Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 24, 1999
Amy McNair The Upright Brush: Yan Zhenqing's Calligraphy and Song Literati Politics Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1998. 142 pp.; 47 b/w ills. Paper $27.95 (0824820029)

This book can be added to the small group of modern monographs on Chinese calligraphy that engage the art of calligraphy with the discipline of art history. It is a small book, only 142 pages of main text, but in many ways a model for writing on this difficult subject. McNair establishes the traditional Chinese belief in characterology— reading the personality of a writer in his works—as a central basis for her own approach to understanding the calligraphy of Yan Zhenqing. Yan was, of course, one of the most heroic and admirable men of the Tang dynasty, a model of loyalty and steadfast courage who gave his life for his country and his emperor. McNair’s work is built upon Yan’s biography. She presents his personality through a series of chapters on his life, and examines his art by identifying and analyzing a group of six calligraphic monuments that she uses to illustrate the essential stages and range of his activities as an artist. This basic biographical and art-historical material is integrated continuously with the later critical and artistic responses of the Northern Song scholars Ouyang Xiu, Cai Xiang, Su Shi, and Huang Tingjian, who canonized Yan for their own political reasons, establishing him as the only rival to Wang Xizhi in the later history of Chinese calligraphy.

As she notes in her introduction, this book began as a doctoral dissertation that was completed at the University of Chicago in 1989. It is therefore factually dense, incorporating over fifteen years of study and reflection. Although she emphasizes six monuments to define the stages and varieties of Yan Zhenqing’s art, she surveys virtually all the writing associated with him. There are forty-seven black-and-white illustrations, of which twenty-eight are Yan’s works. Most of the rest are of the Northern Song calligraphers, especially Su Shi. At a time when academic publications in esoteric fields such as Chinese calligraphy and German prints have become financially undesirable, it is reassuring to find books such as this still appearing. In addition to the text and illustrations there are thirteen pages of notes, a glossary of Chinese characters, and a good index. The book is not exactly beautiful, but it is functional, and is surely the most valuable volume on the life and art of Yan Zhenqing that we have.

In broad historical terms, the author has used the art of Yan Zhenqing to document the role calligraphy played in establishing the identity and power of the class of Confucian scholars in the eleventh century. The idea of Yan’s calligraphy together with the undoubted moral courage of his life is joined to the thought and writing of Han Yü and the earlier Confucian tradition to provide a moral basis for the new class that now rose to a position of power comparable in society to that of the emperor and the imperial court. This dramatic growth in power among scholars appears to intersect with a decline in imperial power best exemplified by Huizong and the later Song emperors, but the picture may be imperfect. While McNair shows that Yan Zhenqing’s calligraphy was finally incorporated into an imperially-sponsored publication in the twelfth century, there was no corresponding rise in the popularity of Yan’s art or diminution in admiration for his great rival Wang Xizhi, who had always represented the classical tradition. Nearly all Chinese calligraphers after Su Shi and Huang Tingjian continued to prefer Wang Xizhi to Yan Zhenqing. Mi Fu’s abusive dismissal of the crudenesss of Yan and his followers thus better anticipates later traditions than does Ouyang Xiu’s admiration. Moral character may not be so easily identified in calligraphy as countless generations of Chinese writers have maintained, and the more attractive aesthetic of the Wang Xizhi tradition did not necessarily mean that it lacked moral fiber. In the hands of a calligrapher such as Zhao Mengfu, for example, it exemplified correctness, strength, and orthodoxy. By then, even the greatest northern calligraphers such as Xianyu Shu acknowledged the superiority of the Wang Xizhi tradition. Ming scholars such as Shen Zhou and Wu Kuan may have amused each other by writing in the styles of Su Shi and Huang Tingjian, as if they were donning old historical costumes, but any claim to moral superiority on this basis would be foolish.

Sadly, in terms of their outcome, the efforts of Ouyang Xiu, Su Shi, and others to revitalize what they regarded as decadent traditions in art had the effect merely of constraining the possibilities of art itself. Song Confucianism, with which the Northern Song masters were closely identified, ultimately only narrowed the content of Confucian thought. What McNair has done in this book, therefore, is to document the decline of an art in the name of morality. When supposed morality by whatever name replaces invention, diversity, oddity, eccentricity, and the unpredictable quirks of individual creativity as the measure of art, reduction and decline will certainly follow. Song Neo-Confucianism and wenren theory in that sense were not so very different from the simple-minded moral tenets of Marxism and Maoism in the reductionist period of more recent Chinese experience. “If the brush is upright, the heart will be upright” could be a modern political slogan—or an advertisement for a better product. McNair notes with interest that while Su Shi seemed to publicly shout this slogan with all the rest, in his own calligraphy he totally ignored it, preferring the “slanted brush” of Wang Xizhi.

Amy McNair does not engage in much of this kind of analysis. She reflects on the subtle ways Su Shi diverged from his model while copying Yan Zhenqing. She traces the path by which artifacts of the truly courageous life of Yan Zhenqing were borrowed by later men to present a pose of courage in their own time. She documents exactly how models were selectively chosen from the past to serve the present. But she does not compare the diversity and vitality of Tang and the Five Dynasties with the Song, nor does she examine the effects on later art history of any of the actions of the Northern Song scholars.

I do not fault her for not writing a different book, certainly. She has written an important and valuable one. But we all need to reflect more often on the value of the art and artists we study, and to clarify the nature and impact of the special pleading that all groups engage in, past and present. The Song wenren were admirable men, no doubt, and they must have had the best interests of society in their hearts. How they served the purposes of art is another question. Most of them knew nothing of art, in any case, and took no interest in it. Is it ironic, then, that they became the most powerful arbiters of art? And is it at all surprising that it was the claim of “morality” that carried the highest cachet? Or that ultimately emperor and scholar alike agreed on this criterion? Isn’t the idea of special favors due to some group usually based upon one moral claim or another? If reduced to a choice between the “upright” and the “slanted,” most people would probably choose to be associated with the “upright.”

Amazingly, as McNair shows, the great artist Su Shi—who espoused genius and creativity far more effectively than he promoted the upright brush—not only used a slanted brush himself but acknowledged and “apologized” for it, claiming poor early training and weakness in his arm. He laughed in appreciation when his friend Huang Tingjian described his calligraphy as looking like bugs squashed by a rock because he knew perfectly well that there was nothing upright about his brushwork and he also knew that this did not really suggest any absence of moral fiber in his personality. Huang’s own calligraphy, Su responded, looked like snakes hanging from a tree. Su and Huang were two of the greatest calligraphers of history, and for them the calligraphy of Yan Zhenqing and his “upright brush” was no more than one among many admired models that they could choose to emulate or not as they wished. The Buddhist monk Huaisu, scarcely a model of uprightness, was no less important than Yan, as were many others. The actual practice of calligraphy was usually far more interesting and diverse than Amy McNair’s focus on morality allows us to imagine (as she knows, of course). But her book asks us to reflect on the role of the claim of “morality” in shaping the history of Chinese art, and if we follow her in this we will certainly deepen our understanding not only of calligraphy but of the history of all of the arts of China right down to this morning.

Richard M. Barnhart
Yale University