last month
next month

Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC)

10/2014 manuscript  of the month

For the Love of Calligraphy:

A Letter by a Chinese Calligrapher

Famed for his calligraphic talent, Mi Fu 米芾 (1051–1107), a scholar-official in 11th-century China, wrote to a friend to offer some precious objects in exchange for an ancient piece of calligraphic artwork that he adored. The outcome was a short letter that still remains today. Although the letter only contains 85 Chinese characters, it is rich in cultural significance, and the style in which it was written demonstrates the writer’s marvelous artistic talent. How are content and form interconnected in such a Chinese letter, or in other words, what was the relationship between the epistolary and the calligraphic in the manuscript?

Calligraphy was one of the main driving forces in Chinese epistolary culture, and this manuscript is an excellent example of this phenomenon. Drawing historical information from other sources by Mi Fu and his acquaintances, we know that this calligraphic letter was written to Liu Jisun 劉季孫 (1033–92), another scholar-official, in about 1091 with the aim of making a deal. Mi Fu adored a calligraphic manuscript owned by Liu Jisun—a letter by Wang Xianzhi 王獻之 (344–86), one of the most important and famous calligraphy masters from early medieval China who was admired by Mi Fu. Although this letter is no longer extant, we still know what it looked like from the rubbings made from it. Rubbings are taken from recarved stone engravings of calligraphy, which are usually accurate reproductions of the original handwriting, produced in imperial China to preserve and disseminate works created by masters. We know that Wang Xianzhi’s letter (the two lines to the right in the rubbing in Fig. 2) was a short note about sending pears to a friend and that Mi Fu, an admirer of the calligraphic style of that period, highly valued it. Thus he offered the following precious items to Liu Jisun in exchange for it: one calligraphic work by the monk Huaisu 懷素 (739–99) and two by Ouyang Xun 歐陽詢 (557–641), six paintings of snowscapes by Tang dynasty (618–907) painter and poet Wang Wei 王維 (699–759), a belt with rhinoceros horn ornaments, and a coral ornament with a jade stand. Mi Fu also included an inkstone, i.e., a stone used for grinding ink. It was especially precious, as it was embedded in the middle of a miniature stone mountain. All of these objects offered by Mi Fu were things that scholars treasured in traditional China.

Fig. 1: Letter to the Honorable Jingwen of Xizhou (Zhi Jingwen Xigong chidu), aka “In a Satchel” Calligraphy
(Qie zhong tie), by Mi Fu. Source: © National Palace Museum (Taipei). > Enlarge

When touched with the cursor, the image displays the standard characters for the cursive script of the letter.


Beautiful calligraphy by the Vice Director of the Ministry of Rites

How do you like the calligraphy by Huaisu in my satchel? It belonged to Mr. Li Wei of Chang’an. Wang Qinchen of the Ministry of Works and Xue Daozu were surprised to see it, and said: ‘It has come into the possession of Huang Xin from Li Wei.’ I bought it from Huang Xin’s household in Yangzhou a year ago for more than a hundred jars of liquor. I will not talk about the other objects. You have also seen the calligraphy. If you agree, then I shall send them all to you. The stone mountain inkstone will be returned to me tomorrow. I look forward to your response.

I, Mi Fu, prostrate myself. To the Honorable Liu Jisun Jingwen of Xizhou.

To show his taste, Mi Fu negotiated the deal in an extremely polite and elegant way. In the letter, he begins by providing information about Huaisu’s calligraphy that he owned: “How do you like the calligraphy by Huaisu in my satchel? It belonged to Mr. Li Wei of Chang’an. Wang Qinchen at the Ministry of Works and Xue Daozu were surprised to see it, and said: ‘It has come into the possession of Huang Xin from Li Wei.’ I bought it from Huang Xin’s household in Yangzhou a year ago for a hundred jars of liquor… You have also seen this calligraphy.” By mentioning his two friends’ amazement and the price he paid for the work, he hints at the value of the calligraphy that he offered to Liu Jisun. He does not say much about the other items that he offered, but the inkstone had been borrowed by someone else at the time. Hence Mi Fu remarks in the letter: “The stone mountain inkstone will be returned to me tomorrow.” After that, Mi Fu could then present it to Liu Jisun as one of the items in exchange for the calligraphy he longed for. Considering the fact that Mi Fu was already quite famous for his calligraphy at that time and his works had a market value, the letter itself can also be seen as a token of goodwill.

Fig. 2: A rubbing of Wang Xianzhi’s “Sending Pears”
Calligraphy reproduced in 1747. It reads: “I present
three hundred pears to you. The snow came late
this year—the weather will not be good.”
Source: Zhongguo shudian, 1986, 106–107. > Enlarge

Fig. 3: Letter to
the Honorable
Jingwen of Xizhou,
detail from the
penultimate line.
> Enlarge

Toward the end of the letter, the sentence in the penultimate line is a conventional formulaic expression used to close a letter: “I, Mi Fu, prostrate myself.” Since it was a conventional way to end a letter like this, the recipient would have been able to understand what the characters were, even though they were written playfully with a single brushstroke involving many turns (see Fig. 3). Mi Fu mentions the addressee in the final line: “To the Honorable Jingwen of Xizhou.” This salutation addresses Liu Jisun by his honorary title and style name. To express his respect for Liu, Mi Fu also made these six characters significantly larger than the other characters in the letter. He thus blends content and form perfectly here.

Unfortunately, the deal that Mi Fu proposed was not completed in the end. The person who borrowed the inkstone only returned it to Mi Fu two days after Liu Jisun had left for a government post elsewhere, so the transaction was not carried out. And Liu died not long after when another deal was struck. Liu Jisun left many scrolls of calligraphy, but his son sold the calligraphy by Wang Xianzhi to someone else for a lot more than the amount Liu Jisun originally paid to buy it.

The rhythm and movement demonstrated in this letter’s seemingly spontaneous brushstrokes were much lauded. A later praise of this calligraphic letter by the connoisseur Xianyu Shu 鮮于樞 (1246–1302) was pasted to the beginning of the manuscript: “Beautiful calligraphy by the Vice Director of the Ministry of Rites.” Only half of the large seal imprint in the first line is seen, showing that the manuscript had been trimmed and remounted. Mi Fu was appointed as Vice Director in 1106 and was often referred to posthumously by this title by his admirers. Letters by Chinese calligraphers like him were also reproduced in later published model calligraphy collections (fatie 法帖) or copybooks for calligrapher lovers and collectors to appreciate and learn from their calligraphic style. For example, this manuscript was once reproduced in the form of a rubbing in the mid-18th century by the imperial court as part of a model collection commissioned by the Qianlong emperor (reigned 1736–95). This collection is still extant (see Fig. 4). Students of Chinese calligraphy still imitate the stylistic features of this particular letter to this day.

As a collector’s item, the original manuscript circulated together with three other calligraphic pieces by Mi Fu as a set. During the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), these were part of an album which included the works of four calligraphy masters of the same period: Su Shi 蘇軾 (1037–1101), Huang Tingjian 黃庭堅 (1045–1105), Cai Xiang 蔡襄 (1012–1067), and Mi Fu. The seal imprints on the two sides at the bottom of the manuscript reveal how this letter was owned by various collectors, much like the situation of the Manuscript of the Month, March 2013. These seals on Mi Fu’s manuscript suggest that it had been part of the Ming dynasty’s (1368–1644) imperial collection and in the hands of private collectors before being taken to Taiwan in the mid-20th century by the retreating Nationalist government. This is where the manuscript is still kept today.

This letter was written for the love of calligraphy, and it was also preserved for the calligraphic value that it embodies. The love of calligraphy has come full circle.

Fig. 4: Rubbings of the letter to the Honorable Jingwen of Xizhou in Sequel to Model Calligraphies from the Hall of Three Rarities (Xu Sanxi Tang fatie), an imperial commissioned model calligraphy collection from 1755. Source: Xu Sanxitang fatie, 1988, 126–29. > Enlarge


BAI Qianshen (1999): “Chinese Letters: Private Words Made Public”. In: Robert Harrist Jr. et al. (eds.): The Embodied Image: Chinese Calligraphy from the John B. Elliott Collection at Princeton, Princeton: The Art Museum, Princeton University, 383-84.

CAO Baolin 曹寶麟 (1991): Bao weng ji 抱甕集. Taibei: Huifeng bimo youxian gongsi, 32-36.

HE Chuanxing 何傳馨 (2006): “Zhi Jingwen Xigong chidu (qiezhong tie) 致景文隰公尺牘(篋中帖)”. In: Lin Boting 林柏亭 (ed.): Daguan: Bei-Song shuhua tezhan 大觀——北宋書畫特展, Taibei: Guoli gugong bowuyuan, 329-31.

LEDDEROSE, Lothar (1979): Mi Fu and the Classical Tradition of Chinese Calligraphy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

NATIONAL PALACE MUSEUM (ed.): “Zhi Jingwen Xigong chidu (qiezhong tie) 致景文隰公尺牘(篋中帖)”. In: (accessed on July 26, 2014).

SATORU Yoshida 吉田悟 (2003): “Bei Futsu Shoshi kō (1) 米芾『書史』考(一)”. In: Soka Daigaku Daigakuin Kiyo 創価大学大学院紀要 25, 349-373.

STURMAN, Peter Charles (1997): Mi Fu: Style and the Art of Calligraphy in Northern Song China. New Haven: Yale University Press.

XU Bangda 徐邦達 (1987): Gu shuhua guoyan yaolu (Jin, Sui, Tang, Wudai, Song shufa) 古書畫過眼要錄 (晉、隋、唐、五代、宋書法). Changsha: Hunan meishu chubanshe, 343-45.

Xu Sanxitang fatie 三希堂法帖續. Beijing: Beijing guji chubanshe, 1988.

ZHONGGUO SHUDIAN 中國書店 (ed.) (1986): Sanxitang fatie 三希堂法帖. Beijing: Zhongguo shudian.


National Palace Museum (Taipei)
Material: album leaf, ink on paper
Dimensions: 28.2 x 41.9 cm
Date: c. 1091, Runzhou (present-day Zhenjiang), Jiangsu Province, China

Text by Lik Hang TSUI