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Philosophical dimensions of Tang calligraphic treatises (7th-8th centuries)

Xiang, Jingqing

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This study discusses and explores Tang calligraphic theories from the 7th to 8th centuries in China from three perspectives: the definition of calligraphy’s position from the perspective of Confucianism, aesthetical concepts originating from Yi Jing, and major formulae provided by Taoist thinking. The purpose of this project is to study how Chinese traditional cultures influenced Tang calligraphic theories, and therefore to aid understanding of the profound implications of the Tang calligraphic treatises. The far-reaching aim of this proposal is to arrive at a historical understanding of the significance of traditional culture in the field of art practice and theory, to reveal the dominant paradigm of aesthetic norms and artistic conventions, and ultimately to constitute a scientific theoretical framework of Chinese aesthetics.

The Confucian school had recovered and began to flourish at the beginning of Tang particularly when Five Confucian Classics and their Annotations were issued in 653 A.D. They were treated by the court as the imperial examination compendiums. The majority of artists and theorists in calligraphy were Confucian scholars in Tang, the same as other types of arts, for example literature, music and painting. Calligraphy was an important means to assess moral calibre; theorists believed calligraphy had an equal status with rituals and music. It seems that calligraphy served as a didactic tool for influencing ethics and desirable virtues, which also promoted the formation of the concept of harmony in calligraphic aesthetics.

Yi Jing, the first Classic among Five Classics or Thirteen Classics, played a more significant role in calligraphic aesthetics than in painting, presumably because calligraphy has more abstraction in dots and lines than painting. Theorists regarded trigram and hexagram as a root of calligraphy based on the fact that calligraphy had an affinity with Yi Jing’s images and its symbols. People could see the features of change in the strokes, structures, layout and stylistic forms of calligraphy through trigram and hexagram. One especially admires eminent calligraphers in the way they broke away from the constraints of conventional techniques and styles. This notion of change from Yi Jing embraces the reconciliation of hardness and softness in terms of calligraphy aesthetics as well.

Calligraphy appears very abstract. Tang calligraphy theorists shed light on the dark (xuan) feature from the perspective of Taoism. They defined calligraphy as Shu Dao implicitly or explicitly. Calligraphy had some characteristics such as equable (yi), inaudible (xi), subtle (wei), dark (xuan), deep (shen) and inactive (wuwei), which the Dao also had. Taoism supplied major formulae, i.e. methodological ideas, through which one can see the abstraction (abstract nature) of calligraphy. The notion of Shu Dao as it pertains to Daoism implies calligraphy should follow the law of nature, thus it was thought to be better to practice in a natural way rather than a forced way, i.e. in naturalness, non-purposefulness or even spontaneity. According to Neo-Taoism, each individual had his own innate tendencies (innate nature), which was preordained, unchangeable, and could not be supplemented. As a result, one should follow their own innate tendencies while practising calligraphy. It was suggested that one could develop and perfect one’s own personal style by following their own inborn nature.

Among the aforementioned, some viewpoints are debateable, such as the relationship between calligraphy and morality; the concepts of harmony, change, reconciliation of hardness and softness, taking the law from nature, following one’s innate tendencies and so forth are meaningful in the history of Chinese calligraphy.

Document type: Master's thesis
Date: 2018
Version: Primary publication
Date Deposited: 01 Jun 2018 13:15
Faculties / Institutes: University, Fakulty, Institute > Heidelberg, University, Institut für Kunstgeschichte Ostasiens
DDC-classification: Arts
Graphics arts, prints
Controlled Subjects: Tangdynastie, Kalligraphie, Yi jing <Werk>, Sun, Qianli / Shu pu
Subject (classification): Drawing, Printmaking
Countries/Regions: Asia