A Remarkable Poem and Calligraphic Masterpiece
“While the supreme monarch imposes rule under Heaven, The valiant general leading his troops restores peace to every corner of the land. Prancing like flying dragons and galloping ahead like springing tigers, The war horses afford a view spectacular…
The general shoots an arrow, and hundreds of the enemy's horses lie down;
He fires another one, and tens of thousands of enemy soldiers turn around.
Even the Huns are fearful of him, Calling each other to lose no time to flee.
The troops return in triumph and report to the Son of Heaven the victory;
The brave deeds and heroic name of the general deserve to be carved on the Pavilion of Merits.”
In the history of Chinese calligraphy, “Calligraphy Model on the Poem to General Pei” is a unique and remarkable work. Fusing various styles of calligraphic writing such as regular, semi- cursive and cursive scripts, as well as displaying abrupt changes in writing styles between lines, “Calligraphy Model on the Poem to General Pei” creates a strong visual impact and sense of form, and has always been highly acclaimed. It was written by Yan Zhenqing (AD 709–784), a renowned calligrapher of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907). Its subject, “A Poem to General Pei,” is a highly reputed poem which is still circulated even today.
A saying goes, “A calligraphic work bears similarity to its creator.” Indeed, Yan Zhenqing's career has been as highly praised as his calligraphic works.
Yan Zhenqing was born in Langya (today's Linyi City) in Shandong Province into a family having a long tradition of learning. Living a poor life as a child, Yan would dip his brush pen into water mixed with loess and practise calligraphy on a wall since he could not afford paper or ink. He modelled his writing style after Chu Suiliang (AD 596– 658) and later Zhang Xu (AD 685–759), and learned from other well-known calligraphers of the early Tang Dynasty. He absorbed the characteristics of seal character and official script as well as those of the calligraphic works of the Northern Wei Dynasty (AD 386–534). He transformed what he had learned into his own style—regular script characterised by forceful strokes, and a simple, unadorned but magnificent style, creating the aesthetic paradigm of the regular script. His works written in running-cursive script also convey various moods—calmness, joy, boldness and feeling at ease.
Yan Zhenqing was the most influential calligrapher with the highest achievements in the Tang Dynasty. Some of his works are extant in the form of tablet inscriptions, including “Draft of a Requiem to My Nephew.”
Apart from his calligraphic achievements, Yan also enjoyed high
literary fame. According to historical records, he was well-known for his poems even when he was young. Yan's poems and articles were collected into Collection of Luling, Collection of Linchuan and Collection of Wuxing, with each collection containing 10 volumes. Unfortunately, his literary creations have mostly been lost. The remaining poems and articles have been collected into Anthology of Yan Zhenqing. His poems are gracefully composed with profound meanings, and his articles of commentary are of an unrestrained and powerful style. According to Annotated General Catalogue of the Complete Library of the Four Treasures, the literary creations by Yan Zhenqing are “graceful and serene, commensurate with the way he conducted himself.”
One of Yan's poems still popular today is “A Poem to General Pei.” The “General Pei” named in the poem is Pei Min, a master swordsman and fierce military general of the Tang Dynasty.
It is recorded in Famous Paintings of the Tang Dynasty that one day during the Kaiyuan Period (AD 713–741), artist Wu Daozi (AD 680–759) and Emperor Xuanzong (reign: AD 712– 756) happened to meet calligrapher Zhang Xu and general Pei Min. Pei Min, whose parents died, wanted to have a painting of his parents by Wu Daozi. Unwilling to make an easy promise, Wu Daozi said: “I have long heard of your great name. If you can perform swordsmanship for me, your performance will inspire me to draw and you will be rewarded with my painting.” Zhang Xu agreed with this and promised to write characters on the painting with his brush pen. Then Pei Min performed swordsmanship and Wu Daozi created a painting on which Zhang Xu wrote characters. The event caused a stir throughout the city of Luoyang. People were so excited that they said they could witness “three wonders” in one day. The “three wonders” mentioned here refer to the swordsmanship of Pei Min, the painting by Wu Daozi and the characters written in wild cursive style by Zhang Xu.
Zhang Xu imperceptibly imparted to his disciple Yan Zhenqing such a skill of writing that could be acquired only through the means other than handwriting practice. As an excellent disciple who would “redouble his efforts in learning,” Yan Zhenqing fully expressed such an exclusive writing skill in his “Calligraphy Model on the Poem to General Pei.”
A patriotic poet, Yan Zhenqing stretched his imagination on how General Pei fought bravely on the battlefield when writing his poem. What he imagined reflected the expectations he had for himself deep in his heart.
“Calligraphy Model on the Poem to General Pei” is still copied even today. Readers are always deeply moved by the forceful style of writing and the passion contained in Yan's lines.