Religion and Philosophy in Chinese Calligraphy – The Impact of Neo-Confucianism on Calligraphy: Cultural Identity and Emulation

Neo-Confucianism – Updating the Classics, New Perspectives

By the Song Dynasty, the Confucian classics were almost a millennia old. As a result, especially when it came to enacting filial rituals, the standards of proper conduct were exceedingly difficult to follow adequately. Technologies, social customs and the cultural context in general that the Confucians were engaging with in their pursuit of moral refinement had all changed to such an extent that certain parts of the Confucian canon were either impossible to follow or had slipped into the obscurity of archaism.

In addition, the ascendency of Buddhism and Taoism and their growing roots within elite culture exposed traditional scriptural modes of Confucianism to additional scrutiny. Nevertheless, the hold that Confucianism had on the the elite culture of China was still incredibly strong. What was required was a renewed tradition that could provide individual Confucians with answers to questions not contained in original scriptures. Zhu Xi (朱熹/Chu Hsi, 1130-1200 CE) attempted just such a renewal. As history has shown, his project of updating Confucianism was a resounding success.

Zhu Xi adopted a philosophical stance that made use of certain Buddhist and Taoist principles. In so doing, he re-focused the Confucian tradition on the ability of the individual to make moral and logical choices without needing to adhere directly to doctrine. Instead of relying only on the moral strictures of the Classics, Zhu Xi provided a metaphysical understanding of the universe alongside an imperative that things be investigated (格物/Ge Wu) according to their own particular principles (理/Li) and essences (氣/Qi/Ch’i). In addition, Zhu Xi wrote extensive commentaries on classical works that, though mostly ignored in his own time, would come to form the core of the Neo-Confucian school.

Neo-Confucianism and Calligraphy: Initial Moves, Lasting Impact

While his philosophical works are very well-known, Zhu Xi was also an accomplished calligrapher. Like his more general literary projects, Zhu Xi looked to the past for his artistic pursuits. He effectively mastered the styles of the Han and Wei, and his Cursive was as bold as it was fluid. Although his works fit seamlessly into the calligraphic tradition, it is important to note that he promoted, in both his art and philosophy, the need for ‘naturalness’ in expression. That is: tradition and standards are important, but they are to be tempered by an understanding of the present context, of the individual’s capabilities and aptitudes. Works by Zhu Xi are quite scarce, yet they are spread around the globe: from Beijing to Taiwan to Tokyo and in numerous private collections overseas.

In the literati arts more generally, the introduction of Neo-Confucian thinking provided artists with increased freedom in the pursuit of artistic expression. From the Song onward, direct copying and emulation, while still done for training purposes, was rarely seen as an adequate vehicle for the expression of Confucian virtue; artists were expected to be able, almost unconsciously, to expose their inner natures in their brush-strokes. It is in part thanks to the Neo-Confucian movement that the personal correspondence and the like became just as valued as calligraphy as were works produced with a direct artistic intention. The idea of Ge Wu (格物), or the investigation of things, allowed critics and calligraphers alike to find art where they could, and rely less on the masters.