A model of Yan Zhenqing's "A Poem of General Pei "
(臨 顏真卿書 裴將軍詩)
35 X 137cm (3) in Standard Script (楷書), Semi-cursive Script (行書), and Cursive Script (草書)
A Poem of General Pei is one of the many outstanding works written by the renowned Tang officer and calligrapher Yan Zhenqing (顏真卿, 709-785). The highlight of this piece is the different script styles written within one calligraphic work, a practice that is rarely employed in traditional Chinese calligraphy where calligraphers usually write in one script style within a single work. Standard script, semi-cursive script along with cursive script are all coherently displayed simultaneously with a touch of clerical script style in some of the brush strokes (1). Viewers can also appreciate the vigor and liveliness of the characters which reflected Yan was probably a conscientious man with a strong-willed personality; indeed, during the An Lushan Rebellion (安史之亂), Yan "bravely formed an army and saved the Tang Dynasty from crisis even as the lords of Hebei Province surrendered (to the insurgents)"(2). Note that the original work can no longer be found. The best reproduction of the work is an ink-rubbed copy from a stone inscription of the original which can be view here (忠義堂帖 裴將軍詩).
The poem was probably composed by Yan himself and its content referred most likely to Tang Dynasty's famed general Pei Min (裴旻), who was renowned for his swordsmanship (3,4); Pei Min's swordplay, along with Li Bai's poems and Zhang Xu's cursive script, were proclaimed together by Emperor Wenzong (唐文宗) as the Three Wonders of Tang Dynasty (唐代三絕) (5). Yan's A Poem of General Pei praised Pei for his might, audacity, valor, along with his martial skills (see below).
|As the Emperor commanded all under the Heavens, your troops secured the entire country.|
|戰馬若龍虎，騰陵何壯哉。||Your war horses were as striking as the flying dragons and the fierce tigers, how magnificent they were!|
|將軍臨北荒，恒赫耀英材。||As you approached the Northern Frontiers, you revealed your dazzling brilliance to all around you.|
|劍舞躍游雷*，隨風縈且回。||Your sword danced in rhythm, leaped as if it were the galloping thunder, and flowed with the circulating winds.|
|登高望天山，白雪*正崔嵬。||You climbed and observed the high mountains, the peaks of which were covered with white snow.|
|入陣破驕虜，威聲雄震雷。||As you decimated the conceited northern barbarians in battle, your mighty presence roared throughout the battlefield like the rolling thunder.|
|一射百馬倒，再射萬夫開。||As you delivered the first shot from your bow, hundreds of war horses fell; another shot from you forced thousands of enemies to retreat.|
|The Nomads feared your presence, they all exclaimed at your might and told each other to withdraw.|
|Your triumph victory certainly reached the ears of the Emperor, and your portrait surely deserved to be displayed in the Pavilion.|
|(Translated by KS Vincent Poon, June 2016)|
I. On Yan's Calligraphy
This work is deemed to be revolutionary in Yan's time for two reasons: first, the presentation of multiple different script styles in the same work and second, there was an attempt to merge two characters into one (for instance, 劍舞 was combined into one character, see here). Indeed, Yan's rather unorthodox approach to traditional calligraphy in this piece had not gone unnoticed, as Qing Dynasty's calligrapher Liu Yong (劉墉) noted A Poem to General Pei was "bold and open, pioneering a completely new horizon (縱橫豪宕，獨闢異境)"(6).
Although Yan appeared to be breaking away from traditions, he spent many years learning the traditions of Chinese calligraphy before he was able to do so. He first imitated and studied the calligraphic style of Chu Suiliang (褚遂良), then afterwards learned the renowned cursive style of Zhang Xu (張旭) for many years; it was not until when he was at the age of around 50 when he wrote his defining calligraphic works such as the Draft of a Requiem to My Nephew (祭姪文稿) and the Duobao Pagoda Stele (多寶塔碑) (7). Indeed, as with many other arts, one must be patient and master the basics before developing your own personal style in writing Chinese calligraphy. It is exceedingly important to not rush, to be self-critical, and to examine closely the classical works written by renowned calligraphers in order to understand the essence of Chinese calligraphy. Truly, Chinese calligraphy stresses not only on techniques but also on cultivating one's character (8), so self-reflection and learning from the works of masters from the past will certainly help in finding your shortcomings, thereby improving your calligraphic skills along with your personality and character.
II. On Yan's Personal Character
As a calligrapher, Yan was considered as an artist who mastered the classical calligraphic skills and took tradition to a new level ("雄秀獨出,一變古法", "顏魯公書雖自成一家，然曲折求之，皆合右軍父子筆法", 9). Indeed, he inherited the tradition of the art before opening up a new frontier, and so his calligraphy was a prime example of an ancient Chinese adage: "Inherit the past, and build the future (繼往開來)". As a statesman, he was a principled, strong-willed and loyal traditionalist (忠直不屈, 10) who, in his final days, refused to surrender despite multiple death threats from his captors who rebelled against the Tang Emperor (11). Eventually, he was executed by his imprisoners but was remembered and revered by many for his resolve in following his own conscience and holding to moral principles with little regards of his own life; indeed, his entire life can be summarized by a verse written by poet Li Qingzhao (李清照): "Live like an audacious champion; die as a heroic soul ("生當作人傑，死亦為鬼雄", translated by KS Vincent Poon)". Such a respectable and noble man with integrity is hard to find in today's results-oriented culture where morals and principles often shift to maximize material benefits. In fact, if Yan were to live in today's world, some may even laugh at his "foolishness" in losing his own life just for the sake of keeping his so-called values. Sadly, this type of thinking is increasingly popular in today's world despite its inconsistency with traditional Chinese culture and western Christianity.
What distinguishes a human from a wild beast is conscience, not possession. To use only earthly possessions to measure a person's worth or success is not only juvenile but dangerous: any human and even humanity itself can easily be interpreted as an "object" with a monetary value and so can be bought with a certain price. Ultimately, this strips away human dignity and, at the end of the day, we are no better than beasts since we will all be focusing on how to survive and on selfish gains with no consideration or respect of others, since all can be "bought". Therefore, for a person to be qualified as a decent human being, one must recognize holding certain absolute moral principles is more important than any of your possession, sometimes even your life. Indeed, this is the source of human passion and one key distinction between a human being and a wild beast; as the the Bible states: "No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon (riches, worldly interests)"(Matthew 6:24).
A person who is obsessed with worldly goods is usually calculating, manipulative, provincial, shallow, narrow-minded, apathetic, and essentially a coward who will betray his/her own beliefs and morals for a price. This type of person is commonly described as a petty individual "小人" ("君子喻於義，小人喻於利", 12) in traditional Chinese Confucianism and is often looked down upon in traditional Chinese culture. In some extreme cases, if you show passion and kindness towards these "petty individuals", they may even think that you harbor ulterior motives to harm them! Indeed, such individuals will have a hard time understanding love, sacrifice and ultimately the true meaning to life. As such, they cannot write good calligraphy like those of Yan's as they do not possess the necessary temperament (氣魄) to do so.
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