Ian Boyden > Essays > Bricks and Shards

The Way Can Be Found in Bricks and Shards:

Juxtapositions of Image, Text, and Calligraphic Style in the Work of Hua Rende

 

Ian H. Boyden

 

 

Master Dongguo asked Zhuangzi, “This thing called the Way—where does it exist?”

Zhuangzi said, “There's no place it doesn't exist.”

“Come,” said Master Dongguo, “you must be more specific!”

“It is in the ant.”

“As low a thing as that?”

“It is in the panic grass.”

“But that is lower still!”

“It is in bricks and shards.”

“How can it be so low?”

“It is in the piss and shit!”

Master Dongguo made no reply.[1]

 

The Zhuangzi is one of the primary philosophical and religious texts of Daoism, and its main protagonist, Zhuangzi, one of the prime articulators of the dao, or Way. The text's animated, inventive, and often raucous passages are filled with fantastic anecdotes, parables, and allegories. The famously irreverent passage above, from the chapter “Knowledge Wanders North,” resonates with many epigraphically minded calligraphers and scholars—those eccentric individuals who spend their lives investigating the inscriptions found on the surfaces of ancient materials. To such calligraphers and scholars, this passage serves as an ancient affirmation that their passion for seemingly unworthy objects such as bricks and shards is not futile, and the beauty they see in them is more than mere illusion.

 

Examining the work of eminent calligrapher and scholar Hua Rende reveals an artist and an intellect enchanted with the written forms and imagery found on ancient objects, especially those remaining from the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) through the end of the Northern and Southern dynasties (317–589). These objects include pictorial stones, bricks, roof tiles, and stone stele. To the untrained eye, many of these objects appear devoid of value, little more than anonymous shards from some forgotten time. But to Hua, these objects are highly cherished keys to understanding the past, including the aesthetic visions of forgotten calligraphers and artisans.

 

For Hua, ancient objects bearing inscriptions are fascinating not just for their archaic beauty, but also for their capacity to give shape to a vast world of imagination that, because of its remoteness in time, is more or less hidden and forgotten today. As a calligrapher, he has spent his life creating a personal calligraphic style based on the elegant, awkward, and simple calligraphy of the Han dynasty and using it to interpret and celebrate the images and texts of ancient China. Famous for his calligraphic accomplishments, Hua is also recognized for the way in which he interprets these images and texts, a method that relies on intuitive, informed, and spectacular juxtapositions of ancient texts and images.[2]

 

In China, there is a long history of calligraphers writing on and interpreting rubbings of ancient objects. This tradition is closely tied to a scholarly movement known as jinshixue, or epigraphical studies. Jin refers to inscriptions on bronze and metal objects; shi refers to inscriptions carved on stones. Thus, jinshixue is the study of bronze and stone objects, the primary focus being on their inscriptions. Epigraphical studies have their origins in the Song dynasty (960–1279) and later became very popular during the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) under the influence of a new epistemological methodology known as kaozheng, or the practice of evidential research.[3] By and large, epigraphical scholars examined ancient objects to uncover and, where necessary, correct the true teachings of the ancients, which had been adulterated over time. However, as the field developed, calligraphers began examining the aesthetic qualities of ancient inscriptions and incorporating the archaic qualities of these early scripts into their own writing.[4] Ultimately, this trend resulted in the formation of beixue, or the stele school of calligraphy (a subject covered in Qianshen Bai's essay in this catalogue).

 

One practice that became popular with stele school calligraphers was to calligraph descriptions of the rubbings onto the rubbings themselves. These works were then hung in studies, libraries, and rooms (even incorporated into architectural elements such as screen doors and windows), and served to indicate one's scholarship and appreciation for ancient objects. Hua's own work both draws on and extends this tradition.

 

There are four works in the current exhibition that are excellent examples of various traditional formats popular with stele school calligraphers. A Catalogue of Ancient Roof Tiles (cat. no. 13) presents rubbings of twelve different roof tiles. Below each tile, Hua has transcribed the characters and noted their provenance and the dynasty during which they were made. In Confucius Pays Homage to Laozi (cat. no.  4), the subject matter of the rubbing has been determined to be an illustration of a passage from the chapter “The Hereditary House of Confucius,” in Sima Qian's Shiji, or Records of the Grand Historian. Hua has inscribed this passage to the left of the rubbing, thereby endowing the work with the air of a scholarly document through the use of an attendant illustration. Two fans in the exhibition also fit this category: Copies of Six Inscriptions from Han Dynasty Bronze Objects (cat. no. 14) and A Fan of Auspicious Words (cat. no. 15). Although neither fan contains a rubbing, in each Hua presents a selection of texts written in their original calligraphic forms as found on a variety of ancient objects, including bronze vessels, bricks, and roof tiles. After each epigraphic text, Hua has transcribed them into contemporary characters and noted from where and whence they came.

 

While Hua is clearly working within the tradition of epigraphic calligraphy, he has not been satisfied to simply repeat the serious and rather academic formulas of his predecessors. Unlike the calligraphers before him, who presented these objects solely as epigraphical, archeological, or art historical artifacts, Hua also presents them as vehicles of ancient imagination—a shift that is subtle but effective. He does this through careful pairings of image and literary texts. Instead of selecting text to act as a direct corollary to the image (as he had done in Confucius Pays Homage to Laozi), Hua here selects texts based on their literary qualities and capacity to transcend their time. This allows text and image to interact tangentially as if they are both the product of an unstated but potent imagination. In so doing, he sets up a dialogue between visual images of past craftsmen and the voices of past poets, writers, and historians. A dynamic space opens up between word and image: instead of the works functioning as scholarly catalogues, they present fields for meditation on and celebration of the past. This dialogue is mediated by Hua's highly personal calligraphic style, which is derived from ancient calligraphic forms originating in the Han dynasty.

 

Hua's compositional formula is also distinctive. Each piece begins with a rubbing from an ancient object. Once the date, provenance, and subject of the object are established, Hua selects a literary text, usually a poem, that in some way informs or is informed by the imagery found on the object. Usually, but not always, the text comes from the same time period as the object of the rubbing. Hua then writes the text somewhere in relation to the rubbing in an appropriate calligraphic script and style. A set of seals is then applied to finish the work, and occasionally, but not always, the content of these seals further informs the specific dialogue of the work.

 

Several works in the current exhibition include rubbings from pictorial stones found in tombs from the Eastern Han dynasty (25–220), especially tombs located in the northern parts of Anhui and Jiangsu provinces near the contemporary city of Xuzhou. In this area during the Eastern Han dynasty, it became vogue for the nobility to build elaborate stone mortuary structures. Spectacular images were carved into the surfaces of the more lavish tombs and shrines. The subject matter of these engraved pictures reflects both Confucian and Daoist concerns that were important to the occupants of these tombs. The images include a variety of gods, immortals, legendary rulers, astronomical charts, auspicious signs, and elements of popular stories, as well as images of feasts, hunting trips, and other forms of human entertainment.[5]

 

The concept that images are to be read as illustrations of specific texts has ancient roots in China. From the time the first Eastern Han tombs and shrines were discovered during the Song dynasty, scholars worked to pair their images with specific texts and stories, resulting in a long history of convincing scholarship that links the images found in these tombs to such textual sources as The Records of the Grand Scribe (Shiji), The Classic of Filial Piety (Xiaojing), and The Classic of Mountains and Waters (Shanhai jing), to name a few. However, close investigation of the iconography of these tombs and shrines suggests that while there were specific stories popular with the nobility of the Eastern Han, the visual representation of them was quite varied and subject to the idiosyncratic visions of the engravers, especially when it came to the more imaginative texts such as The Classic of Mountains and Waters. Such variations make identification of subjects difficult at best, especially if, as is often the case, a pictorial stone is found outside of its original mortuary context.[6]

 

Hua's assessments of these images tend to be far more poetic and transcendent than they are archeological or art historical. For him, these images are means for carrying vibrant elements of the life, spirit, and imagination of those who lived during the Han dynasty into the present. In particular, Hua favors images that depict feasts and gatherings, auspicious omens, and the realm of the immortals, as these are subjects and events around which writers of the late Eastern Han, Wei (220–265), and Jin (265–420) dynasties often articulated extraordinary expressions that address the pleasures and pains of existence. Most of the texts that appear in the current exhibition are highly literary poems: from anonymous Han Yuefu poems to works by highly celebrated poets of the Jian'an period (196–220), including Chen Lin (d. 216), Liu Zhen (d. 217), Cao Cao (155–220), and Cao Zhi (192–232) (translations of all the poems are provided in the catalogue entries to allow readers to make their own observations).

 

It is instructive to re-create the process Hua follows to make a single piece, and Knowing the Happiness of Fish (cat. no. 1) gives a clear example of the shape of his vision regarding the relationships among text, image, and calligraphic style. The rubbing is roughly square, with a thick boarder that encloses the image of a festive scene. A bridge extends from the lower left corner to a pavilion in the upper center. Three people are standing on this bridge, looking down into the water below. Several fish and a turtle can be seen swimming in the water, and three monkeys are cavorting about the grounds. The host of the party is sitting in the pavilion.

 

The texts Hua has selected engage this scene in two distinct dialogues. The first text is simply invoked in the title Hua has given to this image, zhi yu zhi le, or Knowing the Happiness of Fish, which is found in the upper right corner of the piece. This title derives from a passage in the Zhuangzi, in which Zhuangzi and his friend Huizi meditate on the possibilities of knowing what makes fish happy (see page xx for a translation of this passage). Thus, Hua sets the stage for interpreting the figures in this image as either Zhuangzi and Huizi themselves or as anonymous figures of the Eastern Han reminiscing about or reflecting on divinely playful philosophical discussions that were centuries old even at the time this pictorial stone was carved. Implicit in this is Hua's invitation for the viewer to join in such reflection as well. The script selected to give form to these four title characters is an elegant and refined form of clerical script popular during the late Han dynasty, and this too sets a tone of stately reflection and formal invitation.

 

Above the image and to the left of the title, Hua has inscribed a poem by Liu Zhen, a poet of the late Eastern Han dynasty and one of the “Seven Masters of the Jian'an.” Liu's poem is titled “The Lord's Feast,” and it meditates on the joys and transcendent reveries experienced during a social gathering. The images evoked in the poem provide another means for interpreting the imagery in the rubbing. It begins with a description of leisure:

The entire day spent roaming at leisure

and still our delight is not yet over.

Lost in thought in the silent night,

we return together, moving at ease.

Our silk-canopied coaches whirl along

as followers line the road.

Returning to the rubbing, the three figures crossing the bridge can now be understood as having spent the day together and, having gone for a midnight ride, are now returning to the garden. By the light of the moon, they find the garden transformed into something otherworldly:

The moon comes out and shines in the garden

where rare trees are lush and verdant.

Clear streams run through stone channels,

waves churn above the fish locks.

Hibiscus flowers scatter their splendid light,

lotus flowers spread across the golden pond.

Mysterious birds roost at the water's edge,

Auspicious beasts roam near the arched bridge.

Then, as if the boundaries of this magical space have become painfully apparent, the poet turns to reflect on the difficulty of verbalizing extraordinary beauty:

Resplendent buildings among the flowing waves,

cool winds through open spaces.

In my life I have never heard

a song that could capture such tranquility.

I put away my brush and heave a long sigh,

such magnificent beauty, I will never forget.

Again the viewer is invited to recall his or her own encounters with ineffable beauty. The image in the rubbing becomes simultaneously a specific and a universal site for the recollection of magnificent and transcendent experiences.

 

Finally, Hua completes the work by writing a short colophon after the poem and impressing three seals. The colophon explains that the poem is “The Lord's Feast” by Liu Zhen, that the rubbing is from a Han pictorial stone from Xuzhou, and that the piece was calligraphed in the first month of summer of jiashen (lunar year 2004–5) in Suzhou by Hua Rende at Ancient Crepe Myrtle Mountain Studio. Following the colophon, Hua then applied his seal Hua Rende yin, meaning “the seal of Hua Rende.” Hua then added two more seals, giving a final dimension of meaning to the piece. Below the title is a phrase seal that reads wu ta, or “No snakes?”—a common form of greeting during the Han dynasty. In Chinese calligraphy, it is typically assumed that the viewer starts at the top right, thus the placement of this seal is a form of archaic greeting and an invitation to the enter the world of the piece and participate in its dialogue. The second seal, also a phrase seal, marks the beginning of Liu Zhen's poem. The seal reads jin shi yan nian, meaning “May metal and stone extend one's life” and by extension “Epigraphy extends ones life.” The seal's message is that study (the artist's and our own) of this pictorial stone will increase our longevity.

 

Zhuangzi asserted that the Way can be found in bricks and shards. Hua Rende has made convincing but necessarily unspoken arguments to this same end—for the way has a habit of slipping away in the very act of definition. As the opening line of the Daodejing states, “The way that is called the way is not the eternal way.” Hua has separated himself from earlier stele school calligraphers by treating ancient objects and texts first and foremost as celebrated products of imagination. Rather than trying to conquer these records of the past by resolving their mystery with scholarly assertions, Hua gives them space to breathe in the present, mediated by his own compositional and calligraphic vision.


[1] Burton Watson, The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu (New York: Columbia University Press, 1968), 240–41.

[2] Unless otherwise noted, all information about Hua Rende and quotes by him were gleaned during interviews and conversations with the author conducted at Hua's house in Suzhou in the summer of 2004.

[3] An excellent discussion of kaozheng and jinshixue can be found in Benjamin A. Elman, From Philosophy to Philology: Intellectual and Social Aspects of Change in Late Imperial China (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984), 39–49. I discussed the relationship of this movement with calligraphy in another exhibition catalogue, The Peripatetic Brush: Four Contemporary Chinese Calligraphers and Their Use of the Past (Middletown, Conn.: Mansfield Freeman Center for East Asian Studies, Wesleyan University, 1995), 9–11.

[4] See Qianshen Bai, Fu Shan's World: The Transformation of Chinese Calligraphy in the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003), 185–92.

[5] For in-depth discussions of these tombs and shrines, see Patricia Ann Berger's dissertation “Rites and Festivities in the Art of Eastern Han China: Shantung and Kiangsu Provinces” (University of California, Berkley, 1980) and Wu Hong's book The Wu Liang Shrine: The Ideology of Early Chinese Pictorial Art (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1989).

[6] See Berger, “Rites and Festivities,” 10–26.