Of the few ancient Chinese women calligraphers, Madame Wei of the Jin Dynasty (265-420 A.D.) is perhaps the earliest mentioned in the annals of Chinese calligraphy. Renowned for her handwriting and theories on this art, Madame Wei (272-349) came from Anyi County, Hedong (present-day Xiaxian County) in Shanxi Province. Her maiden name was Wei Shuo and she was known as Maoyi. As most Chinese women were denied the right to study in feudal China, it was by no means easy for her to attain the great achievements within this field that she did. At that time it was believed that lack of education was a desirable female virtue.
During the Jin Dynasty, the study of calligraphy was in vogue among upper-class intellectuals. Many great masters appeared during this time. Madame Wei herself was born into a literary family famous for its calligraphy skills. There emerged two calligraphy schools at this time—the Northern School and Southern School. Her grandfather, father and she herself were the founders of the Northern School which was characterized by its bold strokes. Her uncle Wei Heng was also an outstanding calligrapher. Thus her family played no small part in the high standards she attained in her later years.
She developed a special interest in calligraphy as a child, but was not allowed to study it because of her uncle’s objections. However, she always helped to grind the inkslab or stood to one side watching attentively as the elder in her family put brush to paper. She privately practiced what she had learned after returning to her own room. One day her uncle saw some examples of her handwriting by chance and, surprised, thought them well executed. Thinking that he should “not foil her aspirations” as he was believed to have said, he gave his consent for her to study the art formally.
She later studied the work of Zhong You (151-230), a famous and influential calligrapher of the Wei Dynasty. It is the custom for beginners to copy their master’s work in form, and while the young Wei learned her basic skills this way too, she was not satisfied with mechanical imitation. As she matured, she thought long and hard about the finesse of her master’s brush strokes and made careful studies of various natural phenomena, applying her observations to her work. For instance, when she saw a stone falling from a cliff, she wanted her stroke “、” to capture the thrust of that action. Clumps of old rattan against a large tree gave her the inspiration to make the stroke ‘j’ graceful and vigorous. With time, she developed a style of her own, her basic strokes looking both elegant and full of vigor.
Madame Wei was the first teacher of Wang Xizhi, another master calligrapher of that time. People often compared Madame Wei’s graceful handwriting to a beautiful girl dancing, and it is said that the free and running style which colors Wang Xizhi’s calligraphy comes from her influence.
In her treatise “On Handwriting”, Madame Wei listed the two basic factors for good calligraphy: the manner in which a writing brush is held and the way it is applied. After studying the component parts of Chinese characters, she broke them down into seven basic brush strokes. For all forms of strokes, she advocated a solid and vigorous style. She was of the opinion that the strokes of a calligrapher who applied the brush with vigor showed “more bone than flesh”, whereas failing to do so would produce strokes “with more flesh than bone”. Brush strokes which appeared to be made more of bone than flesh were a higher level than those of the other way round which were corpulent and looked no better than “ink-black swine”. Her theory, an important innovation, set out a new set of criteria for practitioners as well as for commentators.
In the same treatise, she advocated that a beginner should start by writing big characters rather than small ones. This principle is still followed today.
Through her own work and the influence she had on her famous student, Madame Wei’s contributions to China’s calligraphy, made over 1,000 years ago, can be seen to have been both valuable and innovative.
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