What is an Inscription of a Chinese Artwork?
The inscriptions works of Chinese calligraphy or painting have a similar function to the signatures on Western artworks. They tell the viewer who wrote or painted the composition, but they may also relate more information about the context of the writing or painting: where it took place, when, and for what purpose.
The history of Chinese art, especially when it comes to painting and calligraphy, is one of increasing intimacy. Exchanging calligraphy and paintings, or simply viewing them together, formed the bonds of friendship between scholars in many eras. It is perhaps because of this more direct personal connotation that the inscription, with full details up to and including the intended recipient, has such an honoured place in the tradition.
What is the Correct Order of the Inscription on a Chinese Artwork?
Most often, the order of the information in the inscription goes 1) time or date of the work, 2) name of the artist and 3) the location where the art was produced. When it comes to the date, it is most common to use the traditional Chinese date. Of course, this dating system is far too complex to deal with adequately in this space. However, there are numerous online tools that can help you convert the Western Julian date into the traditional Chinese. It is somewhat uncommon for the full date to be inscribed on an artwork. Usually just the year, month or even season alone will suffice. When it comes to writing your name, keep in mind that usually only one’s given name is used in artistic inscription; this keeps the feeling of the piece much more familiar and intimate. After your name, you might want to include the character ‘shu’ (書) which will make it read as ‘so-and-so wrote this’. Finally, a location is sometimes provided. It is important to note that Chinese locations are ordered from the most general place to the most specific. In most cases, artists will simply state what province, city, country or even continent they are writing from.
One other common bit of information that might be inscribed on a piece is the intended recipient of the artwork. If you wish to include this, it should be the very first part of the inscription. Alternatively, the dedication might form a separate inscription at the very beginning of the piece, informing the viewer from the outset precisely for whom the work was done. When you dedicate a work, make sure you include the appropriate title for the person. In addition, it is common to provide a humble prompt to the recipient to either correct your mistakes or give you comments. Most common are ‘Ya Zheng’ (雅正/Ya Cheng) for the former and ‘Zhi Zheng’ (指正/Chih Cheng) for the latter. These would come after the recipient’s title.
The Role of the Inscription as Part of the Composition of a Chinese Artwork
When writing an inscription, be mindful of your style. In general, an inscription is of a later script than the main body. So, using Cursive or Running Script for Kai Shu works, or Regular Script for Seal or Clerical Scripts are all acceptable. In fact, using a different script than is used in the body is one way to enhance the visual interest of the piece and truly show the depth of your expertise. Even if the work is done in wild Cursive, you might vary the style in the inscription by changing brushes.
Of course, the inscription should not dominate the work itself. Using smaller characters than are in the body is the norm. Nevertheless, it is important that the inscription not be too separate from the rest of the work so that they appear disjointed and at odds. For this reason, proper planning is very important. Leaving room in the final column for the inscription might be helpful. Alternatively, leave an extra column-width at the end for the inscription. If the inscription is not carried out in the final column itself, make sure you do not place it any higher than the top of the body: it should defer visually to the main work by starting lower down on the page. Hopefully, with a little practice, your inscriptions will heighten the visual interest and unity of your piece.