Original Work by Chinese Calligraphy Master Yan Zhenqing On Show Again After 10 Years

Fans of Chinese calligraphy, book your tickets to Tokyo this upcoming Chinese New Year. The Tokyo National Museum is going to showcase ‘Draft of a Requiem to My Nephew’, one of the premier examples from the hand of the Tang Dynasty calligrapher Yan Zhenqing (709 - 785), which is often considered to be the second best work of Chinese semi-cursive script.

Tokyo National Museum

You might ask why it’s only the second best. This is because the script that is considered the top is ‘Lantingji Xu’ by Wang Xizhi from the East Jin Dynasty. However, Wang’s original work is lost, only a copy from the Tang Dynasty remains. Although Yan Zhenqing’s ‘Draft of a Requiem to My Nephew’ ranks in number two, it is beyond precious as it is the original script from the hands of the calligrapher himself. The scroll has been kept in the National Palace Museum in Taiwan.

To appreciate Chinese calligraphy, you must not only look at the characters on the paper but also the character of the calligrapher. A calligrapher who lacks virtue does not deserve respect, no matter how beautiful his works are. Yan was an excellent calligrapher and a loyal governor who became the example of many others. He had great influence on almost all the calligraphers after his time.

‘Draft of a Requiem to My Nephew’

Yan Zhenqing develop his own style Yan, which shows distinctive features in both regular script and running script. Each character possesses a centripetal force, demonstrating his righteousness and upright character. His outspokenness against corrupt higher-ranking officials resulted in himself being constantly demoted and re-promoted. Li Xilie, the military commissioner of Huaixi at the time, rebelled. Yan Zhenqing was sent to negotiate with Li by the incumbent Grand Councilor Lu Qi who resented Yan. Li admired Yan’s unbending character and wanted Yan to serve him.

‘Draft of a Requiem to My Nephew’ is in the collection of Shiqu Baoji - catalogues of the Qing dynasty imperial collection of Chinese painting and calligraphy

Although his loyalty was doubted by the Emperor, Yan still served the government wholeheartedly. During his negotiation with Li Xilie, Li threatened him by setting the courtyard on fire which would burn Yan to death. To Li’s surprised, Yan walked straight towards the fire without showing the slightest fear.

A section of ‘Draft of a Requiem to My Nephew’

‘Draft of a Requiem to My Nephew’ is seen as the most premium work by Yan due to its historic value. In 755, the An Shi Rebellion started. Yan Zhenqing’s cousin Yan Gaoqing was serving as magistrate of Changshan and fighting the rebels in the frontline. When rebel forces invaded the area, the Tang armies did not come to the rescue, resulting in the fall of the town. Yan Gaoqing refused to surrender and infuriated the general An Lushan, causing the death of his son, Yan Jiming.

A section of ‘Draft of a Requiem to My Nephew’

Yan Gaoqing was brought before An Lushan but he still showed no fear. Yan therefore was executed, along with more than 30 people from the Yan family. The calligrapher was deeply saddened by the tragedy and sent people to look for his cousin and nephew’s bodies. Yet, he could only retrieve a few of their remains. ‘Draft of a Requiem to My Nephew’ was written under these unfortunate circumstances.

A section of ‘Draft of a Requiem to My Nephew’

Yan Zhenqing’s loyal and upright character can be seen in his use of the brush. Yan began his stroke with the head appearing subtle and finished it with twists. His lines are bulging. The layout is of density and lushness, echoing with the golden age of the Tang dynasty.

A section of ‘Draft of a Requiem to My Nephew’

This scroll was probably a preliminary draft for a more formal composition. He wrote, ‘Traitorous officials did not rescue, so a lone town was surrounded. A father and son perished, and their nest was destroyed’. Yan Zhenqing went back and crossed out and changed characters in numerous places. This shows how he composed and edited his writing, providing insight into his ideas as well as his calligraphy. Despite the formality of the content, the style of the work reveals considerable emotional unrestraint. It has been over 10 years since this masterpiece was exhibited in 1997. If you want a glimpse of the master’s best work, this is the chance you cannot miss.

Yan Zhenqing and the Calligraphy of the Tang Dynasty

Period: 2019/1/16-2/24
Location: Heiseikan, Tokyo National Museum
Opening hours:
Tuesday to Thursday|9:30am - 5pm
Friday to Saturday|9:30am - 9pm
Mondays, 12 February

Tokyo National Museum

Opening hours:
Monday to Thursday|9:30am - 5pm
Friday to Saturday|9:30am - 9pm
Sundays and holidays|9:30am - 6pm
Address: 13-9 Ueno Park, Taito-ku, Tokyo, 110-8712, Japan
Admission fee:
Adults|JPY 620
University students|JPY 410
High/Junior High/Elementary School Students and persons under 18 and over 70|Free
Enquiries: 03-5777-8600