This exhibition features more than forty outstanding examples of calligraphy from the collection of Jerry Yang and his wife, Akiko Yamazaki, created by leading artists of the Yuan (1271–1368), Ming (1368–1644), and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties. The selection of artworks and their interpretation in the galleries are intended to speak to beginners and specialists alike, using calligraphy of the highest quality to introduce key concepts of format, script type, and style. Some of the most notable works are a standard script transcription of a Buddhist sutra by Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322); a clerical script transcription of The Thousand-Character Classic in an eighty-five-leaf album by Wen Peng (1498–1573); a powerful cursive writing by Xiong Tingbi (1569–1625), a Ming general charged with defending the Great Wall; a selection of works by Dong Qichang (1555–1636), the preeminent calligrapher, painter, and art theorist of the late Ming dynasty; and an important group of nineteenth-century pieces by masters of the "Epigraphic School," who based their calligraphy on the archaic scripts found on bronze vessels and monumental stone steles.
Chinese calligraphy was born more than three thousand years ago. The earliest forms of writing were laborious to create, and over time different ways of writing, known as script types, evolved, in some cases for the sake of efficiency, and in others for the sake of legibility.
There are five major script types—seal, clerical, cursive, semicursive, and standard—and each has its own special characteristics. In the first section of the exhibition, the five script types are presented in the order of their evolution.
Brush-written calligraphy played a central role in the social networks of premodern China: friends exchanged letters, transcribed poems for one another, and wrote commemorative inscriptions. These calligraphic traces allow us to reconstruct networks that spanned the entire breadth of the empire.
The artworks in the second section of the exhibition highlight calligraphy's social role and feature letters written by various calligraphers of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). While the primary job of letters was to communicate information, they were also valued aesthetic objects, exchanged as works of art to help solidify the relationship between sender and receiver. Also present is a handscroll that preserves a group of texts written to celebrate the retirement of a certain Dr. Qian. Judging by the fame of the calligraphers represented, Dr. Qian was part of a very exclusive social group. A large hanging scroll by Wang Duo was made as a gift for a friend.
Calligraphy has long been considered the most expressive visual art in China—it is not just handwriting, but a visual expression of the writer's spirit. This has made calligraphy very powerful as a social art, because in giving a work of calligraphy, one gives a piece of oneself.
During the sixteenth century, the city of Suzhou was home to many of the empire's greatest poets, calligraphers, painters, and art collectors. At the center of this vibrant scene was Wen Zhengming, a multitalented artist and tastemaker whose skills extended to poetry, calligraphy, painting, and more. Wen Zhengming helped set the tone for this period, and his many followers, including his sons and grandsons, continued his legacy.
As a calligrapher, Wen Zhengming tended toward an understated elegance and respect for tradition. Even his powerful, large-character writing—represented in this room by a poem transcribed in his eighty-fourth year—is marked by fluidity and balance. Wen Zhengming's son Wen Peng shared his father's penchant for elegance—as can be seen in his cursive-script album—but he was also interested in the monumentality of ancient writings on stone. To your left are two works by Wen Zhengming’s student Wang Chong, a calligrapher of great versatility who played an important role in the Suzhou cultural scene prior to his early death.
The calligraphy in this section was made to look bold, powerful—even strange. All these works were made during the seventeenth century, when many turned away from the pursuit of elegance and instead sought the fantastic, bizarre, and grotesque. This was also a moment when calligraphy began to be used for different purposes: where once it had been primarily viewed in intimate settings like the scholar's studio, in the seventeenth century calligraphy began increasingly to adorn reception halls, the largest, most public residential spaces.
For that reason, many of the great calligraphers of the day worked in large formats, as seen in the three oversized hanging scrolls in this gallery. Whereas the calligraphers in the Ming Dynasty Suzhou gallery were careful to control the wetness of their ink to create a consistent appearance, these calligraphers embrace extreme contrasts of wet and dry, soaking the silk in some places and letting the brush dry out almost completely in others. In doing so, they were deliberately rejecting existing standards of beauty. Wang Duo, one of the leading figures of this movement, wrote, "As much as possible, I reject the quiet and fine for the big and rough."
Passion for eccentricity was a major current in seventeenth-century calligraphy, but many accomplished calligraphers continued to work in the classical tradition defined by balance and smoothness. Among these, the greatest was Dong Qichang, the leading painter, calligrapher, and theorist of his time. At a moment when many were turning their backs on tradition, Dong was leaning into it, taking historically informed elegance to new heights.
This section of the exhibition juxtaposes these two currents of seventeenth-century calligraphy—eccentricity and elegance—with the rough individuality of Wang Duo, Zhang Ruitu, and Huang Hui displayed opposite the supreme smoothness of Dong Qichang.
In the late seventeenth century, the city of Yangzhou rose to prominence on China's cultural scene. Yangzhou was well-situated: it lay at the intersection of the Grand Canal and the Yangzi River, the major north-south and west-east shipping routes, respectively, and it was also home to the government's administrative offices for the salt trade. Many wealthy merchants made their homes in Yangzhou, and artists soon followed in search of patronage.
Yangzhou in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had a spirit of openness, and artists found that innovation was not only tolerated but encouraged by their patrons. In this environment, Shitao mixed elements of clerical script into his standard script writing, creating a charmingly quirky hand; Jin Nong forged a bold way of writing based on old stone inscriptions; and Zheng Xie combined multiple script types into a new way of writing that he called "six-and-a-half script." By adopting elements of ancient calligraphy into their work, these Yangzhou artists foreshadow the nineteenth-century Epigraphic School, to which the final section of this exhibition is devoted.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a new movement arose in calligraphy. Variously called the Stele School, School of Stone and Metal, or Epigraphic School, this movement valued types of calligraphy that previously had been ignored or looked down on, such as inscriptions in stone and bronze by unknown writers, especially from the Han dynasty (206 b.c.–a.d. 220) and earlier. To the Epigraphic School, these ancient traces were the missing links to an untold history of calligraphy.
In the distant past the Epigraphic School found calligraphy that looked very different from the canonical models their teachers had studied and taught. They discovered script types that had fallen out of regular use over the millennia, written in styles that were bold and unadorned, especially when compared to the suave sophistication of recent masters such as Zhao Mengfu and Dong Qichang. It was this raw power, along with a sense of historical importance, that drew the Epigraphic School scholars to these long-forgotten models.
Throughout his career, Xu Bing has grappled with the power of the written word. His iconic installation Book from the Sky (1987–91) surrounds the viewer with thousands of Chinese characters that, upon closer examination, are invented nonsense words. He followed that with Square Word Calligraphy (1994), a system for writing English that looks like brush-written Chinese; for readers of English, Square Word Calligraphy inverts Book from the Sky, providing a breakthrough to meaning where none was apparent at first. In this new work, created specifically for Out of Character, Xu continues to engage with the written Chinese word, providing a sprawling and thoughtful meditation on the development of Chinese characters and their systematization as calligraphy. For this video, Xu created over one thousand individual sketches, which were blended digitally to generate this animation.