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Draft of a Requiem to My Nephew

Tags: calligraphy | National Palace Museum


Yen Cheng-ch'ing (709-785), T'ang Dynasty (618-907)
Handscroll, ink on paper, 28.3 x 75.5 cm 
Yen Chen-ch'ing's ancestors came from the Shantung area. During the revolt of Li Hsi-lieh, Yen Chen-ch'ing was instructed to bring an imperial communique to the rebels. However, he was detained and, on the third day of the eighth lunar month of 785, was executed. Yen therefore has long been considered a loyal martyr of the T'ang dynasty. Earlier, in the rebellion of An Lu-shan, Yen Chen-ch'ing's cousin Yen Kao-ch'ing was serving as magistrate of Shan-chün. When rebel forces invaded the area, the T'ang armies did not come to the rescue, resulting in the fall of the town and the death of Yen Kao-ch'ing and his son, Yen Chi-ming. This is what Yen Chen-ch'ing meant when he wrote in this piece, "Traitorous officials did not rescue [them], so a lone town was surrounded. A father and son perished, and their nest was destroyed." After the incident, Yen Chen-ch'ing sent his elder nephew Ch'uan-ming to the town to make funerary arrangements. However, he could only come up with a few remains of them. Thus, it was under these circumstances that Yen Chen-ch'ing at the age of 49 wrote "Draft of a Requiem to My Nephew." Scholars have pointed out that the character of a person is revealed in the way he does calligraphy. Yen Chen-ch'ing was a man of loyalty and integrity all his life, and this spirit is revealed in his calligraphy. This scroll is one of the works most frequently cited by scholars. It was done with a stubby brush, imparting a round and upright manner that suggests flowing seal script. Though the ink is so dark that it appears scorched, considerable variety to the shades of the ink from start to finish are due to the speed and movement of the brush. Consequently, it looks as if written in a single sitting.

This scroll was probably a preliminary draft for a more formal composition. Consequently, Yen Chen-ch'ing went back and crossed out and changed characters in numerous places. This shows how he composed and edited his writing, providing insight into his ideas as well as his calligraphy. Despite the formality of the content, the style of the work reveals considerable emotional unrestraint, making this one of the premier examples from the hand of Yen Chen-ch'ing.

Text and images are provided by National Palace Museum