Huaisu 懷素 (737 – 799 CE), courtesy name Zangzhen (藏真), was a Buddhist monk and great calligrapher of the Tang Dynasty. He was famous for his cursive calligraphy. Born in Changsha, Hunan (湖南長沙), not much is known of his early life. Fewer than 10 pieces of his works have survived.
Du Fu 杜甫 (712-770 CE) was a famous poet in Tang Dynasty. He was born into a scholarly family and he received a traditional Confucian education. He did not pass the imperial examinations of 735. As a result, he spent much of his youth traveling. During his travels he won renown as a poet and met other scholars of the same period including Li Bai (李白). During the 740s Du Fu was a well-regarded member of a group of scholars and high officials, even though he was without money and official position.
In 746, Du Fu moved to the capital in an attempt to resurrect his official career. He took the civil service examination a second time in 747, but all the candidates were failed by the prime minister so as to prevent the emergence of possible rivals. Du Fu never again attempted the examinations. Between 751 and 755 he tried to attract imperial attention by submitting a succession of literary products. His works was well received and he was granted a nominal position at court. Despite this was a minor post, it would have been at least the start of an official career.
Unfortunately the position was swept away because of the tumult created by An-Shi Disturbance (安史之亂)(755-763) throwing the country in total chaos. The rebels quickly seized the Eastern capital Luoyang (洛陽) and then the imperial capital Chang’an (長安). Emperor Xuanzong (玄宗) fled to Sichuan and abdicated the throne to Li Yu, Emperor Suzong. Du Fu took his family to a place of safety and attempted to join the court of the new Emperor Suzong. He was appointed the post of Reminder (拾遺) when he re-joined the court in May 757. This post gave access to the Emperor but was largely ceremonial. He offended the Emperor by speaking for Fang Guan (房琯) who was removed from his chancellor position. Du Fu was eventually relieved of his post and he re-joined his family. He and his family endured another period of poverty and hunger.
In December 759 he went to Chengdu, Sichuan (四川成都). Yan Wu (嚴武), the Governor General at Chengdu (成都尹) appointed Du Fu as an advisor and financially supported him. Despite Du lived in poverty, his time in Chengdu was peaceful and happy. He wrote numerous poems. In Spring 765 Yan Wu died and Du Fu lost his support. Du Fu with his family left Sichuan and started sailing toward the south down the Yangtze River. They travelled slowly, held up by his ill-health.
They stayed in Kuizhou (夔州) at the entrance to the Three Gorges (長江三峽) for almost two years. This period was Du Fu’ last great productive period when he wrote 400 poems. He wrote his famous set of eight poems Qiu Xing Ba Shou (Stirred by Autumn)(秋興八首) in 766. In March 768 he and his family continued sailing along the Yangtze River. They got as far as Hunan province (河南) where he died on the boat in Xiangjiang (湘江) in winter 770.
Du Fu was known as the ‘Sage of Poetry (詩聖)’, the ‘Poet Historian (詩史)’ and ‘the one who brought everything together’. He has been considered the height of Chinese poetry from the early ninth century on.
The set of eight poems Qiu Xing Ba Shou (Stirred by Autumn)(秋興八首) written in 766.
Poems 1 to 3 describe the melancholy autumn scenery of Kuizhou (夔州). Poem 2 depicts scene in twilight whereas Poem 3 depicts scene in early morning. Du Fu lamented about his failure in serving the government and achieving his goal in life.
Poem 4 was about transition of the subject matter from Kuizhou (夔州) to Chang’an (長安). Du Fu thought about the things happening in Chang’an at that time.
Poems 5 to 8 recalled the magnificence of Tang Xuanzong’s palace in its heyday. It was impossible to restore its former glory and prosperity of the country. Du Fu bewailed about the country and himself.
Scholars like Professor Stephen Owen and Adam Lam translate Du Fu poems into English. Please click the following link for scholarly translations of the first 4 poems.
The images of ink rubbings have been photographical modified, with black and white reversed so that the characters are black on a white background.
Ink rubbing with the corresponding regular scripts side by side of the cursive scripts
Some scholars suspect that this piece of calligraphy may not be written by Huaisu. Despite Huaisu was a contemporary of Du Fu, they might not know each other.
Zhu Yunming (祝允明)(1461-1527), a famous calligrapher in the Ming Dynasty wrote this Du Fu’s poem in cursive writing. Some people think that this calligraphy piece attributed to be Huaisu’s bears some resemblance of Zhu’ s works. I do not think so.
No matter this piece is authentic or not, it is definitely a masterpiece of cursive writing.
I would like to thank Professor CHAN Yiu Nam for teaching me Chinese literature. Without his teaching and kind guidance I would never have developed my admiration and love for Du Fu’s poems.
劉高志 （2009）懷素書法全集， 西泠印社出版社， ISBN 978-7-80735-484-0
陳耀南 (2008) 陳耀南讀杜詩 天地圖書有限公司 ISBN 978-988-211-948-2
陳耀南 (2006) 唐詩新賞 (上、下册), 三聯(香港)有限公司，ISBN-13: 978.962.04.2531.8, ISBN-10: 962.04.2531.6
陳耀南 (2021) 原韻譯唐詩新賞，中華書局(香港)有限公司，ISBN 978-988-8759-48-4