History of Chinese Calligraphy – Modern Period: The Song Dynasty – Early Modern Period


The Song Dynasty (宋朝/Song Chao/Song Ch’ao): Social and Technological Development

The end of the Tang Dynasty was heralded by a dilution of imperial control in favour of an increase in the power of local warlords. With the eventual demise of the Tang Imperial line in 907 CE, China experienced a brief fragmentation into much smaller states. This period would last less than a hundred years, however, and would be closely followed by the instatement in 960 CE of a new unified dynasty, known as the Song.

In the West, the 476 CE fall of the Roman Empire heralded a long Dark Age. Although China certainly experienced periods of fragmentation, the strength of the idealized Imperial system allowed the idea of a unified China to persist, and the civilization to advance socially and technologically, in a comparatively consistent fashion. By the 11th century, China was the most technologically advanced culture in the world. The invention of the maritime compass, block printing and firearms, as well as an increasingly prosperous and stable political system meant allowed China to emerge as a proto-modern society far before the West was able to make such a claim.

Prevalence of Calligraphy due to the Superiority of Confucianist Government Style

While the Song period saw unprecedented social and technological developments, it was nevertheless complicated by persistent tensions in the North. Initially, the Liao dynasty maintained a claim to a Chinese cultural heritage: it was able to survive the demise of the Tang and persisted as a separate ‘China’ even though it was ruled by non-Han tribes. Yet, such was the perceived effectiveness of the Chinese style of aristocratic Confucian government that the Liao rulers maintained a largely Chinese elite class of officials.

The fall of the Liao was also a time of severe hardship for the Song. The Jurchen people conquered and effectively exterminated the Liao culture and, in 1127 CE were able to capture the Song capital and the then-Emperor Huizong and his family along with thousands of members of his court. The next hundred and fifty years are referred to as the Southern Song. During this period, the capital was resituated to Hangzhou and political and literary culture was typified by a mourning at the defeat tempered only by hope for an eventual reclamation of the dynasty’s earlier glories.

Song Calligraphy: Calligraphy as a Means of Political Expression

It is little surprise that an era such as the Song, which saw increased activity in scholarly focus, the radical (for its time) liberalization of literacy and the emergence of printing technologies, should have a similarly strong, vibrant and progressive calligraphic tradition. Indeed, calligraphy was celebrated and emphasized in an unprecedentedly official fashion. Systems of testing for the grading of calligraphers were created in parallel with the civil service examinations. So committed to the visual arts, ceramics, painting and calligraphy did the elite culture of the Song become that even the capture of Emperor Huizong has been blamed on his own neglect of state affairs in favour of aesthetic pursuits.

Indeed, the Standard Script of Huizong maintains its elegance and effortless regularity to this day. His work represents one extreme of the Script, with exceedingly thin yet forceful lines, subtle pull and press coupled with a masterful sense of proportion and balance. This style speaks to the high refinement of the period, evoking sensitivity and smooth expression that is rarely accomplished in Regular Script.

The calligraphy of the Southern Song, however, takes on a different character. While the supremacy of the Chinese culture remained a basic assumption, calligraphy was deployed as a means of embodying remarkably subtle political arguments and aspirations. Works were often created in a self-consciously personal style after the masters of the past so as to assert the artist’s affinity with the moral rectitude and character of the exemplar. In particular, Huang Ting Jian’s work was closely based on the calligraphy of Yan Zhenqing whose self-sacrifice and unflinching loyalty to the Tang was a fundamental factor in his eventual enshrinement as a historical master. Although copying from valued examples was a firmly established tradition, the stakes of artistic allusion and reference became increasingly high in such politically tense times.