphy, referring to the five major scripts that encompass all individual styles, while script style is their narrowest classification, referring to unique combinations of characteristics in the works of an individual calligrapher.  These two distinctions, however, if simple to discern in extreme cases, can become confusing in the wide terrain that lies between them.  Take, for example, Stone Drum script.  In the state of Qin, one of the warring states noted above, the first extant Chinese poetry cycle was engraved in 768 BC on ten stone drums in what is now called Stone Drum script (Shi Gu wen).  The style of the Ten Drums script closely followed the generic manner of the everyday seal script of the Qin state, known as Qin seal script (Qin zhuan shu).  But after the state of Qin united China, the new Qin dynasty declared that the seal script of the former Qin state would be the national script, in effect elevating it to the major subtype of seal script described above as lesser seal script.

The result?  What is essentially the same set of character forms has three different names, and each of these names represents a different level of classification.  Thus, the Stone Drum script is merely the style of an individual artist.  But the seal script of the Qin state is one of many minor subtypes of greater seal script.  Finally, when the seal script of the Qin state became the national script under the Qin dynasty, it was (later) termed lesser seal script, which paired it with greater seal script as one of the two broadest subtypes of seal script.  Thus, what is essentially the same set of written forms became (in its various manifestations) 1) a style, 2) a minor subtype among other minor subtypes, and 3) one of the two broadest subtypes of seal script.  Visually, however, the three scripts are virtually indistinguishable.

A similar but simpler case:  the inscribed stone stelae of the Han, especially those of the second century.  Slabs of stone often a half foot thick and six feet tall, Han stelae (bei) were engraved with their writers' individual styles of clerical script.  Yet, especially in the last three centuries, these archetypes of stone-engraved clerical script have become models for numerous calligraphers who have copied them in their own stylistic variants.  As a result, the writing on a particular stele can be regarded either as the style of its original artist or as a subtype of clerical script that served as a model for numerous later artists.  The distinction depends on the perspective from which the inscription is considered, not on any change in its graphic forms.  The phenomenon in which the style of an individual artist is elevated to a subtype by serving as the basis for later calligraphers' styles is a common one in calligraphy, which habitually combs the past for new inspiration.Matthew then spoke of the Canglang Calligraphy Association, of which the artist Hu Lunguang is a member.  The Canglang Association was founded in 1987 by a small group of calligraphers and seal carvers.  It is unusual in that it is a private society, a contrast to the usual government sponsorship of similar organizations.  It is also small, having grown recently to about 40 members who are either first-prize winners in national competitions "or the equivalent."  The Canglang's prestige has grown in recent years, and it has become perhaps the most prestigious calligraphy society in China.  It has shown its members' work in Taiwan (Taibei), Rutgers University (New Brunswick), and Yale University (New Haven).  As important intellectually as it is artistically, it publishes its own journal and has sponsored two international symposia.

Hu Lunguang's capacities in art are wide-ranging.  He is best known as a seal carver, but his reputation as a calligrapher has grown steadily over the years, becoming competitive with that of most other members of the Canglang Association.  He is also a skilled if infrequent painter.  As a seal carver, he makes both character and pictorial seals.  While his work is of comparable quality in both fields, his pictorial seals, partly because of limited competition, are as good as anyone else's today, perhaps better.

A seal by Hu Lunguang. Companion to the seal above, it portrays two buddhist strongmen-strong in their faith.
Character seals date at least to the Chou dynasty (1027-221 BC).  Through the Han, their texts were impressed into wads of clay that secured ties that bound up documents and letters, much in the way western seals were once pressed into the red wax used for sealing letters.  In both cases, a seal impression insured that a sealed document had remained private since leaving its sender.  Later, seals were usually coated with seal ink and their texts impressed on a wide array of objects, especially letters, calligraphies, paintings, and official, personal, and business documents.  Seal impressions served as the signatures of their owners, to mark personal possessions, or to identify the producers of art works or manufactures.

The history of pictorial seals, in contrast to the long, constant use of character seals, is erratic.  Popular during the Han, pictorial seals were often carved with animals, scenes, and human figures.  Subsequently, they virtually died out.  Post-Han, there are scarcely more than one or two extant pictorial seals per dynasty.  It was only in the nineteenth century that the great seal carver, calligrapher, and painter Zhao Zhijian (1829-1884) carved a few pictorial images into seal stones.  Even these were not incised into the faces of their seals but into their sides.  Yet, this was sufficient impetus to renew the Han tradition, and pictorial seals, while far less common than character seals, have enjoyed a degree of popularity since then.

Hu Lunguang has been best noted for character and pictorial seals that follow styles from the Han.  This approach is typical of the works of character seal carvers but contrasts, for example, with those of many pictorial seal carvers of the late nineteenth century, who carved highly realistic outdoor scenes, or of early twentieth century artists, who accurately portrayed their clients down to their eyeglasses.  The Han style also contrasts with the styles of some modern carvers.  Some of these chisel portraits of clients or famous figures set against random-looking backgrounds that are clearly taken from photographs.  Others, influenced by folk styles, carve animals and figures in simple outlines without interior detailing.  In the twentieth century, however, the most serious and aesthetically noteworthy of pictorial carvers have tended to interpret Han models.  Characteristic is the work of Lai Chusheng (1903-1975), who is usually considered the best pictorial seal carver of the twentieth century.

Hu Lunguang's pictorial seals have also typically followed Han styles, although he has been experimenting more recently with imagery from the Tang and more recent times.  Beside his excellence of composition and line, some of his best works include unusual combinations of intaglio and relief carving.  Rather than carving ground and figure planes so that each prints in a different color, he involves red and white in both planes.  The resulting interplay of colors can create abstract configurations that insert non-representational passages in some of his pictorial seals.  As a result of these and other efforts, Bai Qianshen and John Finlay have described the artist as "perhaps the best living carver of pictorial seals" ("The World Within a Square Inch:  Modern Developments in Chinese Seal Carving," Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin, 1993, p. 56).

The quality of his character seals is equal to that of his pictorial seals.  Hu's most typical character seals have medium to large intaglio characters carved in broad white lines that are pitted and scarred after the aged appearance acquired by most Han seals over time.  His relief seals also can be masterworks, their thin lines incised with the rough strength of corroded wire.  More recently, he has experimented with a variety of other character styles from the Han and since.  These have included carving imitations of Han seals whose straight-lined characters were machined into jade with a cutting wheel.  Other of his seals were carved in round red script (yuan ju wen), a relief style that arose in the Yuan dynasty.

Matthew presented reproductions of 18 impressions of Hu Lunguangs' seals accompanied by their catalog entries from the Yao Hsien Collection.  He also passed around several of the artist's seal stones and another carved into a Ming period brick.  A scroll of the artist's carving of a Buddha sitting on a lotus blossom between two trees was hung for viewing; too large to be impressed as a seal, the artist reproduces this work as a rubbing.

Jung-Ping plays the qin melody "Yang Chun" and gives a few notes on its history

At meeting's end, Jung-Ping played a gu qin piece titled "Yang Chun," or "Spring Sounds."  In ancient times, it was part of a longer piece, "Yang Chun Bai Xue" ("Spring Sounds and White Snow"), but at some point the title was split in half, and today there are two pieces, "Yang Chun" and "Bai Xue."  The original "Yang Chun Bai Xue" is thought to be antique, originating perhaps in the Spring and Autumn period (722-481 BC) of the Chou dynasty.  However, it is suspected that the music to "Yang Chun" is not part of the original piece but of more modern origin.  The preface to "Yang Chun" speaks of the warm, comfortable scenery of spring and of the delights of flowering trees, bright sunlight, drifting clouds.  Jung-Ping used this prologue as guide to his interpretation.  He learned both pieces from his second master, Wu Zhaoji, who has made recordings of them still available on compact disk.

Members: Alex Chao, Stephen Dydo, Matthew Flannery, Willow Hai, Shida Kuo, Bo Lawergren, Gopal Sukhu, Yuan Jung-Ping

to page 1. Shida outlined the history of tea drinking prefatory to discussing Yixing teapots.
to page 2. Matthew outlines the history of script types and talks about the art of Hu Lunguang.

Copyright © 2002 New York Qin Society. All rights reserved.