Yan Zhenqing

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  • Born: 709
  • Died: 785
  • Chinese: 顏真卿 (Yan Zhenqing)

Yan Zhenqing was a prominent Chinese calligrapher of the Tang Dynasty, and remains one of the most famous and emulated calligraphers today.

Life and Career

A government official born in Xi'an, Yan was chief of Pingyuan prefecture when General An Lushan rose up in rebellion in 755. Yan earned a reputation as a great warrior and leader, and loyal servant of the court, by leading his forces first against the rebels.

He was later made a duke (公), and served as a private tutor to the crown prince and as minister overseeing civil servants. He produced a number of now-famous works in standard script, including Record of the Duobao Pagoda (752) and Stele for Yan Qinli (779), his style growing somewhat rounder and freer over the course of his career, but always being very clear and restrained. From the Ming dynasty onwards, critics would regard Yan as the forefather of standard script, and held up these works as models for officials to follow.

While those works in standard script seem to have been mainly those intended for stele, and for other very formal purposes, a number of more informal works on silk or paper survive today, either as copies or inscribed onto steles (some may even be extant in the original). These works, in varying degrees of running or cursive script, include letters and other such semi-formal or informal matters. In 764, Yan Zhenqing composed a Letter on the Controversy over Seating Protocol, in response to the decision by senior minister Guo Yingyi to seat Yu Chao'en, a powerful eunuch, at the head of the table. This work has been interpreted as "brimm[ing] with feelings of loyalty and justice, ... a rebuke to Guo's crookedness and a blow to Yu's arrogance. ... a free and unrestrained style characterized by naturalness and originality."[1]

One of his most famous works, sometimes described as "a work of running script second only to Wang Xizhi's Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Collection,"[1] was composed in 758 in the wake of the death of Yan Jiming, a cousin's son, who had been killed in battle against the forces of An Lushan. Eulogy for a Nephew, as it survives today, is a work loaded with characters which are circled, crossed-out, or added in between the lines. Nevertheless, though obviously something of a draft and not a completed, polished, work, it has been praised and celebrated down through the centuries as a masterpiece.

Following the accession to the throne of Emperor Suzong in 756, Yan's authority and reputation began to falter. In 766, after offending a senior minister, he lost favor with the court to such an extent that he was demoted and forced to leave the capital. Still the chief of two prefectures, he quietly worked to streamline governance in those lands while devoting much of his time to literary and scholarly pursuits, speaking with hermits and literati-types, and studying Buddhism and paths to longevity. Though his reputation had been diminished politically, as a cultured, cultivated man and expert calligrapher, he maintained his reputation and dignity, and the name of his family.

Many of his works in this later period of his career reflected incredible creativity and uniqueness of form, and a further departure from the dominant Wang Xizhi-influenced style, while at the same time drawing upon seal script, clerical script, and other historical styles. Su Shi, the great Song Dynasty poet, wrote that his calligraphy "has the charm and grace of all time, from Han, through Wei and Jin to the Liu Song dynasty."[2]

Around 780, Yan was awarded many honors and restored to service, regaining favor at court. His last famous work, a stele at his own family's temple, erected and inscribed as part of efforts to honor and worship his ancestors, once again bears his careful, strict characters in standard script.

Already at an advanced age at this time, his death came not of natural causes, but at the hands of rebels. An attempt to put down another rebellion in 783 resulted in failure, and he was killed by his enemies two years later.

Reputation and Influence

Though not necessarily regarded among the top calligraphers or scholar-artists during his lifetime, by the Song dynasty, a period which saw a revival of Confucianism and of study of the ancient past, he came to be regarded as he is today, as a profoundly important figure in the history of Chinese calligraphy, and one of the greatest masters who ever lived.

Su Shi described Yan's calligraphic style as dignified and powerful, a contrast to that of Wang Xizhi which had dominated for centuries, and which was softer, freer, and more graceful.

Though celebrated as a hero for hundreds of years, Yan was denounced by some in the 1960s for his loyalty to the court, to which the Communist Party was opposed; this made him essentially, literally, an anti-revolutionary. But others pointed out the incredible importance of his calligraphy as an element of the national cultural archive, as well as its power and beauty. Hua Guofeng, the successor to Mao Zedong as Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, produced a great many signs, newspaper mastheads, and other works of calligraphy in a style directly emulating that of Yan Zhenqing, thus validating and liberating the Tang official's reputation.


  • Ouyang Zhongshi and Wen C. Fong (eds.). Wang Youfen (trans.). Chinese Calligraphy. Yale University Press, 2008. pp224-231.

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