History of Chinese Calligraphy – The Golden Age of Chinese Calligraphy: The Development of Calligraphy During Tang Dynasty

The Tang Dynasty (唐朝/Tang Chao/T’ang Ch’ao): China Reunified

It would be almost three hundred years following the the fall of the Han before a stable Chinese empire would once again be created. Many scholars have commented on the parallels between the Qin-Han succession and the Sui-Tang succession. In both cases, a military power conquered and unified China only to fall to a usurping force that would hold that empire together for hundreds of years.

The Sui lasted only thirty-six years, falling when a general took the opportunity of civil strife and rebellions to usurp the throne. The first Tang Emperor, later called Gaozu, was able to quickly reassert Imperial rule, and his dynasty, the Tang, would last almost three hundred years.

The Tang is often considered as a water-shed in Chinese history, whose glory has never quite been superceded. While the Tang period was certainly vibrant and cosmopolitan, and the state did enjoy great influence within East Asia at the time, it did hold its fair share of intrigue, rebellion and eventually suffered a slow decline or Imperial power.

The Golden Age of Scholarship During Tang Dynasty – An Environment for Calligraphy to Grow

The ruling elite in the Tang, as had long been the case, were the literate courtiers and lesser officials who ran the massive bureaucracy required for an empire of such size. Although a single regime ruled China once again, the local elite families maintained their privilege through to the Tang. More than this, the amount of time that had passed since the fall of the Han allowed the Tang to have a less complicated relationship with the previous dynasty than the Han had with the Zhou or the Zhou with the Shang. The presence at this time of rare Han relics and scholarly works ennobled the Tang to try and relive this perceived golden age of prosperity and scholarship.

Yet, local customs and cultures had crystallized during divisions between North and South. These continued and introduced a remarkable cosmopolitanism, and sometimes no small degree of ill-feeling and suspicion, at any centre large enough to attract merchants from the far reaches of the empire. Buddhism enjoyed court patronage at many times, and individual nobles gave vast sums for the glory of their local temples and monasteries. So, while the political system could easily be related to earlier precedents, and Confucianism and Taoism were strong forces, Buddhism and the simple fact of local differences and increased migration for trade meant China would never be as it was in the early Imperial period.

First Moves of Historicism – Calligraphy During Tang Dynasty

While the Two Wangs and other ancient masters have come down to us over the centuries, no small debt for the maintenance of their tradition is owed to the calligraphers and connoisseurs of the Tang. Indeed, many of the remaining works attributed to the oldest masters are available only through tracing copies that were reproduced in the Tang.

Imperial patronage certainly did not impede the progress of the calligraphic arts. Yu Shinan, a descendant of Wang Xi Zhi himself, was calligraphy tutor to Emperor Taizong. Taizong so enjoyed the works of his tutor’s forebear that it is said he was buried with Wang’s most famous work, the “Lanting Preface”.

By the eighth century CE, the calligraphic landscape was increasingly diverse. Yan Zhenqing’s closely-spaced, yet finely controlled regular script evokes a directness and a bold simplicity that was quite unprecedented. On the other extreme is the stately, self-consciously archaic Li Shu stele “Classic of Filial Piety” by Emperor Xuanzong, which speaks to reserve, grace and solidity. This period also saw monks produce great works, often in an effulgent and broadly unconventional cursive style, as in the works of Huaisu. In sum, the Tang saw calligraphy truly permeate literate society as an accepted art form, with Emperors, courtiers and monks all producing artworks that continue to be celebrated to this day.