A Narrative on Calligraphy Treatise on Calligraphy Manual of Calligraphy 孫過庭 書譜 翻譯 英譯 Translation - Vincent's Calligraphy

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Modelling and English Translation of Sun Guoting's "A Narrative on Calligraphy"
(Part I)

孫過庭 《書譜》臨習英譯 (第一部份)

by Kwan Sheung Vincent POON (潘君尚)  
Sept. 1, 2017
Published on www.vincentpoon.com, Toronto

A. Modelling (by KS Vincent POON)

A model of Sun Guoting's "A Narrative on Calligraphy" (Part I)
孫過庭《書譜》 (第一部份)
35  X  137cm (Sheet 1 and Sheet 2)
Click to Enlarge. In reserve, not available in Shop.
B. Historical Information (by KS Vincent POON)
"A Narrative on Calligraphy" (書譜, pronounced as Shu Pu)  was written in 687AD by the renowned calligrapher Sun Guoting (孫過庭, 648-703AD), and is often regarded today to be one of the representative cursive script works written in Tang Dynasty.  The original Chinese title , 書譜, is translated into English by others as "Treatise on Calligraphy"(i) or "Manual of Calligraphy"(ii), yet, in my humble opinion, neither "Treatise" nor "Manual" is appropriate in translating the word "譜" in this context (for further discussion, please see here, iii).  The presumable original masterpiece can be observed in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan(iv).  However, whether this is a partial, complete or simply the preamble of Sun Guoting's unfinished work, is still in question(v).

Aside from its aesthetic beauty, "A Narrative on Calligraphy" is one of the earlier documents to analyze and detail the art of Chinese calligraphy in a relatively more systematic manner.   Hence, its textual content is often considered to be one of the most important resources in the study of Chinese calligraphy(vi).  Indeed, in this document of approximately 3500 Chinese characters, Sun Guoting provided various insights into the art of Chinese calligraphy including, but not limited to, characterizing the principles of aesthetics in calligraphy, outlining numerous calligraphic techniques, as well as expressing his personal philosophy on the art of calligraphy (in particular his belief of the importance of personal moral character on writing calligraphy)(vii).  Therefore, it is not surprising that this document is a must-read for serious learners of Chinese calligraphy.

Since "A Narrative on Calligraphy" is such a key and important document in the understanding of Chinese calligraphy, the English translation of it should be done meticulously.  There are currently two good attempts in trying to translate it into English: one can be found in the "Two Chinese Treatises on Calligraphy" by Chang Ch'ung-ho and Hans H. Frankel (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1995), and the other in "The Manual of Calligraphy by Sun Guoting of the Tang" by Pietro De Laurentis (Napoli: Universita degli Studi di Napoli "L'Orientale", 2011).  However, both are not satisfactory in terms of their fluency and fidelity towards the original Chinese text.  The translation provided here will help readers to better understand the original texts as well as to correct some of the major errors found in the previous two translations.

Due to the extensive length of the original document and the amount of research involved, the translation and the modelling will be uploaded in parts starting September 2017.  Please check back this page for future updates.

C. Translation (by KS Vincent POON with Chinese advisor Kwok Kin POON, PhD.  Sept. 1, 2017)
Readers are strongly encouraged to read the blue numerical footnotes below to gain a better understanding of the original Chinese text and to review some major errors in the translations made by others.
Original Chinese Text
English Translation
1. 夫自古之善書者, 漢魏有鍾張之絕,晉末稱二王之妙。
Alas, since a long time ago, those who were regarded to have penned great calligraphy (1) were Zhong (Zhong Yao 鍾繇, 152–230AD) and Zhang (Zhang Zhi 張芝, ?-192AD) of the Han-Wei Period(206BC-265AD), both of whom produced unrivaled masterpieces, as well as the Two Wangs (Wang Xizhi 王羲之, 303–361AD ; and Wang Xianzhi 王獻之344–386AD) of the late Jin Dynasty (265-420AD) who both produced works of exquisite beauty.
2.王羲之云:「頃尋諸名書, 鍾張信為絕倫,其餘不足觀。」
Wang Xizhi once said, “I have searched and reviewed various renowned works of calligraphy and concluded that only Zhong and Zhang’s works are truly superior and unrivaled; works by others are unremarkable and so not even worth studying."(2)
Hence, it can be said that after the death of Zhong and Zhang, Xizhi and Xianzhi were the ones who had truly succeeded them.
Wang Xizhi further commented, “If one were to compare my calligraphy with those written by Zhong (Yao) or Zhang(Zhi), my work is comparable to those written by Zhong, if not better.  My cursive script may also be considered to be comparable to Zhang’s(3).  Yet, Zhang was so refined in his art and so focused on the practice of calligraphy that even a pond could had been completely tainted by the ink washed from his brushes.  If I could have the same degree of obsession as Zhang in studying and practicing calligraphy, perhaps my works may not be inferior to those of Zhang’s.”
This clearly demonstrates Wang Xizhi highly appreciated Zhang’s calligraphic achievements while he believed his achievements had exceeded Zhong’s.
As one scrutinizes Wang Xizhi’s distinctive strengths in calligraphy, one can see that, despite the fact that Wang Xizhi could not completely implement the rules established from the past, he had the ability to readily extract the various features of the past masterpieces and assimilate them into his calligraphy in additional to being adept in writing the various script styles.  Hence, it can be said, with clear conscience, that he is truly worthy to the art of Calligraphy in his times.
4.又云:「吾書比之鍾張,鍾當抗行,或謂過之。張草猶當鴈行, 然張精熟, 池水盡墨, 假令寡人耽之若此,未必謝之。」
6.考其專擅, 雖未果於前規; 摭以兼通, 故無慚於即事。
Various critics attested, “These Four Talented Calligraphers (四賢: Here, it refers to Zhong Yao, Zhang Zhi, Wang Xizhi and Wang Xianzhi) were indeed truly exceptional and unmatched both in the past and present.  Yet, exemplary calligraphers in our current era did not reach to the same level observed in those of the past eras; generally, past calligraphers produced works that were relatively simple and unadorned while calligraphers in our current era created works that were relatively elegant and pretty."(4)
Alas, unembellished styles of simplicity can become fashionable at times (5), while elegant qualities of prettiness vary as customs change over time.  
Although characters were originally created merely to serve the purpose of recording speeches and texts,
the styles of calligraphy evolve dynamically with the progression of time: once popular preference shifts between honest purity and light superficiality, changes in styles of unadorned simplicity together with refined elegance will, in turn, come frequently with many varieties(6).
10.而淳醨一遷, 質文三變。

Swift, rapid and unrestrained (馳騖) reformations in the course of human history are certainly natural, in accordance with the Law (理) that governs all things. Yet, the most valuable and influential reforms are the ones that are not unfashionable while taking into account the past simplicity and, at the same time, stand out from the mundane vulgarity of the times.
11.馳騖沿革, 物理常然。貴能古不乖時,今不同弊。
As the old saying goes: “When the accomplishments and solid qualities (in this context, Sun Guoting was referring to the styles of refined elegance 文 and unadorned simplicity 質 correspondingly) are equally blended, we then have the man of virtue."(7)
12.所謂「文質彬彬, 然後君子。」
After all, there is no need to relinquish an extravagant palace to dwell in a barren cave, or to abandon a luxurious royal carriage for a primitive wooden cart!
13.何必易雕宮於穴處, 反玉輅於椎輪者乎!
Critics further asserted, “ Zijing’s (Wang Xianzhi’s) accomplishments were inferior to those of Yishao’s (Wang Xizhi’s), just like Yishao’s accomplishments were inferior to those of Zhong’s (Zhong Yao’s) and Zhang’s (Zhang Zhi’s).”
14.又云:「子敬之不及逸少, 猶逸少之不及鍾張。」
While I think perhaps they might have pointed out the key points of the entire subject, they failed to detail the evolution of the entire issue.
15.意者以為評得其綱紀, 而未詳其始卒也。
Alas, Yuanchang (Zhong Yao) was skilled in penning the standard script (8) while Boying (Zhang Zhi) was adept in writing the cursive script;
16.且元常專工於隸書, 百英尤精於草體;
the beauties of their artistries can be seen in Yishao’s (Wang Xizhi’s) works as he was able to produce both wonderful standard and cursive scripts(9): comparing with Zhang Zhi, Wang Xizhi wrote better standard script; comparing with Zhong Yao, Wang Xizhi wrote better cursive script.
17.彼之二美, 而逸少兼之: 擬草則餘眞, 比眞則長草。
Although Wang Xizhi paid less focus on one particular script, he nonetheless was able to learn a wide variety of styles of the past and to assimilate the strengths of past calligraphers into his calligraphy with excellent results.  Hence, summing up the evolution of the entire issue, the assertions made by the critics are not without any mistake(10).
18.雖專工小劣, 而博涉多優。摠其終始, 匪無乖互。
Xie An (謝安, 320-385AD) was known to be naturally adept in writing chi du (尺櫝, a short letter or memo, usually regarded as a calligraphic work), and he did not hold a high regard for Zijing’s (Wang Xianzhi’s) calligraphy.
19.謝安素善尺櫝, 而輕子敬之書。
At one time, Zijing wrote a piece of calligraphy that he thought was good, gave it to Xie An, and thought that Xie An would treasure it.  
20.子敬嘗作佳書與之, 謂必存錄。
An (Xie An), however, responded immediately(11) by returning the work to Zijing with his comments attached. Zijing was infuriated.
An once asked Zijing, “How is your calligraphy compared to Youjun (Wang Xizhi, father of Wang Xianzhi or Zijing)?” Zijing replied, “Of course I surpassed him.”
An said, “That is extremely contrary to comments made by others in the general public.” Zijing replied, “What would ordinary contemporaries understand!?”
Although Zi (Zijing) used this rebuttal to censure An’s observation, he nonetheless claimed he had surpassed his own father; isn’t that already a moral mistake(12)!?
Indeed, conducting oneself properly in society and hence establishing one’s fame are, fundamentally, relied upon honoring and glorifying one’s parents(13);
[that is why] Zeng Shen (曾參, 503-435BC) did not enter a district named Sheng Mu (勝母, which means “surpassed one’s own mother”)(14).
If one were to regard Zijing’s penmanship as a succession of Youjun’s calligraphy, although Zijing did roughly grasp his father’s principles in writing calligraphy, I am afraid he genuinely was unable to succeed his father’s artistry.  
Moreover, he proclaimed the power of celestial beings as a pretext for his exquisite calligraphic skills(15), and had often expressed shame in honoring the calligraphic tenets established in his own family; with such an attitude towards perfecting his art in calligraphy, how can he accomplish more than a person who is “facing a wall (面墻)” (a wall that blocks one’s vision and impedes one from learning beyond it)(16)?
Afterwards, there was a time when Xizhi was leaving for the capital and, before his departure, penned something on a wall.  Zijing then surreptitiously scratched them out and replaced them immediately by transcribing the parts written by Xizhi with his own calligraphy, believing his works were not bad at all.   
When Xizhi later returned and saw them, Xizhi sighed and said, “I must have been extremely drunk when I left for the capital!” Zijing then felt ashamed of himself.
Thus, if one were to compare Yishao’s (Wang Xizhi’s) calligraphy with those of  Zhong’s (Zhong Yao’s) and Zhang’s (Zhang Zhi’s), it is merely just a matter of differences between scope and depth (see lines 16, 17 and 18); while it is certain, without any doubt, that Zijing was inferior (with respect to calligraphic achievements and moral character) to Yishao’s.
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