Ian Boyden > Essays > Stone Brushes

Stone Brushes: Three Calligraphers from Suzhou



At the entrance to this exhibition hangs a rubbing of the back side of the Shi Chen Stele.  In contrast to other pieces in the exhibition, the characters stand out white against a black background.  Black and creased, the viewer can easily imagine the stone from which the rubbing was made.  Apparently simple and coarse, it may come as a surprise that this rubbing was made in the mid-Qing dynasty (c.1750) and has been diligently preserved through several generations of collectors.


The rubbing's text was initially carved onto the back of a slate stele in 168 c.e.  The front of that stele contains a petition written by Shi Chen, the minister of the state of Lu, requesting permission to make offerings to the temple of Confucius (situated in present-day Qufu, Shandong province).  The ceremony completed and offerings presented, a description of the ceremony was then inscribed onto back of the stele, which was then erected in the hall of Confucius.  For hundreds of years, the stele functioned like many of the other hundreds of stelae that stood beside it, both as a memorial to Confucius as well as a historical document reaffirming state sponsorship of Confucianism. 


It was not until the middle of the Ming dynasty (1368-1643) and the emergence of the Evidential Scholarship Movement that a group of epigraphically-minded calligraphers began to examine and celebrate pre-Tang dynasty inscriptions.  Thus, the calligraphy found on the Shi Chen Stele grew famous and became a model for calligraphic practice.  Although the name of the calligrapher is now unknown and many of the characters are now unreadable, the calligraphy on this stele is considered to a canonical piece in the study of bafen clerical script to survive from the Eastern Han dynasty (25­-219).  Every student of clerical script studies this stele.


The Shi Chen Stele is but one of hundreds of stone monuments produced in China over the last three millennia that has become famous for its calligraphic contribution.  As paper is an inherently fragile medium, the Chinese preserved many documents by carving them in stone, ceramic, or bronze¾documents were even carved into huge boulders and cliff faces.  Every temple site in China is replete with carved stelae and other lithic monuments, the most famous being the forests of stelae at Xi'an and Qufu.  While many stelae had a similar commemorative function to that of the Shi Chen Stele, by the Tang dynasty (618-906) stelae were carved with famous pieces of calligraphy and classical texts made specifically for producing rubbings.  It can be argued that these forests of stelae functioned as the first print shops for the dissemination of canonical texts. Until the advent of photographic reproduction, rubbings from these stone monuments provided the primary means of access to these pieces of calligraphy. 


As with any process of reduplication, small changes occurred in the forms of the replicated characters.  Although calligraphers often wrote the characters onto the surface of the stone with brush and ink, the forms often became immediately distorted during the act of engraving.  The characters were engraved with chisels that left characteristically sharp-edged lines, and as the engravers were not calligraphers themselves, it often happened that certain strokes or whole characters were misinterpreted or even omitted.  Further, the stones, exposed to the elements, became battered and worn, exposing the crystalline structure of the stone's matrix.  While these stones appear less than ideal models for perfecting a calligraphic style, the adherents of this aesthetic champion it specifically because of the imperfections and the history told there.  Their calligraphy often contains many awkward and esoteric characters, distinctly lithic brushstrokes, and deeply nostalgic air. 


It is a great pleasure to present the works of three generations of Chinese calligraphers, all of whom have lived in Suzhou: Chang Ch'ung-ho (b. 1914), Hua Rende (b. 1947), and Wang Xuelei (b. 1973).  Though they have this place in common, they appear together as the result of a far more profound connection.  Entranced by old stones and the traces of calligraphy found upon their surfaces, they have surrounded themselves with shards of bricks and tiles, books of reproductions of ancient calligraphy, old seals, and mirrors—any object which carries written forms from an earlier time.  All three are tireless in their study of early written forms; when they write from their hearts the forms of these ancient characters rise unmistakably from the surface of the paper.  Collectively, Chang Ch'ung-ho, Hua Rende, and Wang Xuelei embody a lovely contradiction: as practitioners of the most fluid of the visual arts, they produce forms that recall the solidity of stone.