A Short Biography of Zhao Meng Fu (趙孟頫/Chao Meng Fu)
The transition from the Song Dynasty to the Yuan was a turbulent time in China. In the artistic tradition, one man more than any other embodied the difficulties and opportunities presented by both the fall of an ailing dynasty and the assertion of foreign rule. Zhao Meng Fu (1254-1322), a descendent of the Song royal family, survived the fall of the Song and lived to gain great acclaim as a calligrapher and artist. Although he was linked by blood to the previous dynasty, Zhao nevertheless wholeheartedly promoted the legitimacy of Mongol rule in China. As a result many scholars in his own time and in the later Ming Dynasty criticized him as little better than a traitor.
Zhao held official positions in both the Song and Yuan dynasties. However, in his later life he retired from public life and devoted himself almost exclusively to the literati pursuits of painting and calligraphy. Modern scholarship points to the career of Zhao Meng Fu as an interesting turning point in the literati tradition. In particular, Zhao focused on pairing the free expression of personal emotion and feeling with a sustained air of antiquity. It was not his preference to imitate individual masters, but to instead write and paint in a simple manner that evoked the artistic tradition that, by his time, was almost a millennia old. His excellent command of Kai Shu exhibits this preference for classical styles.
The Calligraphy of Zhao Meng Fu (趙孟頫/Chao Meng Fu)
It has been said that Zhao Meng Fu’s calligraphy did not bring anything truly unique to the tradition, despite being masterfully produced. This charge may appear somewhat blinkered if we are to judge calligraphy only on its originality. Unarguably, Zhao was an accomplished calligrapher of many styles. Although his writing may be seen as derivative, it is also deliberately and self-consciously so. Many have remarked on the openness and accessibility of his writing. At every turn, Zhao was attempting to assert his familiarity and participation in a distinguished and continuous tradition of artistic expression.
Perhaps one of Zhao’s most famous calligraphic works is his extended commentary on Wang Xi Zhi’s Lanting Preface. A work in thirteen sections, it is clear that Zhao had a great many ideas about the masters of the past. In style, the work is often considered ‘formal xing’: a more legible and less expressive type of Xing Shu. Indeed, the remaining fragments of this commentary show Zhao to have a casual mastery and directness in his writing that is as sober as it is reverent. This is not to say that Zhao’s work is abrupt. Above all, he maintained a fluid style, eschewing angularity: even his straight strokes can sometimes evoke an s-curve. Despite his complicated political position, it is clear that Zhao Meng Fu contributed greatly to the maintenance of the literati tradition he loved so much.