Yan Zhenqing
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Yan Zhenqing
Other Names
Courtesy Name: Qingchen ()
Alias: Yan Pingyuan ()
Yan Lugong ()
Posthumous name: Wenzhong ()

Yan Zhenqing (simplified Chinese: ; traditional Chinese: ; pinyin: Yán Zh?nq?ng; Wade-Giles: Yen Chen-ch'ing; 709-785) was a Chinese calligrapher, military general, and politician. He was a leading Chinese calligrapher and a loyal governor of the Tang Dynasty. His artistic accomplishment in Chinese calligraphy is equal to that of the greatest master calligraphers of history, and his regular script style, Yan, is often imitated.


Early life

Yan Zhenqing was born in Wannian (), near the Tang capital Chang'an, to a highly reputed academic family which served the court for many generations. One of his ancestors was Yan Zhitui, a scholar-official during the Southern and Northern Dynasties. His great-great grandfather Yan Shigu was a famous linguist while his father Yan Weizhen () was private tutor to the Tang princes' and a great calligrapher himself. Under the influence of family tradition and the strict instruction of his mother, Lady Yin (), Yan Zhenqing worked hard from childhood and was well-read in literature and Confucianism.

In 734, at the age of 22, Yan Zhenqing qualified at the national wide imperial examination and was granted the title of Jinshi (a rough equivalent of the modern day doctorate). He then gained the rare opportunity of taking a special imperial examination that was set for candidates with extraordinary talents, again excelling in it. With his outstanding academic background, Yan Zhengqing rose rapidly through the bureaucratic ladder: he was appointed vice-magistrate of Liquan District (), then later Investigating Censor (?) and Palace Censor (). His uprightness and outspoken style were hailed by the common people, but angered Grand Councilor Yang Guozhong; as a result, in 753, he was sent out of the capital as the governor of Pingyuan Commandery.

Tang Dynasty's territory before An Lushan Rebellion

Civil war

By the time Yan Zhenqing took up the post of governor of Pingyuan, the An Shi Rebellion was imminent. With his political sensitivity, Yan Zhenqing immediately started preparing for war by fortifying the city wall and stocking up provisions. He also sent emergency memorial to Emperor Xuanzong, but was ignored.

In December 755, An Lushan and Shi Siming rebelled under the name of removing Yang Guozhong. The ill-prepared Tang government troops retreated with little resistance from all the prefectures in Heshuo () area (which includes the present day provinces of Shandong, Hebei and Henan); only Yan Zhenqing's Pingyuan sustained through. He then combined force with his cousin, Yan Gaoqing (), who was the governor of Changshan (?) (present day Quyang, Hebei), fighting the rebels at their rear. The government in its desperation, promoted Yan Zhenqing to Deputy Minister of Finance (?), and conferred him great military power to assist General Li Guangbi () in the suppression of the rebellion.

Thereafter Yan's force won several major battles over the rebels, including successfully cutting the rebel supply lines and regaining control over seventeen commands in Heshuo area. In 756, Emperor Suzong ascended the throne and promoted Yan Zhenqing to Minister of Works (?). Due to poor military deployment by the Tang government, An Lushan managed to attack Hebei by surprise, and Yan Zhenqing reluctantly abandoned his command, returning to the court in 757. He was then appointed Minister of Law (?), but his outspokenness against corrupt higher-ranking officials resulted in himself being constantly demoted and re-promoted.

Late life

In 764, Emperor Daizong conferred the title of Duke of Lu () on Yan Zhenqing in recognition of his firm loyalty to the government and bravery during the An Lushan Rebellion. However, his unbending character was resented by the incumbent Grand Councilor, Lu Qi, and cost him his life.

In 773, Yan Zhenqing and a group of friends began work on compiling the (c. 780) Yunhai Jingyuan, which was a 360-volume rime dictionary of literary words that unfortunately became a lost work.

In 784, Li Xilie, the military commissioner of Huaixi (), rebelled. Lu Qi had held a grudge against Yan Zhenqing for a long time, so he sent Yan Zhenqing to negotiate with Li Xilie in the hope that Yan Zhenqing will be killed. As expected, Li Xilie tried all means to coax or threaten Yan Zhenqing to surrender, but Yan Zhenqing never wavered. According to legend, Li Xilie set up a fire in the courtyard and told Yan Zhengqing he would be burnt to death if he did not surrender. Yet Yan Zhenqing did not show the slightest fear and walked towards the fire determinedly. Li Xilie could not help but to show respect to him, and in 785, Yan Zhenqing was secretly strangled at the Longxing Temple () in Caizhou, Henan.

Upon hearing of his death, Emperor Daizong closed the assembly for five days and conferred the posthumous title Wenzhong () on Yan Zhenqing. He was also widely mourned by the army and the people, and a temple was constructed to commemorate him. In the Song Dynasty, the temple was moved to Shandong and from then on became a key tourist attraction.

Calligraphic achievement

Yan Zhenqing is popularly held as the only calligrapher who paralleled Wang Xizhi, the "calligraphy sage" (). He specialized in the regular (kaishu ) and cursive (caoshu ) scripts, though he also mastered other styles. His style of regular script, often called Yan script (Yanti ), brought Chinese calligraphy to a new realm, emphasizing strength, boldness, and grandness. Like most of the master calligraphers, Yan Zhenqing learnt his skill from various calligraphers, and the development of his personal style can be basically divided into three stages.

Early period

Draft of a Requiem to My Nephew, 758

Most calligraphers agree Yan Zhenqing's early stage lasted until his fifties. During these years, Yan Zhenqing tried out different techniques and started to develop his personal genre. When he was young, he studied calligraphy under the famous calligraphers Zhang Xu and Chu Suiliang.[1] Zhang Xu was skilled in Cao Script, which emphasizes the overall composition and flow; Chu Suiliang, on the other hand, was renowned for his graceful and refined Kai Script. Yan Zhenqing also drew inspiration from the Wei Bei () Style, which originated from Northern nomad minorities and focused on strength and simplicity.

In 752, he wrote one of his best-known pieces, Duobao Pagoda Stele (?). The stele has 34 lines, each containing 66 characters, and it was written for Emperor Xuanzong who at the time was an extremely pious Buddhist. The style of the calligraphy was close to that of the early Tang calligraphers, who emphasized elegance and "fancifulness"; yet it also pursued composure and firmness in its brush strokes, structuring characters on powerful frames with tender management on brushline. In 758, he also wrote the influential calligraphy piece Draft of a Requiem to My Nephew (?).

Part of Yan Qinli Stele, Yan Zhenqing's masterpiece (the stele is on permanent display in Bei Lin, Xi'an)

Consolidating period

This period ranges from Yan Zhenqing's fifties to sixty-five. During these years, he wrote some famous pieces like Guojia Miao Stele (?) and Magu Shan Xiantan Ji (). Having experienced the An Lushan Rebellion and frequent vicissitudes in his civil career, Yan Zhenqing's style was maturing. He increased waist force while wielding the brush, and blended techniques from the zhuan (?) and li (?) Scripts into his own style, making the start and ending of his brushline gentler. For individual strokes, he adopted the rule of "thin horizontal and thick vertical strokes"; strokes' widths were varied to show the curvature and flow, and the dots and oblique strokes were finished with sharp edges. For character structure, Yan style displays squared shape and modest arrangement, with spacious center portion and tight outer strokes; this structure resembles more the more dated Zhuan and Li Scripts. From the point of view of spacing, his characters are compact vertically, leaving relatively more space in between lines. Hence, the emerging Yan style had abandoned the sumptuous trend of early Tang calligraphers: it is rather upright, muscular, fitting, rich and controlled; compared to the style of the early Tang which was sloped, feminine, pretty, slim and capricious.

Consummating period

In the ten years before his death, Yan Zhenqing's calligraphy accomplishment peaked. His style was now established and he continuously improved on each of his works, and completed his magnum opus, the Yan Qinli Stele (?). At this stage, he was able to fully exhibit his style at will even through a single stroke, and liveliness and passion bubbles under his modest and stately style[clarification needed]. He also wrote A Poem to General Pei (?), which was revolutionary for his time as multiple script styles were presented within the same work.


Yan Zhenqing's style assimilated the essence of the previous five hundred years, and almost all the calligraphers after him were more or less influenced by him. In his contemporary period, another great master calligrapher, Liu Gongquan, studied under him, and the much-respected Five-Dynasty Period calligrapher, Yang Ningshi () thoroughly inherited Yan Zhenqing's style and made it even bolder.

The trend of imitating Yan Zhenqing peaked during Song Dynasty. The "Four Grand Masters of the Song" – Su Shi, Huang Tingjian (), Mi Fu (), Cai Xiang – all studied the Yan Style; Su Shi even claimed Yan Zhenqing's calligraphy to be "peerless" throughout history.

After the Song, the popularity of Yan Zhenqing declined slightly, as calligraphers tended towards more abstract ways of expression. However, he still held important status, and many renowned calligraphers, such as Zhao Mengfu () and Dong Qichang () are said to have been inspired by Yan Zhenqing.

In contemporary China, the leading calligraphers like Sha Menghai () and Shen Yinmo conducted extended research on the Yan style, which then regained its popularity. Nowadays almost every[] Chinese calligraphy learner imitates the Yan style when they first pick up the brush, and Yan Zhenqing's influence has also spread to Korea, Japan and Southeast Asia.

See also


  1. ^ "A Poem of General Pei ?". Vincent's Calligraphy. Retrieved .
  • Hucker, Charles O. (1985). A Dictionary of Official Titles in Imperial China. Stanford: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-1193-3.
  • Yao Jinming; Ed. Zhu Boxiong (1998). Zhong Guo Shu Hua Ming Jia Jing Pin Da Dian. Zhejiang Edu Press. ISBN 7-5338-2769-4.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  • McNair, Amy. (1998). The Upright Brush: Yan Zhenqing's Calligraphy and Song Literati Politics. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0-8248-2002-9.

External links

  This article uses material from the Wikipedia page available here. It is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.



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