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Essay on Calligraphy


Sun Kuo-t'ing (fl. latter half of 7th c.), T'ang Dynasty (618-907)
Handscroll, ink on paper, 26.5 x 900.8 cm 
Although there is some controversy in historical texts over Sun Kuo-t'ing's actual name and native place, it would appear from his signature on this work that Sun Kuo-t'ing indeed was his name and that he was from Wu-chün. Although of humble origins, he eventually went on to serve in high position at court. Since he was of high moral integrity, however, he resigned from officialdom after being slandered at court. He then turned to focus on the study of calligraphy.

The first column of this handscroll at the right translates as follows: "Chapter One of Essay on Calligraphy. By Sun Kuo-t'ing of Wu-chün." The end of the scroll at the left states, "Record written in the third year of the Ch'ui-kung era [687 AD]." The content itself deals mainly with the author's experiences in calligraphy, an essay on essential points, and some basic principles of calligraphy. This handscroll is generally considered to be the preface to a longer work. Sometime from the 10th to 15th century, it was cut into two pieces. Coming into the hands of the Ming dynasty collector Yen Sung (1480-1565), it was remounted as a single work again. It is believed to have been originally composed of two chapters, the second of which was the main essay that the author did not finish.

Sun Kuo-t'ing specialized in cursive script using the style of Wang Hsi-chih (ca. 303-361). Sun's style is exceptionally accomplished, and it remained unparalleled throughout the T'ang dynasty (618-907). The paper and ink of this work are in a remarkable state of preservation, providing a detailed and clear account of his dazzling brushwork. This is not only an exceptionally insightful essay on the study of calligraphy, but it is also an ideal model for the art of cursive script. It represents a style that fuses a straightforward quality with beautiful elegance. Sun Kuo-t'ing sometimes held the brush straight and other times at an angle. The tip of the brush is occasionally exposed. The brushwork dashes forth, changing constantly in a way that never ceases to amaze the viewer. The brushwork is free and easy throughout, achieving an unconscious synergy between hand and mind.

Text and images are provided by National Palace Museum