A Brush With Genius
Archaeology|January/February 2022
An unprecedented find in central China brings to life the early years of a master calligrapher
Ling Xin

IN THE VILLAGE OF GONGDONG outside the central Chinese city of Xi’an, construction projects have kept archaeologists busy since the summer of 2020. Thus far, more than 100 ancient tombs have been uncovered in the area, some dating to as early as the Han Dynasty (206 b.c.–a.d. 220). Last June, a team of archaeologists from the Shaanxi Academy of Archaeology unearthed a large Tang Dynasty (a.d. 618–906) family tomb at Gongdong. Classical Chinese culture flourished during the Tang Dynasty, and elite tombs dating to that period are known for their intricate stone- and brickwork and are often filled with numerous artifacts. The newly discovered tomb, belonging to a military commander named Yuan Daqian and his wife, Luo Wanshun, was no different. Archaeologists found more than 100 ceramic vessels and figurines in the multichambered tomb, despite the fact that tomb raiders had looted it in antiquity.

One discovery stood out from the rest. In elite Chinese tombs, archaeologists often find square funerary stones, referred to as epitaphs, that are inscribed with ornate calligraphy that relates the accomplishments of the dead at length. The epitaphs are accompanied by stone plaques known as epitaph covers bearing brief descriptions of the tomb’s occupant. Epitaph covers and epitaphs were typically wrapped together in silk and placed near the front entrance to the main room of tombs, where the dead were interred—but in this tomb they had been pushed aside. “When we entered the couple’s tomb, we saw that the epitaphs and epitaph covers had been displaced by tomb raiders,” says Shaanxi Academy of Archaeology scholar Zhang Yanglizheng.

As the team began wiping dirt from the epitaphs and epitaph covers, the outlines of the character “Yan” on one of the stones belonging to Luo caught Zhang’s eye. He was familiar with the name. Yan Zhenqing, who lived from a.d. 709 to 785, was one of the Tang Dynasty’s most prominent officials and is considered one of the great masters of the art of calligraphy. “I’m no expert in ancient calligraphers,” says Zhang, “but I know Yan Zhenqing because he is so famous.” Zhang knew that most aspiring calligraphers in China to this day begin by imitating Yan’s spare style. Excited, he quickly cleaned the entire surface of the epitaph. Yan Zhenqing’s name was indeed unmistakably inscribed on the stone’s lower right section, next to phrases describing him as the stone’s calligrapher. “It struck me as a once-in-a-lifetime discovery,” says Xi’an Beilin Museum art historian Chen Genyuan, who later examined each of the 728 characters carved on the 20-by20-inch limestone slab. “We might not come across anything like this in another hundred years.”

Though his best-known work was a radical break from previous schools of calligraphy, Yan’s technique evolved gradually over the course of his life. Nearly all of his few surviving works are from his later years, when he had fully mastered his own style. The Luo epitaph is the only example dating to his early period that has been discovered by archaeologists. Two other early epitaphs bearing Yan’s name as their calligrapher were identified in Henan Province two decades ago, but one had been looted from a tomb and the other was accidentally uncovered in a brick factory. Since the original context of these two epitaphs is unknown, some scholars have raised doubts about their authenticity. The newly discovered epitaph, however, is unquestionably genuine and will help historians better understand the earliest days of Yan’s illustrious career as a calligrapher.

His style, which stresses simplicity, has dominated Chinese calligraphy for more than a millennium, and his influence reached neighboring regions, including Japan and the Korean Peninsula. Famous for his loyal and upright character and for living his life according to Confucian principles, Yan’s ascetic style was later championed by scholars of the Song Dynasty (a.d. 960–1279) who believed its spare beauty embodied essential moral values. “Most famous calligraphers since the Song Dynasty learned and imitated his style,” says University of Kansas art historian Amy McNair. “Yan Zhenqing is unquestionably one of the most important calligraphers in Chinese history.”

The earliest chinese writing dates to the Bronze Age (ca. 2000–700 b.c.), when scribes created simple pictorial characters on bronze vessels to represent clan names and totems. A greater range of characters was later developed for use in divination rituals, in which characters carved into turtle shells were used to pose questions to ancestral spirits.

Calligraphy as it is understood today emerged during the Han Dynasty, when the basic materials for writing—paper, brushes, ink, and inkstones—first became available. Han Dynasty brushes in particular allowed calligraphy to flourish. Carefully crafted with many layers of animal hair to absorb ink, these brushes were flexible and responsive to even slight changes in the hand’s movement. By pressing, lifting, turning, or pausing the motion of the tip of a brush, as well as by varying its angle and adjusting the amount of force applied, a calligrapher could make dots, strokes, and, eventually, complete characters on paper.

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