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Past exhibition

Special Exhibition
Impressions from Engravings in Stone: A Special Exhibition of Calligraphic Rubbings in the National Palace Museum’s Collection
Calligraphic writing is known in China as “shufa,” or “The Practice of Writing.” Throughout the East Asian cultures that historically used the Chinese writing system, calligraphy is one of the most highly revered literati arts—in Japan its name means “The Way of the Writing,” while in Korea it is known as “The Art of Writing.” Students of calligraphy often use rubbings taken from stelae as models for writing. Stelae were created when ancient scholars’ outstanding calligraphic works were engraved onto wood or stone for posterity. Ink rubbings were then taken from these engravings and those considered as worthy models for students of calligraphy were collected into modelbooks. Calligraphic engravings’ transition of onto paper allowed for widespread reproduction, which in turn allowed modelbooks to circulate far and wide.
Calligraphic rubbings have been collectors’ items since ancient times. Most rubbings were taken using black ink, leading them to be nicknamed “black tigers,” after cunning animals that are adept at hiding, hard to see clearly, and can strike seemingly from nowhere. This intriguing name reflects the hidden risks of collecting items whose authenticity was difficult to determine, because rubbings could be taken from forged re-engravings of an original engraving. Thus, in addition to describing the color of the rubbings themselves, the word “black” alluded to the subtleties that made assessing them with the naked eye especially tricky, in part because ink could be smeared over the evidence that a rubbing had been altered or compiled from disparate sources. The word “tiger” implied that a collector who was not finely discerning could easily be fooled and end up with a grievously wounded wallet! These features make researching calligraphic rubbings a much more thrilling affair.
Calligraphy is usually written on paper or silk, both of which are fragile media. Because of this, calligraphic works are easily lost to time, and when that happens, ink rubbings become nearly as precious as the originals. For instance, Wang Xizhi’s (303-361) “Preface to the Orchid Pavilion” is heralded as the finest piece of running script (xingshu) calligraphy ever written. The original was reportedly buried along with Tang dynasty emperor Taizong (598-649) in the royal tomb, but luckily there were already numberless hand copies as well as rubbings from engraved reproductions, which went into wide circulation. Among the versions of the “Preface to the Orchid Pavilion” selected especially for this exhibition is the most renowned one of all, the Dingwu edition. This is its very first showing in the NPM’s Southern Branch.
In addition to the calligraphic rubbings that traveled to Taiwan with the museum’s original collection in 1949, the NPM now holds numerous rubbings donated to or acquired by the museum, including items from Korea and Japan. Alongside the familiar sight of rubbings with white characters on black backgrounds, visitors will also see rubbings from counter-relief engravings with black characters on white backgrounds, as well as vermilion rubbings taken using cinnabar-based ink. Finally, taking full advantage of the Southern Branch’s soaring ceilings, we are exhibiting enormous rubbings over three meters in height, to show just how grand and imposing these works of calligraphy could be.

1. The Timeless “Orchid Pavilion”
On the third day of the third lunar month during the ninth year of the Yonghe reign period (353) under Emperor Mu of the Eastern Jin dynasty, Wang Xizhi (303-361) brushed what would become known as the finest work of running script (xingshu) ever written, the “Preface to the Orchid Pavilion.” While the original is said to have been interred with Tang dynasty emperor Taizong (598-649) in his tomb, numerous copies and rubbings remain to this day. Of the currently extant reproductions, the Shenlong edition by Feng Chengsu of the Tang dynasty (held in the Forbidden City in Beijing) and the double-outline copy by Lu Jishan of the Yuan dynasty (held by the NPM) are universally recognized as being the most authentic embodiments of the original’s calligraphy. As for rubbings taken from engravings in stone or wood, the Dingwu edition is considered to be the finest. Not only is the “double outline” method of reproducing calligraphy both laborious and time consuming, but it only yields a single copy. Conversely, the copy of the “Preface to the Orchid Pavilion” engraved in stone at Dingwu allowed for the making of numerous rubbings that benefited countless calligraphers. For this reason, the Dingwu edition was extremely influential.
2. Treasured throughout East Asia 
The artistry of renowned calligraphic works transcends the national borders separating the various East Asian cultures that adopted the Chinese writing system; masterpieces are equally treasured wherever they have gone. For example, during Japan’s Edo period (1603-1867), the eighth-generation daimyō of Mito, Tokugawa Narinobu (1797-1829), ordered Matsudaira Yorisuke (1756-1830), Confucian scholar Tachihara Suiken (1744-1823), and others to engrave the Suiyo Kaku Modelbook. This modelbook comprised calligraphy by masters ranging from the Eastern Han, Wei, and Northern and Southern dynasties all the way to the Ming dynasty. Another border-crossing work of calligraphy is the “Stele for the Great King Hotae of Goguryeo,” a monument erected in honor of the 19th monarch of the Goguryeo dynasty, Gwanggaeto the Great (374-413). This stele, which was excavated early in Qing dynasty emperor Guangxu’s reign (r. 1875-1908), was inscribed in a hand with elements of both clerical script and regular script (lishu and kaishu), written in a sturdy, primeval style. This stele has attracted attention and praise throughout China, Japan, and the Koreas.

 3. Massive Steles in the Palm of your Hand
The grandest stone stelae are often over three meters in height. Such steles are so enormous that it is impossible to place a complete rubbing atop one’s desk to practice calligraphy by copying its characters. In pursuit of practicality, modelbooks based on large steles were made by splitting rubbings into columns, which were then mounted in albums on individual leaves. Editions such as these were carefully designed so as to maintain as many of the original steles’ features as possible. In addition to presenting the characters in order, they also replicated the spaces between the columns and included rubbings of damaged and unrecognizable characters. Efforts were made to include even the margins, dates, signatures, as well as the small colophons that were engraved upon the stelae after their creation, all in order to give later viewers as much detail for comparison as possible.
 4. Radiant Ink of all Hues
Calligraphic rubbings, also known by the nickname “black tigers,” usually feature white characters on black backgrounds. However, rare specimens such as the “Northern Wei Inscription Commemorating the Building of a Statue in Memoriam of the Duke of Shiping” appear with black characters on white backgrounds. This unusual effect is created by taking rubbings of steles that were engraved in relief, such that the negative space around the characters was carved away, instead of the interiors of the characters themselves. Rubbings that stand out because cinnabar-based vermillion ink was used in place of black ink are quite common, but there are also rubbings made with pigments of azurite, malachite, silver, and gold. Additionally, monochrome ink’s ability to appear in a range of shades was taken full advantage of, yielding rubbings that can be as black as obsidian, or as pale as the grey of a cicada’s wings.
Exhibition Information
  • Event Date 2021-09-30~2021-12-26
  • Location 2F S203
Tang dynasty
Vermillion Rubbing of the “Commemoration of the Casting of a Bell in the Second Year of the Jingyun Reign”
This vermillion rubbing was made with cinnabar-based ink instead of black ink. Formerly in the collection of T’ai Ching-nung (1902-1990), it was taken from an imperial edict handwritten by Tang dynasty emperor Ruizong (662-716, born Li Dan), who was son of Empress Wu Zetian (624-705) and Emperor Gaozong (628-683, born Li Zhi). During the second year of the Jingyun reign period, Emperor Ruizong ordered the casting of a bell to commemorate an auspicious dream he had while on a tour of inspection. The bell, which was originally suspended in the Jinglong Daoist Temple in the city of Chang’an, is now held in the Stele Forest Museum in Xi’an. The characters on this bell were written in a singularly magnificent form of regular script (kaishu) that is infused with elements of both seal script and clerical script (zhuanshu and lishu). This rubbing lends credence to the historical record, which states that Ruizong’s was a master of cursive and clerical scripts, as well as deeply fond of philology and exegetics. 
Northern Wei dynasty, Zhu Yizhang
Building a Statue for the Duke of Shiping
This piece’s full title is the “Inscription Commemorating Buddhist Monk Huicheng Building a Statue in Honor of his Late Father, The Duke of Shiping.” The text was drafted by Meng Da and brushed in regular script (kaishu) by Zhu Yizhang. It was engraved in the Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang in the twenty-second year of the Taihe reign period (498) under Emperor Xiaowen of the Northern Wei dynasty. Both the characters and the grid in which they were written were carved in relief—an extremely rare sight. The inscription’s calligraphy is exquisite, possessing a heroic majesty that transcends convention; it is both a masterpiece of Northern Wei rectilinear regular script brushwork, as well as one of the Longmen Grottoes’ representative engravings. Because the areas of relief around the characters were shallowly carved, the negative space on this early rubbing is filled with numerous tiny specks of ink that are referred to as “unchiseled background.” Notably, in the twentieth year of Qing dynasty emperor Xuanzong’s Daoguang reign period (1840), the relief was deepened, and as a result later rubbings no longer include these marks.
Rubbing of the “Stele for the Great King of Goguryeo”
This rubbing was donated to the NPM by the museum’s former vice director, Chuang Yen (1899-1980). Also known as “Gwanggaeto Gyeong Pyeongan Hotaewang Stele,” it was unearthed in the third year of Qing dynasty emperor Guangxu’s reign (1877) in Jilin province in China. During the tenth year of the Yixi reign period of the Eastern Jin dynasty (414), the twentieth-generation monarch, Jangsu (394-491), commissioned the engraving of this stele in honor of his predecessor, Go Damdeok, better known as Gwanggaeto the Great (374-413). This enormous stele was inscribed on all four of its faces in a hand incorporating elements of both clerical script and regular script (lishu and kaishu). Its unadorned and classically simple style is widely appreciated in the world of calligraphy. To this day, this stele remains the earliest and most heavily inscribed archeological find dating to the Goguryeo kingdom, making this complete rubbing incredibly precious. 
Song dynasty, Cai Xiang
Rubbing of “The Wan’an Bridge Memorandum”
Cai Xiang (1012-1067), a native of Xianyou in Fujian province, had the style name Junmo. He was one of the four masters of Song dynasty calligraphy.
Wan’an Bridge is located at the mouth of the Luoyang river in Quanzhou in Fujian. China’s first bridge spanning a bay, its construction was started in the fifth year of the Huangyou reign period (1053) under Song dynasty emperor Renzong, but ferocious winds and waves regularly damaged the worksite. Cai Xiang, who was then prefect, took command of the construction in the third year of Emperor Renzong’s Jiayou reign period (1058), seeing the bridge to completion the following year. He brushed this memorandum’s dignified, elegant calligraphy in regular script (kaishu), using the style of Tang dynasty calligrapher Yan Zhenqing (709-785). Later carved onto two steles by the renowned engraver Shangguan Li, this work is hailed for its exemplary prose, calligraphy, and engraving.
Yuan dynasty, Lu Jishan
Copy of “The Purification Ceremony”
Lu Jishan (fl. 14th century), of Fuli in Jiangsu province, had the style name Jizhi and the sobriquet Xuansu. He studied the “double outline” method of copying calligraphic works with Yao Shi as well as Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322).
      This piece is a copy Lu Jishan made of a Tang dynasty calligrapher’s reproduction of the “Preface to the Orchid Pavilion” once held in his elder brother’s collection (“The Purification Ceremony” is the name of the holiday on which Wang Xizhi wrote the preface). Lu’s double outline reproduction of the original “Preface to the Orchid Pavilion” is considered—along with Tang dynasty calligrapher Feng Chengsu’s copy—to be the most faithful reproduction of original. A side-by-side comparison of Lu’s work and “Feng Chengsu’s Copy of ‘Preface to the Orchid Pavilion’” found in Eight Pillars of the Orchid Pavilion (Lan ting ba zhu) clearly shows stylistic similarities that indicate a common origin. Although different techniques were used to make both copies, Lu and Feng both succeeded at preserving the appearance of Wang Xizhi’s legendary work.
Qing dynasty
Imperially Commissioned Re-engraving of the Chunhua Pavilion Modelbooks
The ten-volume “Imperially Commissioned Re-engraving of the Chunhua Pavilion Modelbooks” was commissioned by Qing dynasty emperor Gaozong (1711-1799, also known as Qianlong), who ordered scholar-officials to address the errors and omissions in the Northern Song dynasty’s seminal “Chunhua Pavilion Modelbooks.” This project, initiated at Qianlong’s behest in the thirty-fourth year of his reign (1769), was completed in three years. Each volume concludes with the emperor’s own commentary. The stone tablets upon which the modelbooks were engraved were originally mounted in an eponymous pavilion in the Old Summer Palace northwest of Beijing, but most of them were destroyed in the tenth year of the Xianfeng reign period under Qing dynasty emperor Wenzong (1860), during the second joint assault by the British and French armies. The accompanying photograph shows a partially-destroyed stele from the “Imperially Commissioned Re-engraving of the Chunhua Pavilion Modelbooks,” excavated in 1994. Try scanning the QR code to see if you can spot the similarities between it and the Qing court’s black ink rubbings in the NPM’s collection! 
Han dynasty
Posterior Face of the Shi Chen Stele
The “Shi Chen Stele” was engraved on both of its faces with stylistically similar calligraphy, suggesting both inscriptions were written by the same hand. The calligrapher’s brush technique was gentle and restrained, yielding an aura of solemnity and magnanimity. The posterior side of the stele, comprising fourteen lines of text, is also known as the “Stele of Offerings Presented at the Confucian Temple by Shi Chen of the Han dynasty, Minister of Lu.” Engraved in the first year of the Jianning reign period (168) under Emperor Ling of the Eastern Han dynasty, it memorializes Shi’s formal visit to the Confucian temple and initiation of restorations upon arrival at his post in the vassal state of Lu. Each line contains thirty-six characters, but the bottommost character in each line was long obscured due to the stele’s settling into its pedestal. The stele was raised in the forty-eighth year of Emperor Qianlong’s reign (1783), allowing rubbings containing all thirty-six characters in each line to be taken. This rubbing, which contains the complete text, can be dated to the late Qing dynasty.
Northern Wei dynasty
Black Ink Rubbing of the Stele for Huo Yang, Prefect of Miyun
This stele was originally erected on the path to the tomb of Huo Yang, who served as prefect of Miyun during the Northern Wei dynasty; currently it is held in the Linyi County Museum in Shanxi Province. The stele’s text records the Huo clan’s history of official service. Written in a hand showing elements of both clerical and regular scripts (lishu and kaishu), the calligraphy is rectilinear and imbued with classical sensibility. An outline of Buddha Shakyamuni seated cross-legged is etched into the cap of the stele, and “Stele for Huo Yang, Prefect of Miyun” is engraved at the top on both sides. Its combination of elements from stelae placed before tombs and iconography associated with religious offerings makes this specimen especially valuable for researchers.
      The inscription records that this stele was engraved in the first month of the fifth year of the Jingming reign period (504) under Northern Wei dynasty emperor Xuanwu. The Jingming reign period was in fact only four years long; that the stele was thusly dated is probably because, it being the first month of the year, the engraver had not yet been informed of the new reign period’s title!
Qing dynasty
Emperor Qianlong Three Rarities Hall Modelbook Wang Xizhi’s “Timely Clearing After Snowfall”
The full name for the Three Rarities Hall Modelbook is The Three Rarities Hall’s Treasures of the Stony Creek Modelbooks Engraved on Imperial Commission. The name “three rarities” refers to three treasures in the collection: Wang Xizhi’s “Timely Clearing after Snowfall,” Wang Xianzhi’s (344-386) “Mid-autumn,” and Wang Xun’s (349-400) “Letter to Boyuan.” In the twelfth year of his reign (1747), Emperor Qianlong commissioned this thirty-two volume modelbook, which contains calligraphy in the imperial collection ranging from the Wei and Jin dynasties to the late Ming dynasty. Comprising over three hundred works by 153 calligraphers, the Three Rarities Modelbook is the most comprehensive collection of its kind ever made. The stones on which it was originally engraved are currently held in the Perusing the Past Pavilion in Beihai Park in Beijing.
Song dynasty
An Authentic Rubbing from the Dingwu Edition of the “Orchid Pavilion”
  • Certified as a National Treasure of the Republic of China by the Ministry of Culture in May of 2017
Wang Xizhi brushed the “Preface to the Orchid Pavilion” in the ninth year of the Yonghe reign period (353) under Emperor Mu of Jin. The original “Preface” is lost to history, but it was given a second life through calligraphic copies and rubbings taken from engraved reproductions, and it thus became the gold standard for running script (xingshu) and the basis for study for calligraphers throughout the ages. The name “Dingwu Edition of the ‘Orchid Pavilion’” reflects that the stele upon which it was engraved was discovered in Dingwu (present day Zhending county in Hebei province). It is generally believed to have been carved by order of Tang dynasty emperor Taizong on the basis of a calligraphic copy brushed by Ouyang Xun (557-641). Of all the engraved reproductions of the “Preface to the Orchid Pavilion,” the Dingwu edition is the finest; the scroll on exhibit here is the most complete extant rubbing of the Dingwu stele. As the rubbing was taken using thin paper, Wang’s brushstrokes appear almost plump, giving the work a sense of ancient simplicity and a relaxed state of mind.