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The Upright Brush

The Upright Brush: Yan Zhenqing's Calligraphy and Song Literati Politics

Amy McNair
Copyright Date: 1998
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  • Book Info
    The Upright Brush
    Book Description:

    In the history of Chinese calligraphy, few are more famous than the eighth-century statesman Yan Zhenqing (709-785). His style is still taught today as a standard, and Chinese bookstores the world over stock inexpensive reproductions of his works for sale as copybooks. Yet Yan's style cannot be called conventionally attractive. "Correct," "severe," "serious," "forceful" are terms habitually applied to describe his writing--rarely has his calligraphy been called graceful or beautiful. How, then, did Yan earn such an eminent place in the history of art? In The Upright Brush, Amy McNair argues for the political rather than purely aesthetic basis for Yan Zhenqing's artistic reputation. She shows how his prominent position was made for him in the eleventh century by a handful of influential men who sought to advance their own position by associating themselves with Yan's reputation for uprightness. Equating style with personality, they adopted Yan's calligraphic style as a way to clothe themselves in his persona. Sophisticated, informed, and intelligent, The Upright Brush illuminates an episode (one of many) in the history of Chinese culture where the creative reinterpretation of the past was used for contemporary political means. It will be eagerly welcomed by all scholars of Chinese culture and history, as well as by those interested in the making and reading of art.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6514-6
    Subjects: Art & Art History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. xiii-xviii)

    Few who study Chinese calligraphy escape learning the style of Yan Zhenqing (709–785). This is true for those who study the history of Chinese calligraphy and for those who practice Chinese calligraphy with the brush. His style is taught today as a standard, and Chinese bookstores all over the world stock inexpensive reproductions of his famous works for sale as copybooks. What a westerner may find curious about this situation is that Yan Zhenqing’s style cannot be called conventionally attractive. Upright, correct, severe, serious, and forceful are terms habitually applied to describe his style by traditional and modern critics,...

  6. 1 The Politics of Calligraphy
    (pp. 1-15)

    What is the politics of calligraphic style? How can calligraphy be used to make a political statement? This book explores one very prominent episode in the history of the politics of calligraphy in traditional China. In the eleventh century, historical circumstances converged to allow a highly educated and ambitious group of government officials to involve the art of calligraphy in creating their political identity. These historical circumstances included the persistence of the traditional belief in the personal expressiveness of handwriting and a resurgence of the conviction that Confucian values should be expressed in politics and culture. These themes combined to...

  7. 2 Yan Zhenqing’s Illustrious Background and Early Career
    (pp. 16-37)

    In the final years of the Heavenly Treasure era of the Tang dynasty (742–756), tensions grew between the most influential minister at court, Grand Councillor Yang Guozhong (d. 756), and An Lushan (703–757), the military commissioner of the Fanyang, Pinglu, and Hedong frontier commands, which spanned the northeastern borders of China. Emperor Xuanzong (r. 712–756) supported them both, blind to their mutual antagonism, due to their connections with his “Precious Consort,” Yang Guifei (d. 756): Yang Guozhong was her second cousin; An Lushan was a favorite she had adopted as her son. As An Lushan consolidated his...

  8. 3 “The Nest Tipped and the Eggs Overturned”: The An Lushan Rebellion
    (pp. 38-59)

    The armies of An Lushan sacked Luoyang just thirty-three days after they rose against the Tang from Youzhou. The rebels had encountered virtually no resistance from the officials and populace in the commandery cities of Hebei through which they marched southward. Their route took them west of Pingyuan, leaving Yan Zhenqing’s siege preparations untested, and through Changshan, where his cousin Yan Gaoqing (692–756) was serving as governor.¹ Since there were no forces with which to resist him, when the rebel general passed through the city, Yan Gaoqing and his deputy, Yuan Lüqian, made their obeisances to him on the...

  9. 4 Partisan Politics at the Postrebellion Court
    (pp. 60-82)

    While serving as prefect of Puzhou in the autumn of 758, Yan Zhenqing was impeached by one of the censors at court and further degraded to the post of prefect of Raozhou (Jiangxi). Raozhou lay on the shore of Lake Poyang in the south. The position was not any lower in rank, but the post was much farther away, nearly a thousand kilometers from Chang’an. Traveling east on his way to Raozhou, Yan Zhenqing passed through Luoyang, and there he composed a eulogy and performed the sacrificial rites at the tomb of his uncle Yan Yuansun. The eulogy reports to...

  10. 5 From Daoist Inscriptions to Daoist Immortal
    (pp. 83-95)

    Yan Zhenqing’s tenure in provincial Jizhou lasted two years. Although he sought diversion in poetry and sight-seeing, his true feelings were revealed in his inscriptions of 766, in which he wrote “through my carelessness and clumsiness, I was degraded to serve in Jizhou” and “as a result of accusations of wrongdoing, I was made to serve in Jizhou.”¹ In the summer of 768, Yan Zhenqing was transferred to serve as prefect of Fuzhou (Jiangxi), the prefecture that bordered Jizhou on the east. Fuzhou had been the home of a number of Daoist personages, both real and fantastic, from at least...

  11. 6 Buddhist Companions and Commemoration
    (pp. 96-115)

    Yan Zhenqing’s more mundane activities as prefect of Fuzhou included having the embankments repaired for better irrigation. The people of Fuzhou later erected a shrine in his honor, for which the Song-dynasty writer Zeng Gong composed his famous essay, “The Record of the Shrine of Yan, Duke of Lu, at Fuzhou.”¹ His replacement as prefect arrived early in 771, and Yan was free of duties. Sailing across Lake Poyang and down the Yangzi River, he arrived home in Shangyuan district (near modern Nanjing) four months later, where he was reunited with his large household. His family had been evacuated from...

  12. 7 The Late Style of Yan Zhenqing
    (pp. 116-139)

    Perhaps Yan Zhenqing would have been content to spin out the rest of his days in Huzhou constructing pavilions and composing poetry, but early in 777 his nemesis at court was removed from the scene. Yuan Zai, who had kept him in the provinces for eleven years, was executed in the third month of 777, and Yang Yan was sent into exile. In the fourth month, Yang Wan (d. 777) was elevated to the rank of grand councillor, and the following month he recommended Yan Zhenqing for a position at court.¹ The two even collaborated on a stele inscription for...

  13. 8 Confucian Martyrdom
    (pp. 140-142)

    Early in 781, Censor-in-Chief Lu Qi (died ca. 785) was elevated to serve as a grand councillor. Like so many before him, Lu Qi had no tolerance for the outspokenness of Yan Zhenqing, and so he had Yan promoted to grand preceptor to the heir apparent but dismissed from his post as commissioner for rites and ceremonies. Though this was seemingly a routine maneuver, it was particularly villainous coming from Lu Qi, for he owed Yan Zhenqing an unusual consideration. One of the severed heads of the chief officials of Luoyang that Duan Ziguang had dragged through the gates of...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 143-156)
  15. Glossary
    (pp. 157-162)
  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 163-170)
  17. Index
    (pp. 171-178)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 179-179)