Grace and resilience

Calligraphy of consolation and endurance

Calligraphy should also be 'read' as a text, where formal qualities support and provide expressive depth. In this it resembles speech, delivery giving emotional flavour to linguistic message.

In a late eighteenth-century couplet by QIAN Dian 钱坫 (1744-1806) an underlying message of consolation is mixed with cultural resistance. The right-hand scroll may be loosely translated as 'on difficult days, consult the Book of Changes (易經); on easier days, read The Book of History (書經). The left-hand scroll complements this with 'when one has no wine, study Buddhism; when there is wine, study Taoism.' While set in conventional language, ironic tone teases cultural expectations.

The linguistic message is set out in a particular calligraphic style - seal-script - establishing a 'stance'. Use of seal-script style reflected a contemporary taste for research into Chinese bronze inscriptions of the Shang and Zhou periods (roughly 1700 BC to 250 BC), a period when Han Chinese culture was consolidated. This oblique recollection of ancient, 'pure' Han culture probably represents the limit of provocation possible under Manchu rule. The small scale of the couplet suggests display in an intimate setting, such as a studio, and a role as an exhortation or intervention in everyday life. Seal-script allows a controlled yet casual performative gesture, well-matched to a personal level of appreciation.

 QIAN Dian 錢坫 (1744-1806)
Couplet in Eight Character Verse
(dated 1792)
Hanging couplet, ink on paper
116.6 x 14.3 cm
Private collection