Huai Su Autobiographical Essay Rubric



Timely Clearing after Snowfall

Wang Hsi-chih (303-361), Chin dynasty

Album leaf, ink on paper, 23 x 14.8 cm

Wang Hsi-chih, whose ancestors came from Shantung, was born into a scholarly aristocratic family. Fleeing south at the end of the Western Chin (265-316) during conflicts at the time, he settled down in Kuei-chi, Chekiang. He rose to the positions of General of the Right Army and Administrator of Kuei-chi but left office in the Yung-ho period (345-356) of the Eastern Chin, traveling the land with renowned fellow gentlemen. Pouring out his heart in poetry and ballads, he also delved into music and especially calligraphy. His study of calligraphy began with contemporary writers and extended back to the ancients as he learned from the styles of many masters, picking and choosing the best for an in-depth and extensive manner. He was particularly gifted in creating forceful characters, fusing the brush methods of various Ch'in (221-206 BCE) seal and Han (206 BCE-220 CE) clerical scripts into his own ideal renditions of regular, running, and cursive script forms. Consequently, later writers in the T'ang dynasty (618-907) praised him for “bringing the best methods together to form a style of his own to become a master for all ages.”

This is a short letter written in semi-regular script bearing the writer's and recipient's names at the front and end, the contents dealing with a greeting to a friend after a snowfall. The Ming dynasty connoisseur Chan Ching-feng (1528-1602) pointed out that the brushwork here is rounded yet strong and ancient yet elegant, bearing a lofty and leisurely manner that had a major influence on the running script of the great Yüan dynasty calligrapher Chao Meng-fu (1254-1322). Judging from the strokes, this work indeed mainly reveals the use of a rounded and blunt brush, with none of the dots and hooks revealing the brush tip, creating an overall even and steady form. The elegant manner here also reveals a simple and introverted harmony. In the Ch'ing dynasty, the Ch'ien-lung Emperor (r. 1736-1795) admired this work so much that he praised it as “Alone under the Heavens, a rare match with the ancient today.” In 1746, he referred to this work along with Wang Hsien-chih's (344-386) “Chung-ch'iu (Mid-Autumn)” and Wang Hsün's (349-400) “Po-yüan” as the “Three Rarities,” storing them in the “Three Rarities Hall” (San-hsi T'ang). “Timely Clearing after Snowfall” is generally considered a rare and fine tracing copy made in the T'ang dynasty.


Wang Hsi-chih (303-361), Chin dynasty

Handscroll, ink on paper, 24.8 x 21.5 cm

Because this work begins with the two characters “Hsing-pieh,” it is also known as such. This is a copy using outlines filled with ink, in which the outlines of the individual strokes are carefully delineated with brushstrokes and then filled with ink. It was the most faithful method of making a copy in ancient times, hence the saying that it “ranks second only to the original itself.” The separate piece of yellow silk at the front bears a title in Emperor Hui-tsung's (r. 1100-1125) “slender gold” script of the Sung dynasty along with seal impressions of the imperial household. It was also recorded in Hui-tsung's Hsüan-ho Calligraphy Catalogue and also includes seal impressions for “Ch'un-yü chung-pi” and “Ming-ch'ang yü-lan” of the Chin emperor Chang-tsung (r. 1190-1208) as well as collections of later (Yüan, Ming, and Ch'ing) dynasties.

Judging from the contents of the letter, we know that the recipient was the Prefect of I-chou, Chou Fu (293-365), and that this is a late work by Wang Hsi-chih. This letter also appears in the compilation “Shih-ch'i” surviving from the T'ang dynasty (618-907), but the lines there are stiffer and do not reflect the delicate touches of the brush, completely lacking the style of Wang Hsi-chih's calligraphy. Thus, it is much inferior to the faithfulness of outline copies such as this work.

Essay on Calligraphy

Sun Kuo-t'ing (fl. latter half of 7th c.), T'ang dynasty

Handscroll, ink on paper, 26.5 x 900.8 cm

This surviving handscroll of cursive script is about nine meters long and consists of about 3,700 characters in 351 lines. This masterpiece was written by the learned theorist and practitioner of calligraphy Sun Kuo-t'ing and completed in the third year of the Ch'ui-kung year (687).

In Sun Kuo-t'ing's own words, he started paying attention to calligraphy at the Chinese age of 15, delving into it for several decades thereafter. With calligraphy his labor of love, combined with an exceptional talent in it, Sun's efforts led him to become praised by critics through the ages. He was determined to compose a work to assist beginning students of calligraphy, but unfortunately unable to complete it before his death, leaving only this preface, the contents of which can be divided into four main parts.

The first part discusses achieving “breadth” and “skill” in calligraphy, emphasizing the importance of skill in all the major script types. The second is a description of the principles behind recording “Essay on Calligraphy.” The third emphasizes the copying of models, reminding scholars that when copying they must focus on spiritual elements and not just external forms. The final part is a description of the process, attitude, and realm in studying calligraphy. “Essay on Calligraphy” contains both elegant and coarser manners of expression all together in one piece. In the more elegant parts, the brushwork is gentle with more graceful. In coarser sections, the brushwork is quick without ornamentation. It seems that Sun Kuo-t'ing intentionally sought to provide concrete examples of the various forms of beauty in calligraphy when doing this work.

Draft of a Requiem to My Nephew

Yen Chen-ch'ing (709-785), T'ang dynasty

Handscroll, ink on paper, 28.3 x 75.5 cm

Yen Chen-ch'ing was a native of Lin-i in Shantung. After the revolt of Huai-hsi Military Commissioner Li Hsi-lieh in 784, Yen Chen-ch'ing was ordered by the court to seek his surrender, but on September 10, 785, he refused to submit to the rebel out of loyalty and was murdered. Later generations respectfully referred to him as “Yen, Duke of Lu” and “Yen of P'ing-yüan.” Earlier during the rebellion of An Lu-shan (ca. 703-757), Yen Chen-ch'ing's cousin Yen Kao-ch'ing was serving as Magistrate of Ch'ang-shan. When rebel forces invaded the area, T'ang armies under T'ai-yüan Military Commissioner Wang Ch'eng-yeh did not come to the rescue, resulting in the fall of the town and the slaughter of the loyal Yen Kao-ch'ing, his son Yen Chi-ming, and the entire Yen clan there (more than thirty in all). This is what Yen Chen-ch'ing meant when he wrote in this piece, “A traitorous official did not come to the rescue, so a lone town was surrounded. A father and son perished, their (entire) nest destroyed.” After the incident, Yen Chen-ch'ing sent his elder nephew Ch'üan-ming to the town to make funerary arrangements. However, he could only find the foot of Kao-ch'ing and the skull of Chi-ming. It was under these heart-wrenching circumstances that Yen Chen-ch'ing wrote “Draft of a Requiem to My Nephew” at the Chinese age of 50.

Scholars have pointed out that the character of a person is revealed by his or her calligraphy. Yen Chen-ch'ing was renowned as a man of loyalty and integrity all his life, and this spirit is fully revealed in his calligraphy. As such, this handscroll is one of the works most frequently cited by scholars. Done with a stubby brush, Yen imparted a round and upright manner to the strokes that suggests flowing seal script. Though the ink is so dark that it appears scorched, considerable variety to the ink tones from start to finish is due to the speed and movement of the brush. Consequently, it looks as if written in a single sitting.

This scroll was a preliminary draft for a more formal composition. Consequently, Yen Chen-ch'ing went back and crossed out and changed characters in numerous places. This shows how he composed and edited his writing, providing insight into his ideas as well as his calligraphy. Despite the formality of the content, the style reveals considerable ups and downs emotionally, making this one of the premier examples from the hand of Yen Chen-ch'ing and praised as “the second best work of running script under the Heavens.”


Huai-su (fl. latter half of 8th c.), T'ang dynasty

Handscroll, ink on paper, 28.3 x 755 cm

Huai-su was a monk who originally went by the surname Ch'ien and the style name Ts'ang-chen. Born in Ling-ling County, Hunan, he later moved to Ch'ang-sha. As a youth, he became interested in Buddhism, eventually taking the tonsure. Huai-su was more renowned, however, as a devotee to the art of cursive script. At around 772, he traveled north to the capital Ch'ang-an and Loyang. His cursive script, similar in spirit to his free and unrestrained personality, was greatly admired by famous contemporaries, poets, and other calligraphers, such as Yen Chen-ch'ing (709-785), who all presented him with gifts of prose and poetry. In 777, Huai-su transcribed some of these with a preface in “wild” cursive script to create this handscroll.

In this work, Huai-su used a fine brush to write characters. The strokes are rounded and dashing, like steel wires curled and bent into shape. The tip of the brush is exposed where it lifts from the paper, leaving a distinctive hook--hence the description “steel strokes and silver hooks” for Huai-su's calligraphy. A continuous cursive force also permeates the entire piece. The brush skirts up, down, left, and right as it speeds across the paper. The crescendos of the brush, like a sword, reveal varying speeds, the calligraphy appearing light and heavy in places. In other words, this work is like a symphony of distinct rhythms, harmonies, and sections where the instruments are all seamlessly orchestrated for an overall sense of feeling and depth. In addition to the strokes, the dots suggest breaks to the flowing strokes. In the relentless force of the brushwork, the centered brush swirls and dances to create character after character and line after line, only to be punctuated by the impeccably placed dots. Despite this piece being an example of “wild” cursive script, it also has a great sense of regularity. Thus, the handscroll represents the ultimate in cursive script--control with freedom and spirit with restraint.

Part II: History -by KS Vincent Poon

a) Background

Huai Su (懷素, 725-785 AD or 737-799 AD ) was a Buddhist monk in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) and was known for his elegant and wild cursive script, even in his times (1,2).  His calligraphic accomplishments were considered in par with the legendary "Sage of Cursive Script (草聖)" Zhang Xu (張旭, 675-750 AD).  This particular piece, Huai Su'sAutobiography  (懷素自叙帖), was written in 777 AD during Huai Su's later years and is considered today to be one of the best written cursive script works in Chinese history (3).

b) Synopsis

The magnificent Autobiography can be divided into four main parts:

1. A very short introduction of Huai Su written by Huai Su himself, including the whereabouts of his own hometown, his becoming of a Buddhist monk at an early age, and his passion for Chinese calligraphy.

2. A description of Huai Su's calligraphic accomplishments, extracted from the preamble of "A collection of poems devoted to Master Huai Su's cursive script" (懷素上人草書歌) (4,5), originally composed by one of Huai Su's calligraphy teacher, the renowned Yan Zhenqing (顏真卿, 709-785 AD) (6).  Note this particular preamble, interestingly, also included a brief description on the origin and the conveyance of the traditional cursive script in the eyes of Yan Zhenqing.  For more elaborate details on this preamble, please see Part IV: Preliminary Study - b) Huai Su's calligraphy and conveyance of traditions below.

3. Selected praises of Huai Su from notaries during Huai Su's era, including those written by Dai Shulun (戴叔倫, 732-789 AD),Wang Yong (王邕, ?-? AD) and Xu Yao (許瑤, ?-? AD).  These praises mainly commented on the physical forms (形似), artistic styles and structures (機格), as well as the pace (疾速) of Huai Su' calligraphy. Highlights include:

  • 「馳毫驟墨列奔駟, 滿座失聲看不及。」-- "Huai Su’s ink-soaked brush ran with the speed of a galloping stallion, leaving his audience speechless and unable to trace its path",
  • 「心手相師勢轉奇,詭形怪狀翻合宜。」-- "His mind commands his hand and his hand guides his mind as he moves his brush to create strange forms and structures; although his script forms are odd and bizarre, collectively they are aesthetically harmonious and appropriate",
  • 「奔蛇走虺勢入座,驟雨旋風聲滿堂。」-- "(Huai Sui’s scripts) are like swift moving dragons and serpents travelling around with their aura filling up the empty spaces; his scripts are as compelling as if one is hearing the loud roars that can fill up an entire hall created from abrupt raindrops and violent swirling winds".

4. A concluding paragraph wherein he humbly asserted that he was not qualified for such praises above, with the date and Huai Su's signature at the very end.

c) Versions of Huai Su's Autobiography

The original Autobiography can no longer be found, but there were three different presumable copies of the original Autobiography according to literature written in the Southern Song Dynasty (南宋紹興二年, 1132 AD): the Shu version (藏在蜀中石陽休家), the Fung version (藏在馮當世家) and the Su version (藏在蘇子美家) (7).  The Su version can be currently viewed at the National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan, and was recently determined to be a modelling copy (映寫) of the original made in the Northern Song Dynasty (北宋, 960–1126 AD) (8)(9)(10); note also that this particular version displayed at the National Palace Museum is certainly not the complete original modelling replica of Huai Su's initial Autobiography as, at the minimum, the first six rows from the right of this particular version has been confirmed to be "repairs" (六行後補) written by an another calligrapher at a later date.

My model of the work presented above is the Shu version (蜀本) of the Autobiography.  In my humble opinion, compared to the Su version, the Shu version is more aesthetically pleasing and, perhaps, more consistent with Huai Su's unique artistic approach to the cursive script, and also more loyal to the form practised by one of Huai Su's teacher, Yan Zhenqing (Please see here for more analysis on this topic).  Therefore, from a purely artistic point of view, I personally believe that the Shu version is of a higher caliber than the Su version in terms of calligraphic achievement.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *