Friday, May 28, 2010
Yu Shinan 虞世南
China's calligraphy had its heyday during the Wei Kingdom (220-265), Jin (265-420) and Tang (618-907) dynasties when all scripts of Chinese characters - zhuan-shu, li-shu, kai-shu, xing-shu and cao-shu - had appeared and got continuously perfected.
Owing to the government's promotion, calligraphy was all the rage during the Tang Dynasty. Well-known calligraphers in the early years of the Tang Dynasty included Yu Shinan, Ouyang Xun, Chu Suiliang and Xue Ji. They are collectively known as ‘Four Masters of Early Tang Dynasty’.
Yu Shinan was born in Yuezhou (now Yuyao in Zhejiang). He was one year younger than Ouyang Xun, and passed away at age 81, being one of those calligraphers who lived a long life. He came from a noble family and was taught by Gu Yewang and Xuling, both were men of letters. According to historical records, Yu Shinan was by nature a quiet person who kept a pure heart and few desires, studied very hard and single-mindedly devoted to his studies. He was also always in a deep thought. He had rich knowledge in literature.
It was his good fortune that he met Li Shimin, the second emperor of the Tang dynasty. Appeared to be gentle by nature, Yu was actually a pretty strong character who always spoke his mind when giving advice to the emperor. According to historical records, the emperor once wrote a courtly love poem and asked Yu to respond with another poem. Yu Shinan told the emperor, ‘What your honour has written is indeed excellent in form, but its content is not proper. It is naturally that your servants will do and follow what your honour likes to do. But I am concerned that once the poem is published, writing this type of poetry will become a trendy thing among the people. Therefore, I dare not fulfil the wish of your honour.’ The emperor replied, ‘Well said. I actually just want to know what is in your mind.’ He then rewarded Yu with 50 rolls of cloths. Once, the emperor asked Yu to write the ‘Stories of Exemplary Women’ in calligraphic form on folding partitions. As the text was not available at that time, Yu wrote the calligraphy based on his memory, and it was proven to be a perfectly written work without a single mistake. The emperor had commented that ‘Yu Shinan is a man of five absolute merits, namely, good virtue, faithfulness and righteousness, rich in knowledge, good at writing and calligraphy’. When Yu passed away, the emperor was so sad that he cried and said that Yu was like part of his body, and every time he committed a mistake, Yu would fearlessly point it out to him. Where to find someone to replace Yu, now that he had gone?
Another reason that Li Shimin respected Yu was due to his calligraphy. Yu can be said to be Li Shimin’s calligraphy teacher. So when Yu passed away, the emperor lamented that he would not be able to find another person to discuss calligraphy with him. In the history of calligraphy, there is no other person received such special honour from an emperor.
Yu Shinan had learned calligraphy from Zhi Yong and followed Zhi Yong to taken in the essence of Wang Xizhi and Wang Xianzhi’s calligraphic style. Steady and with strength, upright and elegant, some of Yu’s works were really free and rakish. One of the most famous works of Yu is the ‘Confucius Temple Stele’. The character in Confucius Temple Stele tends toward the slender look. The spatial composition follows the rule of ‘compact upper part and looser lower part', creating a neat, forceful look.