Chinese Calligraphy Artworks and Masters – Yan Zhen Qing (顏真卿/Yen Chen Ch’ing): Master Calligrapher and Politician

A Brief Biography of Yan Zhen Qing (顏真卿/Yen Chen Ch’ing)

As the Tang dynasty wore on, a figure arose who would redefine calligraphy, challenging even Wang Xi Zhi as the pre-eminent calligrapher. Yan Zhen Qing (709-785 CE) is sometimes known as the ‘second prophet’ of calligraphy. This status, just slightly behind Wang Xi Zhi, is more likely due to his later historical period than to any quantifiable difference in skill.

Yan came from relatively humble beginnings, but this did not stop him from achieving very high office in the Tang kingdom. It is said that when he was young, his family was so poor that his calligraphy practice consisted of smearing mud on the walls of his house. Nevertheless, he quickly mastered the Wang style, and began to experiment and formulate his own style.

In later life, Yan was celebrated as a general and noted for his unbreakable loyalty to the Emperor and his country. In his later life, having acquitted himself most admirably in the defeat of the An Lu Shan rebellion and returned to court, he often called attention to corruption in high places. His propensity to directness and honesty would ultimately cost him his life. Indeed, his political rivals repeatedly placed in harm’s way. On one occasion, when given a choice between immolation and surrender, he simply walked toward the flame. Although he did not die at that time, the man who threatened him then would later have him quietly strangled in a temple: an ignominious end to a long and flawless career.

Yan Zhen Qing’s (顏真卿/Yen Chen Ch’ing) Calligraphy

More than many other calligraphers, Yan’s style changed significantly over time. Once he had a firm grasp on the Wang style, he quickly adopted a style that was tight, pointed and highly modulated. Later, this more refined, expressive idiom would be replaced by a grander, more solid style. In his later works, the emphasis on thick verticals in contrast with thin, wide horizontals creates a monumentality not often seen in Kai Shu works.

In the Tang, calligraphic works were reproduced and preserved in one of two ways: either through direct copying by hand or through inscription and subsequent ink-rubbing. In comparing the works of Wang and Yan, it is often remarked that the later Yan style is far more suited to the mechanics of inscription, while Wang’s style is easier to copy by hand. Indeed, Yan was often called upon to make inscriptions for family or state memorials. The Prabhutaratna Pagoda Stele, his earliest surviving work, stands even to this day in the Forest of Stele in Xi An (西安/Hsi An).

Yan Zhenqing was celebrated not only in his own time, but was lauded by calligraphers and connoisseurs down through the centuries. The greatest masters of the Song (link: Song article) all studied his stele. Su Shi (蘇軾/ Su Shih, 1037-1101) even claimed that Yan’s work was without peer. Later, it is said that Yan inspired both Zhao Meng Fu (趙孟頫/Chao Meng Fu, 1254-1322) and Dong Qi Chang(董其昌/Tung Ch’i Ch’ang, 1555-1636).