Steles of the Yan Family Mausoleum


Steles of the Yan Family Mausoleum

calligraphy / Tang Dynasty / China

By Yan Zhenqing (709-785)

Place of production:China

Tang dynasty, 780

Ink rubbing on paper



This hanging scroll is a rubbed copy of a stele from the mausoleum constructed by Yan Zhenqing to commemorate his father Yan Weizhen. Yan Zhenqing was a government official who was active in the 8th century, when the political structure of the Tang dynasty (618–907) began to waver. He was shunned in official circles and suffered repeated demotions due to his forceful and upright disposition. When the regional military governor An Lushan rebelled against the Tang, Yan Zhenqing led an army into battle and was hailed as a loyal subject who saved the dynasty from peril. Ultimately, however, he was driven to a tragic end by the schemes of his personal enemies. For his devotion to his ruler and to his parents, Yan Zhenqing was praised by future generations as a personification of the Confucian virtues of loyalty and filial piety.

The family of Yan Zhenqing originated in Linyi in Shandong Province and were famed for producing generation after generation of scholars and master calligraphers. Zhenqing is renowned as an exceptional calligrapher. He first studied the calligraphy of masters such as Yu Shinan and Ouyang Xun. In his 30s, he studied calligraphy under Zhang Xu and later achieved a stately and distinctive style of his own. Zhenqing’s calligraphy, as well as his virtue, was revered beginning in the 11th century during the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127) and exercised a major influence on the history of calligraphy.

This inscription, which Yan Zhenqing composed and wrote himself, is also valuable as a historical document because it records and honors the history of the Yan family in detail. While the content of the text is significant, the calligraphy, which Zhenqing wrote in his later years at the age of 72, is lauded as the culmination of his standard script. The characters are formed of bold lines, with facing vertical strokes swelling outward, and conform to a square grid, resulting in imposing, unwavering, forward-facing characters. Their distinctive features include the way the beginnings of brushstrokes are rounded like the head of a silkworm and the way slanting strokes that go from the upper left to the lower right are shaped like swallow tails. This distinctive style of penmanship, which leaves a powerfully serene impression, is also known as “Yan style.”

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