Huai Su Autobiographical Essay Example

Part II: History -by KS Vincent Poon

a) Background

Huai Su (懷素, 725-785 AD or 737-799 AD ) was a Buddhist monk in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) and was known for his elegant and wild cursive script, even in his times (1,2).  His calligraphic accomplishments were considered in par with the legendary "Sage of Cursive Script (草聖)" Zhang Xu (張旭, 675-750 AD).  This particular piece, Huai Su'sAutobiography  (懷素自叙帖), was written in 777 AD during Huai Su's later years and is considered today to be one of the best written cursive script works in Chinese history (3).

b) Synopsis

The magnificent Autobiography can be divided into four main parts:

1. A very short introduction of Huai Su written by Huai Su himself, including the whereabouts of his own hometown, his becoming of a Buddhist monk at an early age, and his passion for Chinese calligraphy.

2. A description of Huai Su's calligraphic accomplishments, extracted from the preamble of "A collection of poems devoted to Master Huai Su's cursive script" (懷素上人草書歌) (4,5), originally composed by one of Huai Su's calligraphy teacher, the renowned Yan Zhenqing (顏真卿, 709-785 AD) (6).  Note this particular preamble, interestingly, also included a brief description on the origin and the conveyance of the traditional cursive script in the eyes of Yan Zhenqing.  For more elaborate details on this preamble, please see Part IV: Preliminary Study - b) Huai Su's calligraphy and conveyance of traditions below.

3. Selected praises of Huai Su from notaries during Huai Su's era, including those written by Dai Shulun (戴叔倫, 732-789 AD),Wang Yong (王邕, ?-? AD) and Xu Yao (許瑤, ?-? AD).  These praises mainly commented on the physical forms (形似), artistic styles and structures (機格), as well as the pace (疾速) of Huai Su' calligraphy. Highlights include:

  • 「馳毫驟墨列奔駟, 滿座失聲看不及。」-- "Huai Su’s ink-soaked brush ran with the speed of a galloping stallion, leaving his audience speechless and unable to trace its path",
  • 「心手相師勢轉奇,詭形怪狀翻合宜。」-- "His mind commands his hand and his hand guides his mind as he moves his brush to create strange forms and structures; although his script forms are odd and bizarre, collectively they are aesthetically harmonious and appropriate",
  • 「奔蛇走虺勢入座,驟雨旋風聲滿堂。」-- "(Huai Sui’s scripts) are like swift moving dragons and serpents travelling around with their aura filling up the empty spaces; his scripts are as compelling as if one is hearing the loud roars that can fill up an entire hall created from abrupt raindrops and violent swirling winds".

4. A concluding paragraph wherein he humbly asserted that he was not qualified for such praises above, with the date and Huai Su's signature at the very end.

c) Versions of Huai Su's Autobiography

The original Autobiography can no longer be found, but there were three different presumable copies of the original Autobiography according to literature written in the Southern Song Dynasty (南宋紹興二年, 1132 AD): the Shu version (藏在蜀中石陽休家), the Fung version (藏在馮當世家) and the Su version (藏在蘇子美家) (7).  The Su version can be currently viewed at the National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan, and was recently determined to be a modelling copy (映寫) of the original made in the Northern Song Dynasty (北宋, 960–1126 AD) (8)(9)(10); note also that this particular version displayed at the National Palace Museum is certainly not the complete original modelling replica of Huai Su's initial Autobiography as, at the minimum, the first six rows from the right of this particular version has been confirmed to be "repairs" (六行後補) written by an another calligrapher at a later date.

My model of the work presented above is the Shu version (蜀本) of the Autobiography.  In my humble opinion, compared to the Su version, the Shu version is more aesthetically pleasing and, perhaps, more consistent with Huai Su's unique artistic approach to the cursive script, and also more loyal to the form practised by one of Huai Su's teacher, Yan Zhenqing (Please see here for more analysis on this topic).  Therefore, from a purely artistic point of view, I personally believe that the Shu version is of a higher caliber than the Su version in terms of calligraphic achievement.


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Huai Su was a monk and calligrapher, who had loved calligraphy from childhood and was famous for his caoshu (cursive hand). He wrote so much that he wore out numerous brushes and ink-slabs, so he began to use the leaves of banana trees, which he grew himself, instead of paper. He called his studio “House of Green Skies.” At first he studied the calligraphy of Zhong You and the two Wangs. Later he learned the cursive script of Zhang Xu from Yan Zhenqing and created his own style of cursive hand, becoming a famous cursive-hand calligrapher like Zhang Xu, one known as “wild Zhang” and the other as “drunken Su.”

The wild cursive hand (kuangcao) is a style that is written completely freely. The product expresses his feeling and will through the brushwork, which is extremely concise and often links several words in single stroke. It is the most extreme form of the cursive hand. Huai Su’s style has more variations than that of Zhang, without violating traditional rules. It is also more recognizable and so had a greater influence than Zhang on the following generations. The Zi xu tie (Su Ben Autobiography Scroll) is considered to be his best work.

The scroll had been written in several copies. The original is kept in the Taipei Palace Museum, Taiwan Province.

According to the author’s note at the end of the scroll, it was produced when he was 41, in the prime of his life. The text describes his studies of calligraphy and experiences in creation. The latter part records praise by Yan Zhenqing and others.

His cursive hand is sometimes mixed with seal characters, and the brushwork is done mostly with the middle edge of the brush, round and turning inwardly, presenting a feeling of strength, flow and change. The spaces are well distributed and the size of the characters, large and small, spreading out and confined, seems to be produced at will freely but the space between them, the form, the size and the bulkiness and dryness of characters are well coordinated and laid out. A balanced beauty is thus achieved in the dynamic characters. This work is clearly modeled on Zhang Xu’s style, but it is less wild than Zhang’s works. Huai’s style was greatly influenced by Wang Xianzhi.

Category: People

Caoshu work by Huai Su


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