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Dong Qichang Biography


Dong Qichang (董其昌, 1555-1636) was the greatest painter, calligraphist and theorist of calligraphy and painting in late Ming Dynasty. He was the representative of Huating School in history. His courtesy name was Xuan Zai(玄宰), and the alternative names were Si Bai(思白) and Xiangguang Jushi(香光居士). In history, he was widely known as Hong Huating(董华亭) due to his hometown located in Huating county, today’s Songjiang District, Shanghai. The highest rank he reached in his official experience was the minister of the Ministry of Rites(礼部尚书). His great contribution to pushing the traditional art of calligraphy and painting forward deeply influences the whole Qing Dynasty. Emperors Kangxi and Qianlong, two most brilliant emperors of Qing Dynasty, took him as their teacher of calligraphy though he had died for a long time. His calligraphy in history of Chinese calligraphy is written to be Dong Ti(董体, the calligraphic style of Dong Qichang). He also ranked one of ten top greatest calligraphists in China next to Wang Xizhi, Yan Zhenqing, Liu Gongquan, Huang Tingjian, Huai Su, Su Dongpo, Wen Zhengming, Chu Suiliang and Ouyang Xun.

The Portrait of Dong Qichang

Biography of Dong Qichang

He was a teacher’s son. In his early period, he was a private teacher in a local authoritative family. He preferred Zen, especially the branch of Caodong. At the age of 12, he passed the prefectural civil service examination and won a coveted spot at the prefectural Government school. In 1571, at the age of seventeen, he attended the local imperial examination in Songjiang prefecture. However, his calligraphy was considered too bad by Zhong Zhenji(衷贞吉), the local governor, and finally got a second place. Since then he painstakingly practiced calligraphy and learnt a lot from Lu Shusheng, Mo Ruzhong and other famous calligraphists at the time. Such an experience was quite similar to that of Wen Zhengming. And the result was the same, and both became the master of calligraphy and left their names in record of history of ancient China.

In 1579, he went to Nanjing for attending the higher examination, and then saw Guan Nu Tie(官奴帖), a precious Tang Dynasty’s copy of calligraphic masterpiece of Wang Xizhi, and was deeply impressed. in 1589, he won the first place in examination, and then went into Han Lin Yuan(翰林院, a state-owned Imperial Academy). Then, Tian Yijun(田一俊), the assistant minister of the Ministry of Rites, died and Dong Qichang escorted his coffin to Fujian, the hometown of Tian Yijun. In spring, 1592, he was promoted to be a high editor in Han Lin Yuan. In 1594, Zhu Changluo(朱常洛), the crown prince and later the Emperor Guangzong of Ming Dynasty, went out for education popularization, and Dong Qichang acted as an companion. In 1598, Dong was assigned as a deputy administrator of justice in Hubei and Hunan provinces. In 1604, he served as the deputy administrator of education in Hunan and Hubei provinces. After the enthronement of Zhu Changluo, he was promoted as a high official in central government and later in charge of the education and culture. In 1625, he acted as the minister of the Ministry of Rites. In 1626, he resigned, and in 1631, he was re-assigned as the minister of Ministry of Rites, and had a close connection with Ruan Dacheng(阮大铖, a famous eunuch and the leader of imperial eunuch powers) . In 1636, he passed away and crowned a posthumous title Wen Min(文敏, literally meaning excellence in literature and culture).

His reputation was not so good as his calligraphic and painting works. In 1605 he was giving the exam when the candidates demonstrated against him causing his temporary retirement. In other cases he insulted and beat women who came to his home with grievances. That led to his house being burned down by an angry mob. He also had the tense relations with the eunuchs common to the scholar bureaucracy, which was considered as a shame in the mind of those scholars. He was a notorious man in local area, and his stories mostly available in two books respectively the Civil-Recorded Facts of Dong Qichang (民抄董宦事实) and Black & White Biography (黑白传). Dong's tomb was vandalized during the Cultural Revolution, and his body dressed in official Ming court robes, was desecrated by Red Guards.

He did not act as a high official actually, but he was a quite rich official for his excellence in painting and calligraphy. A great many men of letters, merchants and officials posed as a lover of culture rushed to buy his works. He was the renowned artist in Jiangnan. In folk society, he was depicted as the richest man in Songjiang with over ten thousand hectares lands, hundreds of yachts and mansions. Objectively speaking, as a first-rate calligraphist and painter, he surely got superiority in bureaucracy.

Achievements of His Calligraphy & Painting

Dong was not only famous as a calligraphist, but a painter, collector and connoisseur. Dong Qichang firstly learnt the calligraphy of Yan Zhenqing, and then to Yu Shinan. But later, he found it was better to learn the calligraphy of masters before Tang Dynasty, and then he learnt Wang Xizhi’s Huang Ting Jing, Zhong You’s Xuan Shi Biao, Li Ming Biao, Huan Shi Tie, Bing She Tie and etc., he nearly studied majority of calligraphy masters’ masterpieces, which also including the calligraphies of Huai Su, Liu Gongquan, Yang Ningshi, Mi Fu and Zhao Mengfu. He got an unprecedented influence in calligraphy, painting and artistic appreciation.

His painting was learnt from Dong Yuan, Ju Ran and Huang Gongwang. His paintings were of a fresh, chaste style and his great contribution is considered a gem in Chinese art history. He called for copying ancient painting style instead of creation. What’s more, he even compared the south and north China painting styles to be the south and north branches of Zen Buddhism (he named the professional imperial landscape painting of north China and the scholars’ painting of south China as the double schools of south and north China ). He raised the statue of scholars’ painting. But he intended to devaluate the north painting and suppress the growth of Zhejiang painting school.

Dong's paintings were divided into two categories: ink-and-wash paintings, which were commonly seen, and multicolored paintings (mainly cyan). With the latter, Dong seldom worked from a draft before beginning to paint. Although the subjects of his paintings lacked variation, Dong made prominent achievements using ink. His works were influenced by famous painters of the Song and Yuan Dynasties (960-1368), but exhibited a more mature style. Dong was a well-learned scholar, as well as a remarkable calligrapher and painter. He also wrote an important book, Huachanshi Suibi(画禅室随笔), about Chinese art history.

Dong Qichang pursued an artistic reform. He followed the literati tradition and sought a creative reconstruction of the past through the critical study of ancient styles. In an attempt to restore simplicity and vitality to painting, Dong advocated a spiritual correspondence with the art of the old masters rather than a literal imitation of them and underscored the importance of self-expression. Approaching painting as though it were calligraphy, Dong alternated positive and negative patterns in his landscapes, which resulted in a radical new kinesthetic style.

Dong Qichang emphasized the learning from the ancient masterpieces. And he got a great achievement in calligraphy. Dong's cursive hand works reflect the style of Yan Zhenqing, a great Chinese calligrapher of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Dong was very content with his regular script, especially the small characters of regular script. Learning from every famous calligrapher, Dong developed his own unique style, which exerted a great influence on the development of Chinese calligraphy, becoming the mainstream until the Kangxi and Qianglong period of the mid-Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). And his style of handwriting was standardized as the style for imperial examinations, due to the large promotion of Emperors. Emperor Kangxi specially wrote a long paragraph to praise Dong Qichang’s calligraphic masterpieces as below:

华亭董其昌书法,天姿迥异。其高秀圆润之致,流行于褚墨间, 非诸家所能及也。每于若不经意处,丰神独绝,如清风飘拂,微云卷舒,颇得天然之趣.尝观其结构字体,皆源于晋人。盖其生平多临《阁帖》,于《兰亭》、《圣教》,能得其运腕之法,而转笔处古劲藏锋,似拙实巧。……颜真卿、苏轼、米芾以雄奇峭拔擅能,而要底皆出于晋人。赵孟頫尤规模二王。其昌渊源合一,故摹诸子辄得其意,而秀润之气,独时见本色。草书亦纵横排宕有致,朕甚心赏。其用墨之妙,浓淡相间,更为绝。临摹最多, 每谓天姿功力俱优,良不易也。”

His calligraphy was highly spoken by many subsequent scholars like Wang Wenzhi (王文治), who commented his work as the sacred work of calligraphists. Xie Zhao(谢肇) thought his works were unprecedentedly great. Surely, there were a group of scholars strongly criticizing his works represented by Bao Shichen(包世臣) and Kang Youwei(康有为). He never left an academic works on calligraphy, but his standpoints were all released in his large number of painting and calligraphic inscriptions. His famous remark was”晋人书取韵, 唐人书取法, 宋人书取意” (Yun pursued by Jin’s artists, methods by Tang’s artists and meaning by Song’s artists), which was a quite important theory for calligraphy aesthetics when the subsequent generations studied his works.

The Exhibited Scroll of Calligraphy and Painting Created by Dong Qichang in Shanghai Museum

The Representative Masterpieces of His Works

There are lots of painting and calligraphy masterpieces left and well preserved in different galleries and museums like the Beijing Imperial Palace Museum, Shanghai Museum, Jilin Provincial Museum and Nanjing Museum, and the most typical museum was Beijing Imperial Palace Museum.

The paintings represented by Guanshan Xueji Tu(关山雪霁图, created in 83 years old), Qiuxing Bajing Ce(秋兴八景册), Jianggan Sanshu Tu(江干三树图), Shanchuan Chuyun Tu(山川出云图), Shanju Tu(山居图), Gaoyi Tu(高逸图, created in 61 years old), Tongguan Puxue Tu(峒关蒲雪图) and Xishan Pingyuan Tu(溪山平远图).

The calligraphies represented by Pipaxing (琵琶行), Sanshi Gaoming(三世诰命), Nikuan Zan(倪宽赞), Caoshu Shice(草书诗册), Yanjiang Diezhang Tuba(烟江叠嶂图跋), Qianhouchibifu Ce(前后赤壁赋册) and so on.

The painting collections of Dong Qichang are also quite precious. And his private gallery was named Siyuan Tang (四源堂, the hall of four origins). The collected paintings are Xiao Xiang Tu(潇湘图) and Xishan Xinglv Tu(溪山行旅图) , both of which were created by Fan Kuan (范宽) of Northern Song Dynasty, and Longsu Jiaomin Tu(龙宿郊民图) and Xiashan Tu(夏山图), and this gallery mostly collects the painting masterpieces of Dong Yuan(董源) and Ju Ran(巨然). Other valued collections include Li Sixun’s Shujiang Tu(蜀江图) and Qiujiang Daidu Tu (秋江待渡图), Dong Yuan’s Zheng Shang Tu(征商图), Yunshan Tu(云山图) and Qiushan Xinglv Tu(秋山行旅图), Ju Ran’s Shanshui Tu(山水图). Fan Kuan’s Xueshan Tu(雪山图) and Wangchuan Shanju Tu(辋川山居图), Li Cheng’s Zhuoseshan Tu(着色山图), Guo Zhongshu’s Wangchuan Shanju Tu(辋川山居图), Jiang Guandao’s Jiangju Tu(江居图), Zhao Danian’s Xiashan Tu(夏山图), Zhao Mengfu’s Dongting Ertu(洞庭二图) and Gaoshan Liushui Tu(高山流水图) as well as Wang Meng’s Qiushan Tu(秋山图) and Songren Ceye(宋人册页).

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