A Short Biography of Sun Guo Ting (孫過庭/Sun Kuo T’ing)
The Tang Dynasty is well known as the era in which the Chinese calligraphy tradition both established its roots firmly in the society, and achieved some of its most sublime heights. While much of the groundwork for this calligraphic revolution was accomplished by such early court figures as Ouyang Xun (歐陽詢/ Ou-yang Hsün, 557-641 CE) and Yu Shinan (虞世南/Yü Shih-nan, 558-638), Sun Guoting (646-691) might be said to epitomize the idea of the amateur Tang calligraphy master.
It is recalled by a biographer that Sun Guoting’s life was meager and short. Living only to the age of 45, it is clear that Sun did not live a lavish courtly life. Indeed, while it is known that he spent some time at court, even achieving a high position, he quickly resigned to ignominy after being the object of slander. It is said that Sun resigned out of moral integrity, but whether or not this is the case, he clearly devoted his remaining years to the pursuit of calligraphy. Not being content merely to practice the art, Sun is one of the first systematic theorists of Chinese Calligraphy. Indeed, the one surviving piece of his calligraphy is the preface to a now-lost longer work about calligraphy itself.
Sun Guoting’s (孫過庭/Sun Kuo T’ing) Treatise on Calligraphy (書譜/Shu Pu)
Written in 687 CE, Sun’s Treatise on Calligraphy is both a masterful calligraphy work in Cao Shu, and the first recorded theoretical work about calligraphy. The pairing of subject and style are thus mutually supporting: the work must be viewed as more than strictly calligraphy, and it is clearly more than just an essay.
The calligraphy itself is in the style of Wang Xizhi, whose effect on calligraphy practice is still felt today. The work is direct, but fluid, with some exposed tips, and evidence of holding the brush at a variety of angles. Often, Cursive works link characters together in long, illegible strings. In Sun’s treatise, one can see that most of the characters are separate, yet they are simplified far beyond what we might be tempted to call Xing Shu. Even so, the speed and precision of the composition is plainly seen: there is no hint of hesitation or anxiety.
The subject of the Treatise is quite broad. It begins by attempting to rank calligraphers according to their skills and mastery. Wang Xizhi, unsurprisingly, is placed at the top of this ranking system. Sun then goes on to expound on the artistic merits of calligraphy. He claims that one’s personality can be shown through calligraphy as an expression of both abstract aesthetics and literary content. Next, he gives some comments regarding famous works of his period before concluding with a formulation of the basic techniques of calligraphy. All of this technical and theoretical work is made all the more enticing and illuminating by its masterful calligraphic execution.