Artistic Excellence: the Definition of a Master in the Tradition of Chinese Calligraphy
Even a cursory study of Chinese Art, both in painting and calligraphy, must at some point deal with the personalities who shaped artistic values across history. The styles of individual artists have been central to the traditional arts of China since the Han, and as a result, personal style and emulation have been more important in China than they were in the West. While antique styles have endured in the West, in China these styles can be traced back far more readily to individual persons than to more abstract aesthetic principles.
But what makes a person a Master of their art? The answer lies not only in the technical excellence of the individual, but also in his or her creativity, and in the cultural milieu in which they thrived.
All of the Masters brought something new to the artistic tradition, yet all of them adhered in some fashion to the formal, historical genres and modes of the literati arts. That is, the Master must be able to express his individual style through the well-worn and sometimes strict formal structures of the various scripts or painting styles. As time went on, the idea of the Master’s personality being expressed in his writing or painting became closely linked with Confucian ideals. In this way, there is far more at stake in the Chinese arts than mere aesthetics. The artist himself, rather than the subject of the work, in some sense becomes the focus of the Chinese arts.
The Importance of the Imitation of Master Calligraphers in the Tradition of Chinese Calligraphy
Since the Tang Dynasty, the Chinese artist has had to produce his art in a context that values emulation just as much as it values creativity. Past Masters have for centuries provided an aesthetic standard against which current activity is measured. Indeed, in ages past, an artist would likely have been congratulated far more on a decent copy of a celebrated work than he would be for a completely original work. With such a premium placed on history and tradition in Chinese society in general, it is perhaps unsurprising that the artistic tradition maintained such a remarkable coherence.
This is not to say, however, that Chinese art made no progress whatever in its millennia-long history. Only when one had mastered the past styles could one begin to develop a truly personal style. Nevertheless, most Masters would credit their forbears with influencing their works. As a result, the tradition of honouring the masters only intensified over time.