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A Peaceful Calligraphy in Wartime: Chang Ch’ung-ho’s Small Standard Script Calligraphy of Qin Guan’s Poems in Ci Form
Qianshen Bai
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In the history of Chinese calligraphy, only a handful of female calligraphers are known, and this phenomenon persisted into the twentieth century; those who achieved distinction are fewer still. In recent years, there has been increased interest in the calligrapher Mrs. Chang Ch’ung-ho Frankel張充和 (born 1913), who has lived in the U.S. for over half a century.

Kunming during the War Years

One of Chang Ch'ung-ho's most important works is this exquisite calligraphy handscroll in small standard script which she did while she was in Kunming, Yunnan province, in southwest China during the Sino-Japanese War (1937-45). At this time, the Japanese occupied much of eastern, central and northern China, so many citizens fled to remote regions that remained under Chinese control.

Life in Kunming during this period gave the appearance of normality. Four of China’s leading educational institutions—Peking, Tsinghua, Zhejiang, and Nankai Universities—had moved to Kunming. A temporary combination of these four universities comprised the Southwestern Consolidated University and made Kunming the country’s center of higher education. Many professors, such as Wen Yiduo 聞一多 (1899–1946) and Tang Lan 唐蘭 (1900–1979), who taught Chang Ch’ung-ho at Peking University, were now teaching at the new Consolidated University, and Chang Ch’ung-ho kept in close contact with them. Her Kunming studio “Hut of Clouds and Dragons” (Yunlong an 雲龍盦) became the locus of frequent literary gatherings.

In Kunming, where Chang Ch’ung-ho worked for the Ministry of Education, her responsibility was to edit textbooks. In her leisure, she spent considerable time performing kunqu昆曲 opera, writing poems, and practicing calligraphy. By this time, her talent and achievement in both kunqu and calligraphy were already recognized in artistic and intellectual circles even though she was only in her twenties.

Qin, Ci and commemorating the death of a friend and teacher

It was also in Kunming that she began to study the qin 琴 (zither), a musical instrument loved and played by Chinese literati for more than a thousand years. She studied the qin under the guidance of Zha Fuxi 査阜西 (1895–1976), the most influential scholar of qin history and promoter of the modern revival of this ancient musical instrument.

The handscroll discussed here is one of the few calligraphic works by Chang Ch’ung-ho that survives from her Kunming days. It is composed of thirty-five ci poems by the Northern Song poet Qin Guan 秦觀 (1049–1100). Ci is a literary genre about which a literary dictionary states:

Ci 詞 (lyric or “Song-words”), one of the major poetic genres in China, was originally a song text set to existing musical tunes. It emerged in the Tang dynasty in response to the popularity of foreign musical tunes newly imported from Central Asia….Ci titles always point to particular cipai 詞牌 (tune patterns) for which the poems are composed. These cipai, totaling about 825 if the numerous variant forms are excluded, came to be viewed as definite verse patterns. Even today, poets still write to these tune patterns without knowing the original melodies. This unique practice of ci composition is called tianci 塡詞 (filling in words).”See the entry on ci poetry in William H. Nienhauser, Jr., editor and compiler, The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1986), p. 846.

The most common topic of ci is that of events in the lives of women, and this may be one reason why Chang Ch’ung-ho, as a female poet, takes special interest in this form. Among the one hundred or so classical poems she has composed, many are ci. Among them, a group of three ci set to the tune pattern Basheng ganzhou 八聲甘州 tells a moving story.

In 1970, Chang Ch’ung-ho’s husband, Professor Hans Frankel, invited the eminent scholar Rao Zongyi 饒宗頤 (born 1917), who is also a literati painter and calligrapher, to be a visiting professor at the Graduate School of Yale University. Although Professor Rao played the qin, he did not bring his instrument with him and so borrowed one from Chang Ch’ung-ho. The qin in Chang Ch’ung-ho’s possession was given to her as a wedding gift by her teacher, Zha Fuxi, mentioned previously.

During the Cultural Revolution and prior to the re-establishment of diplomatic relationships between the U.S. and China, communication between Chang Ch’ung-ho and her friends in China like Zha ceased almost completely. Nevertheless, she received word that Zha Fuxi had passed away during the Cultural Revolution and, to commemorate her old friend, she sadly composed a ci following the cipai of Basheng ganzhou. But a few years later, she learned from a reliable source that Zha was still alive, so she happily composed a second Basheng ganzhou expressing her joy. Around 1976, the two friends began writing to one another, but Zha passed away only a few months later that same year. As a result, Chang Ch’ung-ho composed her third Basheng ganzhou to mourn the death of her old friend. These ci express the depth of their friendship.

The Musicality of Chang Ch'ung-ho's small standard script

As pointed out above, the ci “was originally a song text set to existing musical tunes,” and even though their original melodies were lost long ago, ci still have a strong sense of music to them. For this reason, when Ch’ung-ho uses ci composed by ancient poets as texts for her calligraphy, their musical quality helps introduce greater rhythm into her brushwork. Ch’ung-ho’s love of ci may also have something to do with her practice of kunqu opera: because the latter is a singing art, its texts are sometimes similar to those of ci.

By nature, ci are more suitable for expressing private and intimate feelings in contrast to shi詩 poetry, which is associated with more public subjects. This can be seen in the thirty-five ci by Qin Guan copied by Chang Ch’ung-ho in this handscroll. The following is an English translation of one of these ci following the tune pattern Rumeng ling 如夢令:

The long night is deep, deep, like water.
The wind blows hard; the post-house firmly shut.
Dream broken—a mouse peeps at the lamp.*
Frost sends the chill of dawn to invade the coverlet.
No sleep,
No sleep!
Outside, horses neigh and people get up.Translation by James J. Y. Liu, in his Major Lyricists of the Northern Sung A.D. 960-1126 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), pp. 110-111. In Liu’s translation, the tone pattern is titled Rumeng ling, whereas Ch’ung-ho uses the title Yi xianzi. Yi xianzi is the original name for this tone pattern, which later was changed to Rumeng ling. An alternative translation is provided in this catalogue by Ching-ho Chang (not related to the artist).
(*note: mice are fond of lamp oil)

With but thirty-three characters in its seven lines, this ci has one of the shortest extant tune patterns. Since its lines vary in length, even when chanted (not sung) it has musical qualities that echo the flavor of Chang Ch’ung-ho’s calligraphy in this example.

This handscroll by Chang Ch’ung-ho is undated and has no artist’s signature. But a similar handscroll of small standard script, also in the collection of the Seattle Art Museum, is datable to 1939.The related work in SAM is also included in this catalogue: accession number 2010.8.2. Thus, it seems reasonable to date this one to the same year, when Chang Ch’ung-ho was in Kunming.

From the late 1930s through the first half of the 1940s, Chang Ch’ung-ho wrote many calligraphic works in small standard script. One reason for writing in small standard script more often than in larger characters was the limitations of materials in Kunming at that time. When Chang Ch’ung-ho began to study calligraphy as a child, she first practiced large-character calligraphy; in her teens, she wrote in such large-character formats as couplets and sign plaques. To write calligraphy in large characters requires much ink, and since ready-made liquid ink was not available in those days, it was time-consuming to grind fresh ink for writing large-character works. In Anhui, where she grew up, and in Suzhou where her parents lived, her ink was usually prepared by servants grinding a cake of ink with water on an inkstone. In wartime Kunming, however, since Chang Ch’ung-ho no longer had anyone to grind ink for her, she preferred, when practicing calligraphy, to write most often in small standard script, which consumes less ink.

There might be another reason Chang Ch’ung-ho wrote so much small standard script when she was in Kunming. Often, her writing of calligraphy was interrupted by air raid warnings. According to Chang Ch’ung-ho, during the Sino-Japanese War, Japanese bombers would frequently bomb Kunming and Chongqing (Chang Ch’ung-ho moved from Kunming to Chongqing in late 1940). Air raid sirens sounded three rounds to send three types of warning. The first round of sirens indicated an imminent air raid and meant that people should stop working and make preparations to retreat to a shelter. The second round warned that Japanese bombers were approaching and that it was time to move to the shelter. The third round meant the bombers had arrived. Because a shelter was close to Chang Ch’ung-ho’s office, she had time to make works in small standard script between the first and second rounds of sirens; many of her calligraphic works were made under these circumstances. For the reasons that writing small characters does not take much time, and that she could pause in the event of a bomb alert and pack the small scroll to be continued later, she preferred small standard script to other script types and sizes for her calligraphy.

Perhaps more importantly, her nonchalant attitude to the bombing marked a buoyant naiveté that characterizes the two works from this period, which are unrestrained by rules. This quality is lost in her later works, after she starts studying with Shen Yinmo沈尹默 (I883–1971) and learning from Sui Dynasty (589–618) calligraphy. Chang Ch’ung-ho presented her small standard script to the calligraphy master Shen Yinmo in 1941 in Chongqing when she became his student. Shen commented that Chang Ch’ung-ho’s small standard script work had the flavor of Eastern Jin dynasty (317–420) calligraphy masters, and, more precisely, of Ming dynasty (1368–1644) Wu school calligraphers’ interpretation of Eastern Jin masters—an insightful observation.

If we compare this small handscroll to famous works by the Eastern Jin master Wang Xizhi 王羲之 (303–361), we find significant similarities (fig. 1). As in Chang Ch’ung-ho’s work, Wang’s character structures are tilted and his strokes are rounded, with an elegant, relaxed air. As well, certain strokes are moderately longer than usual.

Fig. 1: Attributed to Wang Xizhi, Preface to the Treatise Against Heterodoxy (detail). © Jiaoshan Beilin Museum.

What did Shen Yinmo mean by “Wu school interpretations of Eastern Jin masters”? Many Wu School artists, such as Zhu Yunming 祝允明 (1460–1527) and Wen Zhengming 文徵明 (1470–1559), who excelled at small standard script, took the work of Eastern Jin masters as their models.

Among Wu school calligraphers, Chang Ch’ung-ho’s style is closest to that of Wang Chong 王寵 (1494–1533). In both Wang’s and Chang Ch’ung-ho’s work, we find 1) rounded corners, 2) strokes left detached that normally are joined, and 3) an overall impression of grace, clarity, and musicality (fig. 2). But there are also significant differences between Chang Ch’ung-ho’s small standard script and Wang Chong’s. Indeed, she achieves a more musical quality in her work by manipulating the sizes of characters. In Wang Chong’s work, differences among character sizes are moderate; in Chang Ch’ung-ho’s handscroll, the contrast is more striking.

Fig. 2: Wang Chong, Seven Poems (detail). Collection of the National Palace Museum, Beijing.

Usually, when writing standard script, characters occupy the same or similar character space, which means a character with more strokes is graphically denser or larger than a character with fewer strokes. But in this handscroll, Chang Ch’ung-ho exaggerates the relative densities of her characters. For example, while the character bu 不 normally has three strokes, Chang Ch’ung-ho chose one of its variants that adds extra strokes to the standard version to make it slightly more complicated—yet despite this, it remains a simple character with few strokes.In Chinese, the standard form of a character might have variants, sometimes over a dozen. A variant refers to a character that has the same meaning and pronunciation as the standard form of a character but whose written form varies from the standardized one. Regardless of its relative simplicity, Chang Ch’ung-ho wrote this character larger than either tao li 桃李, the two characters above it, or jin feng禁風, the two characters below it, even though any one of these four characters has more strokes than bu. The relatively large size for characters like bu creates visual cadence for the viewer, subtly influencing his/her pace of reading that recalls the musicality of the ci poem when sung.

When a complicated character is written in a smaller than average space for a given work, the compression of its many strokes into a relatively small space makes it denser and heavier than normal, and when a simple character is written in a larger space than average for a work, it becomes all the more light and airy. Such a structural arrangement in Chang Ch’ung-ho’s handscroll intensifies the usual degree of contrast between light and dense characters, making her graphic rhythms more vivid. While this structural treatment of individual characters and their overall spatial arrangement is often used in the relatively free-spirited running and cursive scripts, such freedom is rare in standard script. However, so effortlessly does Ch’ung-ho manipulate this unconventional approach that the relationships between her airy and dense characters are natural and harmonious.

In addition to size, the spontaneity of her writing is further manifested in the structural and spatial arrangements of individual characters. For instance, when the character bu 不 mentioned above is written in smaller size, sometimes its na stroke (its lower right stroke) is significantly shortened. A similar rendering can be seen in the character chu 處, whose na stroke can be found in lengths both shorter and longer than average. While these variations may be small, they are not insignificant, because to the viewer, they read like musical notes with varying speed. Clearly, Chang Ch’ung-ho was not merely copying a famous ci poem, she was reciting it when writing it. The result is a visual recital.

Let us further compare strokes in Chang Ch’ung-ho’s calligraphy to their equivalents in Wang Chong’s. In Wang’s work, each principal stroke remains close to average length for its type, as in the work of other historic calligraphers: hardly a stroke varies much from its normal length. By contrast, in Ch’ung-ho’s handscroll, we often find characters in which a na stroke stretches toward the lower right corner to an unusual degree, as in the characters hua 花, huan 還, hou 候, shuang霜. In these examples, this stroke is longer than normal, but structural balance is achieved by dynamic adjustments to their character structures, adding a rakish flavor to the elegant tone of this handscroll. It may be seen as manifesting an untrammeled aspect of Chang Ch’ung-ho’s personality.

Before concluding this discussion, we should consider the paper used in this handscroll. Tinted light pink with random flecks of gold, the paper is less absorbent than normal paper, which loses a desirable crispness and precision once the ink begins to diffuse into the surrounding paper. Hence, the choice of low absorbent paper must have been a deliberate attempt to preserve the crisp contours of her calligraphy. During wartime, although material life deteriorated, Chang Ch’ung-ho managed to obtain good writing materials such as this paper from antique stores and mounting shops. For it is not only artistic talent, but a craftsman’s careful attention to and understanding of materiality, that moves an work of art toward perfection. Chang Ch’ung-ho’s careful cultivation of both talent and material means combine to make this handscroll a masterpiece of twentieth-century small standard script.

© 2013 by the Seattle Art Museum


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