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Ancient masterpieces at National Library
( 2003-12-27 10:25) (China Daily)

Chinese calligraphy, the art of writing, is usually learned by imitating the rubbings.

In the millennia before the invention of photocopy technology, the rubbings, which appeared as black paper with white characters, were important in the preservation and circulation of calligraphy works.

Rubbings have been made since the end of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD220). The Chinese then inscribed important writings or calligraphic masterpieces on stone tablets, bronze artifacts, wood and shells, and covered them with a piece of wet paper.

Ancient documents from the Dunhuang Grottoes in Northwest China's Gansu Province form an important part of the National Library's collection.  [Newsphoto.com.cn]
They carefully brushed the paper black so the inscribed characters copied in white. In this way the writings were preserved even when the manuscript was missing.

In the wars and fires throughout China's long history, most manuscripts of important calligraphic works before the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and tablets inscribed with such works were destroyed, and rubbings became one of the few clues to the ancient masterpieces.

Rubbings of works by master calligraphers are called "fatie" (model letters), or simply "tie."

Among all kinds of collections, including paintings, ceramics, bronzes, artifacts, books and tie, the collection of tie is usually considered in China to be of top level because it requires great knowledge in evaluation, said Shi Anchang, director of the research department of the Palace Museum.

The National Library in Beijing is hosting an exhibition of more than 30 precious tie in its collection until January 8 at the Wenjin Hall near the library's major reading room.

The free exhibition is presented by the Ancient Book and Document Department of the national institute.

Ji Yaping, a researcher with the department, said those on display were chosen from about 500 samples of tie in the library's collection, all of which have been purchased or received through donations since the founding of the library in 1909.

China's major collections of tie are in the National Library, the Palace Museum, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Shanghai Library, Peking University and the Capital Library.

Of those, the National Library's collection is one of the best as it includes tie rubbed from the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) through all following dynasties until the 20th century.

"From those on display, we can see the development of calligraphy art and rubbing techniques through history and can sense the variation in aesthetic tastes in the past millennium," said Ji.

'Jiang Tie'

Documents indicate tie first appeared in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) as "dan tie" - model letters rubbed from a single piece of calligraphic work.

In the Northern Song Dynasty, Emperor Taizong (AD 939-997) ordered a comprehensive collection of rubbings be made from masterpieces of calligraphic letters in the imperial archives.

In AD 992, an assortment of 400 masterpieces by 100 calligraphers from antiquity through the mid-Tang Dynasty were inscribed on wooded blocks, and subsequent rubbings from those blocks appeared in 10 volumes which comprise the "Chunhuage Tie" series.

The "Chunhuage Tie" was the earliest "cong tie" - model letters rubbed from more than one calligraphy works recorded in the country's history.

Cong tie, a collection of works, are more valued than the dan tie. There are about 400 kinds of cong tie remaining today, and the National Library has about 300, said Ji.

Displayed at the exhibition is the earliest and most precious cong tie in the National Library's collection, titled the "Jiang Tie."

The earliest model letters rubbed by an individual, it was inscribed and rubbed by collector Pan Shidan during the Huangyou and Jiayou (1049-1063) Reign of the Northern Song Dynasty on the basis of the "Chunhuage Tie."

The library boasts six volumes of the 20-volume rubbings. "Very few cong tie of the Northern Song Dynasty remain today, and the surviving ones are all incomplete," explained Wu Yuanzhen, researcher with the library.

The Song Dynasty rubbings are extremely valuable, said Wu. Last July the Shanghai Museum bought back four volumes of the "Chunhuage Tie" at a hefty price of US$4.5 million from a US collector.

The remaining volumes of "Jiang Tie" are believed to have been handed down by Pan's eldest son.

They were especially important because the original mounting of the rubbings was left when the mountings of most other ancient rubbings were changed by their collectors in the centuries of circulation, said Wu.

The 1,000-year-old "Jiang Tie" impresses visitors most among the exhibits with its ancient magnanimous style.

Precious collection

Another important rubbing of the Song Dynasty displayed in the exhibition is the "Zhengzuowei Tie," which was inscribed according to a masterpiece by Yan Zhenqing (AD 709-785), a Tang Dynasty calligrapher.

The piece is acclaimed as one of the two most representative dan tie, the other being the Song Dynasty inscription and rubbing of "Lanting Xu" written by 4th-century calligrapher Wang Xizhi (AD 303-379), the original copy of which was missing.

The flourishing of rubbings ended with the founding of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), when only two cong tie were recorded in historical documents. One survives to this day.

At the exhibition visitors can also see the only remaining calligraphic collection of the Yuan Dynasty "Leshantang Tie," which is a collection of calligraphy works and paintings by Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322), a representative artist of the dynasty. Government official Gu Xin had it inscribed and rubbed in 1318.

In the succeeding Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), independent intellectuals played a more prominent role in the collection of calligraphy works than governments that had been dominant in the field since the 10th century.

A best collection is the "Tingyunguan Tie" on display. Artist and collector Wen Zhengming (1470-1559) and his sons, who were also calligraphers, modeled on masterpieces from the Jin Dynasty (AD 265-420) to their time and had their writings inscribed and rubbed in 1560.

The Wens' modeling maintained the various styles of calligraphers and has been most often imitated by beginners in calligraphy.

In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) the royal family was enthusiastic about its calligraphy collection. In 1750 it had inscribed the amazing 32-volume "Sanxitang Fatie," which included more than 340 works of 135 major calligraphers from the 4th to the 14th century.

The collection was called "Sanxitang" (Hall of Three Rarities) because it included three rare pieces by calligraphers Wang Xizhi, Wang Xianzhi (AD 344-386) and Wang Xun (AD 350-401), which had been missing before joining the royal collection.

Rubbings were seldom made at the end of the Qing Dynasty. Today the ancient technique is only used to document writings on ancient tablets.

"We can preserve calligraphy works in various ways other than inscribing them on stones," said Ji.

However, sources with the State Administration of Cultural Heritage said the illegal rubbing of ancient stone tablets by individuals, which often led to damaged tablets, happened continuously because of the profitable market of rare rubbings of ancient writings.

"In such cases ink is often painted directly onto the tablets and then a paper is put on, the rubbings made in this way have inverted characters and the tablets are damaged," said Ji.

The exhibition also includes valuable documents from the Dunhuang Grottoes in Northwest China's Gansu Province.

The National Library is working with the British Museum and other international organizations in restoring and studying the documents.

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