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March 2008, vol 4 no 1

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Jeffrey Woodward

 

Following the Brush

Ink stick rubbed on the stone, the bamboo brush of wolf's or weasel's hair poised but pausing over rice paper:  for Wang Xizhi, every reason to hesitate. Who, even if blessed with long life, uncommon talent and leisure to study diligently, might ever rival the free brushwork of Zhang Zhi?

Loose, sketchy, a delight to the eye as the characters flirt with illegibility. "Too busy," Zhang Zhi reportedly said, "to write cursively."  Cao Shu:  the "mad grass style" of the Han master. Examples of Zhang Zhi's hand a rarity in Wang Xizhi's time, now, some 1600 years later, even the two or three masterpieces allegedly his may not be.

opening the gift
of a blank book before
the sky of autumn

The wind through the grass, the brush over rice paper.  Who shall read Zhang Zhi, his characters set loose to dance like the mad grass, illegible then, perished now every one?


Notes:

Wang Xizhi (or Wang His-chih), 303-361 M.E., now revered as a Sage of Calligraphy and author of the famous "Preface to Collected Poems of the Orchid Pavilion," an essay that deeply influenced generations of poets in China and Japan . A legend survives that he was so assiduous in his childhood devotion to writing that he blackened a pond by his house by daily washing the ink from his brushes there.

Zhang Zhi or Chang Chih, ? -192 M.E., a master of cao shu and one of Wang Xizhi's acknowledged models for his own calligraphy.

Cao Shu (literally, "grass script") is a cursive style of Chinese writing that flows freely and verges upon abstraction.