Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 27, 2021
Lei Xue Eulogy for Burying a Crane and the Art of Chinese Calligraphy Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2019. 240 pp.; 8 color ills.; 85 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780295746364)

At the end of Eulogy for Burying a Crane and the Art of Chinese Calligraphy, Lei Xue describes seeing boulders that had been hauled out of the muddy waters of the Yangtze River at the island of Jiaoshan in modern-day Zhenjiang, Jiangsu province. This highly publicized and costly expedition was meant to salvage the remaining fragments of the famous Eulogy for Burying a Crane (Yi he ming, hereafter Eulogy) stone inscription dated to 514 CE that had partially collapsed into the river. In the eleventh century, the inscription was only visible in the wintry months when the water level was low. In 1713 five fragments were chiseled off and displayed on the island. In 2010, after the salvage expedition, seven tons of boulders were rescued from the waters. While “there was not much to see except for some scratches,” Xue writes, after a friend and staff member at the Jiaoshan Stone Inscription Museum pointed out that “some people believe there is a character” hidden on the surface of the stone, Xue discerned a Chinese character “emanating from the random scratches—that is, hua, meaning ‘transformation’” (137).

This moment in the conclusion captures the main argument of the book and reminds readers that transformation is at the heart of Chinese calligraphy. As Xue skillfully articulates throughout the book, the art of Chinese calligraphy resides largely in the “cultural biography” (9) of the written word as it transforms from brush-and-ink writing to calligraphy, a process that is only possible under certain conditions of “displaying and viewing writing” (15) that are shaped, at times, by “paradoxical cultural practices” (9). In writing “micro-historical case studies” (15) through a sociopolitical lens, Xue draws our attention to the social and material conditions required for writing (xiezi) to become calligraphy (shufa). In the book, Chinese calligraphy constitutes a visuality that requires the active invention of new historical personas, styles, and audiences, which ebb and flow according to the demands of its practitioners, viewers, and collectors in order to survive. In fact, as the written characters of the Eulogy inscription took on a life of their own apart from the stone, their mysterious origins, which Xue reconstructs in chapter 1, became central to the stone’s later survival. The inscription’s ambiguity in form and content lent itself to appropriation by subsequent imperial courts and scholars. The murkiness of the physical stone half dilapidated in the water paradoxically brought clarity to an abstracted Eulogy style that was transmitted through replication in brush and ink and in stone rubbings without privileging the status of the original.

While chapter 1 lays the necessary groundwork for readers to grasp the complexity of the Eulogy inscription at its conception—as “a work of public writing intended to transform the island of Jiaoshan into a virtual tomb” (15)—the main argument of this chapter closely follows Robert Harrist’s interpretation of the Cloud Peak Mountain (Yunfengshan) inscriptions located in modern-day Shandong province as writing that “transform[s] the terrain where they appear into landscapes structured by human agency” (The Landscape of Words: Stone Inscriptions from Early and Medieval China, University of Washington Press, 2008, 96). Xue’s important contributions lie in the subsequent chapters. In chapter 2, the Eulogy stone is “transformed into a calligraphy model for the first time” during the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127 CE). Paradoxically, while the Northern Song is known for its “far reaching imperial codification of the calligraphy canon” (47), the transformation of the Eulogy into a calligraphic model (mis)attributed to the sage-calligrapher Wang Xizhi (303–361 CE) might have stemmed from the humbler origins of local gazetteers that proliferated during the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE), when “associating famous names with sites of historic or scenic interest was a common strategy” for promoting a specific locale (50). Moreover, the Eulogy inscription’s transformation into a “model” entailed questioning the “brush method” (bifa) that was a long-held tenet of the Two Wangs calligraphic tradition, built on the legacy of Wang Xizhi and his son Wang Xianzhi (344–386 CE). As Xue suggests, despite the gradual democratization of calligraphy in the Song through the proliferation of model-letters (fatie), which solidified the Two Wangs legacy outside imperial walls, it was also during this time that scholar-officials began reevaluating the nature of the copy and the defining features of “Wang Xizhi style” (56–57). In other words, as Xue astutely lays out, the transformation of the Eulogy stone inscription into a calligraphic model required two opposing social forces: the imperial codification of the Two Wangs legacy that established the possibility of canonizing writing in the first place and the search for alternative styles on the part of scholar-officials who sought inspiration outside court-sanctioned works. It was, ironically, this very push and pull that allowed not only “Wang Xizhi style” to proliferate but also a little-known stone inscription off the side of a cliff to gain the status of a “model” and eventually, as chapter 3 and the conclusion argue, a style in its own right.

In chapter 3, Xue takes readers into the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) as he further disentangles the politics of canon formation. The transformation of the physical Eulogy stone, first “discarded into oblivion and rediscovered as a ‘strange thing’” (105) in the Ming, was motored by its newfound appeal to an urban elite who developed “a taste for strangeness” (qi) (16). Unlike the model status of the stone in the Song that was bolstered by the court institutionalization of calligraphic styles, with the prevalence of printing technology in the Ming that yielded mass-produced texts and images that proliferated at an even faster pace than in the Song, the Eulogy stone became a printed consumable even for individuals unfamiliar with the elite connoisseurship of calligraphy. In turn, the Eulogy gained popular, commercial status. The eloquence with which Xue navigates this complex social and economic terrain prompts questions that participate in scholarly conversations on Ming visual culture. For instance, strangeness that is packaged, sold, and made accessible to a general public becomes anything but extraordinary. How does a commercial enterprise keen on promoting strangeness balance mass appeal with individual creativity—a push and pull that Xue also notes in relation to calligraphers working in the wake of the Two Wangs legacy?

Alongside the biography of the Eulogy, other conceptual threads tie the chapters of the book together. Specifically, Xue’s attention to the relationship between scale and medium as the Eulogy stone transformed into rubbings makes chapters 2 and 3 helpful for scholars in search of readings on questions of scale and replication in China and amenable to any course syllabus that tackles these issues. Barring visits made to the island, the only way for the Eulogy to circulate was by transforming its large scale and rocky medium into something transportable like rubbings. As Wu Hung argues, a rubbing “epitomizes yi wu” or “leftover thing” (“On Rubbings: Their Materiality and Historicity,” in Writing and Materiality in China, ed. Judith Zeitlin and Lydia Liu, Harvard University Press, 2003, 60). In each of Xue’s chapters, the Eulogy rubbings constitute a series of leftovers that gradually lose their material attachments to an original, yet these material losses are what makes room for the inscription’s transformation into calligraphy. With the advent of printing, these rubbings that might have once retained the aura of the original stone through a “material linkage” now relied on what Xue terms a “visual linkage” (96).

Importantly, this visual linkage becomes the mechanism by which the Eulogy is transformed into a style on a par with “Wang Xizhi style” and applicable to other inscriptions as a method (fa). In the Song dynasty, this meant that Huang Tingjian would support the misattribution of the Eulogy to Wang Xizhi in order to use the Eulogy as a way of applying “the new self-expressive aesthetics” (58) of small-script calligraphy to his large-size calligraphy. In the late Ming dynasty, the size of the Eulogy inscription became a source of its authenticity. The Eulogy occupied an entire volume of the Model Letters of the Jade Smoke Hall (Yuyuntang fatie) from 1612 by retaining the “original” size of the characters (88), even though the copy of the Eulogy from Jade Smoke was not taken from the actual stone. Or, as Xue explains, in a freehand copy of the Eulogy written by Dong Qichang (1555–1636), Dong further estranged form from content, choosing to copy the contents of the large-sized Eulogy inscription in the brushwork and size of small-script calligraphy. By the modern period and in the hands of Zeng Xi (1861–1930), the “Eulogy style” (134) derived from the sixth-century stones became a transmittable form independent of the contents of the inscription. Through time, the Eulogy transformed from a single inscription embedded in Jiaoshan’s natural topography to a transhistorical visuality capable of turning any brush-and-ink writing into calligraphy, all thanks to its replication across scales, mediums, and importantly the mysteriousness of the original work, whose very visibility was (ironically) dependent on natural forces outside human control.

Michelle H. Wang
Assistant Professor of Art and Humanities, Reed College