History of Chinese Calligraphy – The Golden Age of Chinese Calligraphy: The Wei and Jin Period of Disunion

The Fall of the Han: Toward a New Dynasty

After over four centuries of relative stability, the Han Dynasty ended following a period of intense rebellion and court intrigue. The remains of the once-strong Han Empire was quickly divided into three separate political regimes, each of which laid claim to the authority of the Han throne. For the next six decades, these Kingdoms, the Wei, Shu and Wu, would maintain a war footing against each other. Each of these states was destroyed in turn: the Wei being the last to fall and usher in the Western Jin in 265 CE.

While the Western Jin was able to once again unite China, this reunification was short-lived and the capital Luoyang fell to invaders in 317 CE. The next hundred years saw the Eastern Jin (the remnants of the Western Jin) slowly disintegrate as military leaders repeatedly challenged Imperial rule. The Jin officially ended with the beginning of the Liu Song Dynasty, covering much of Southern China (not to be confused with the much later Northern and Southern Song), and ushering in the Northern and Southern Dynasties period. Of the states vying for power during this time, the Northern Wei was perhaps the most successful, lasting from 386 to 534 CE. As you can see, the period after the fall of the Han was an incredibly turbulent time: it is a marvel that China was ever able to reunify.

The Persistence of a Literati Class – Maintaining the Social Order

While the period following the demise of the Han was perhaps the most violent in China’s history, and indeed the most politically diverse, one facet of the Han was to survive: the idea of Empire and of the possibility and value of a unified China. Although war was endemic, and political change continuous, the ranks of elite courtiers versed in the canon of Confucius and steeped in the Imperial tradition ensured that China as an idea never faded from view. Indeed, it is perhaps because of this idea that the period saw so many political and military disputes. Each faction was trying to lay claim to the same mandate that the Han had appealed to: the Mandate of Heaven. So, while wars were carried out and political plots were hatched, the presence of an elite literati class was never challenged.

The Rise of Calligraphy and Calligraphy Masters During Jin and Wei Dynasty

While the Han saw the creation and differentiation of the scripts and styles, it was not until later that Calligraphy was totally accepted, and indeed celebrated, as a worthy pursuit of the literate class. Calligraphy requires more than craft; as writing, it requires long periods of study if it is to be mastered. As such, it persisted after the Han as a marker of social distinction.

In the Jin, calligraphic works were collected, celebrated, and indeed argued about and forged, in unprecedented numbers. This period of intense strife ushered in the era of the artist as an individual, a master and an example to later generations. Certainly the most famous of these were the Two Wangs.

The Consolidation of Buddhism and its Impact on Chinese Calligraphy

Although Buddhism first came to China during the Han, it would emerge as a central force in Chinese society following that dynasty’s collapse. In the Eastern Jin many court officials took up the teachings of the Dharma. In the Northern Wei, court patronage of Buddhist communities and temples was quite commonplace. In the Gansu corridor, Buddhism flourished as a way of life for communities far from, but not untouched by, the continuous changes in the capitals. By the time China was once again unified, Buddhism was inseparable from the fabric of Chinese culture and society.