Monday, June 14, 2004

Stylemaster 1

Destroyin all lines of thought, the Daoist crew were bugged
I was a young kid, watchin these writers styles that bugged

My recent trip to China, the Mother(-in-law)Land inspired some research on the Tang stylemaster Zhang Xu…

The poet DuFu wrote about the decline of his era, the Tang dynasty (paying particular attention to the ‘suffering of the poor and the corruption of officials’), and described Zhang Xu as one of the ‘Eight Drunken Immortals’ in his joint of the same name.

Zhang Xu aka Zhang the Mad was one of a group of Daoist painters that would basically get drunk and get their calligraphy on. They would sometimes use their own hair or bodies instead of brushes.

In Zhang’s time the Tang court calligraphers were supposed keep up style and elegance standards as set by the Wang tradition but naturally the sanctioned styles stagnated, staled and started looking ‘so last dynasty’. During the mid- to late- Tang dynasty there must have been a sense that the death of the dynasty was near since there was a lot of buzz in the painting and poetry circles about creativity and individualism… basically, buzz on a break from the ‘state’ styles. The Daoist crew looked back to the Han Dynasty style of cursive rather than to the prevailing Wang tradition.

As mentioned, Mr. X-to-the-Z refused to write unless he was drunk and his cohorts developed their wild style, that they called ‘wild cursive’. It’s also called caoshu or grass writing and is characterized by a quick hand with connected strokes and joined characters. Zhang Xu emphasized the entire composition rather than individual characters and so he gave himself and his disciples the freedom to change the relative size of characters within the piece. He also picked up on Daoist automatic sand writing that is a form of writing done with a stick in sand while in a trance-like state.

Although his style is greatly admired by students of calligraphy many of his works are impossible to read completely due to the deformation of characters.

It is worth noting one of Zhang’s students Huaisu was a monk who eventually stepped up the game. He not only developed Zhang’s style and continued to write about getting drunk and eating fish and bamboo shoots… but he also incorporated comments about his own writing style within the free-flowing text. He became known as The Drunken Monk.