A Short Biography of Zhang Zhi (張芝/Chang Chih)
When dealing with the origins of Chinese Clligraphy, it is often difficult to find existent examples of ancient calligraphy that can be verifiably attributed to the correct artist. Such is the case with Zhang Zhi. Most of what we know about him comes in the form of much later criticism of his works. In fact, no-one has yet been able to determine exactly when he was born. The date of his death in 192 CE, however, places him in the waning years of the Han Dynasty. Moreover, historians are relatively certain that he was born in Yuanquan County, Dunhuang Province (present-day Jiuquan, Guansu Province) in the northwest of China.
The works attributed to Zhang Zhi are also incredibly rare. Those that do exist are not originals, but rather rubbings of inscriptions that are said to be his work. The Guan Jun Tie (冠軍貼/Guan Chün T’ieh) and Ba Yue Tie (八月貼/Ba Yüeh T’ieh) are examples of this type.
Zhang Zhi’s (張芝/Chang Chih) Impact on Chinese Calligraphy
Despite the relative lack of existing works by the Master Zhang Zhi, it is clear that he had an enormous impact on calligraphic practice both in his own time and for later generations. Indeed, up to Zhang Zhi’s time, calligraphy had been centered wholly on the regular scripts. Li Shu, Zhuan Shu, and later Kai Shu, all demanded that characters be independent, and conform to very strict rules of stroke order. With Zhang Zhi, all of this regularity was essentially disposed of. He produced works in a Cursive style the likes of which none had ever seen. In particular, his ability to link characters together in single-stroke compositions revolutionized Chinese calligraphic practice by creating incredible possibilities for expressive brush-work that was not limited to individual characters. In effect, the composition was opened up as characters bled into one another. Nevertheless, Zhang himself was very cognizant of the fact that writing in the Cursive style could not be accomplished casually or with thinking: he famously said that he was often “匆匆不暇草書” (Cong cong bu xia cao shu), or “too busy to write cursive,” suggesting that one must be in a tranquil mindset if one is to focus correctly on one’s writing. Nevertheless, anecdotes describe Zhang as a phenomenally dedicated calligraphist: it is said that the pool beside where he worked was entirely stained black by his ink.
Wang Xi Zhi, the great Master of the Jin Dynasty considered his own Cursive to be inferior to Zhang’s. Likewise, Huai Su and Sun Guoting both spoke very highly of Zhang’s work and strove to emulate his style. Clearly, Zhang Zhi was a titan in the world of Chinese Calligraphy.