Zhu Yunming (1461-1527), a native of Changzhou (modern Suzhou), had the style name Xizhe and the sobriquet Zhishan. Born with six fingers on his right hand, he gave himself the sobriquet Zhizhisheng to indicate he had an extra finger. He also had the names Zhishan laoqiao and Zhizhi shanren. Exceptionally talented since childhood, he was already capable of writing large characters one Chinese foot in size by the age of five and could compose poetry when he was nine, later becoming a learned scholar. Though Zhu Yunming was a Provincial Graduate in the civil service examinations of 1492, he was unable to place in further tests. So, in 1514, he was appointed as Prefect of Xingning County in Guangdong and became Controller-general of Yingtian Prefecture (Nanjing) in 1521, serving less than a year before returning to his hometown claiming illness. With his career in office not going well, he turned instead to writing, becoming known with Wen Zhengming, Tang Yin, and Xu Zhenqing as one of the “Four Talents of Wu,” a regional name referring to Suzhou.
It was in calligraphy, however, that Zhu Yunming achieved particular renown, excelling in all script types to become known along with Wen Zhengming and Wang Chong as one of the “Three Masters of Wu.” In early years under the influence of his paternal grandfather Zhu Hao, maternal grandfather Xu Youzhen (1407-1472), and father-in-law Li Yingzhen (1431-1493), Zhu Yunming began his study of calligraphy mostly with the Jin and Tang dynasties to form a solid foundation. Among his surviving works are found various styles all co-existing together. The more obvious manners include those of Zhong You, Wang Xizhi, Yu Shinan, Ouyang Xun, Chu Suiliang, Zhang Xu, Yan Zhenqing, Huaisu, Liu Gongquan, Su Shi, Huang Tingjian, Mi Fu, and Zhao Mengfu, demonstrating the wide array of sources from which Zhu chose. Even when imitating the ancient masters, Zhu Yunming often revealed his own personal manner. In response to contemporaries who did not follow classic traditions and jokingly claimed that “imitating the ancients” was akin to becoming a “slave of calligraphy,” Zhu could not disagree more, composing a refute entitled “Considerations on a Slave of Calligraphy.” In it, he posited the view that “By going and following Jin and Tang (calligraphy), you guard and do not lose it.” From the Su Shi manner of Wu Kuan to the Huang Tingjian style of Shen Zhou and Wen Zhengming, all demonstrate Zhu Yunming’s standpoint representing the aspirations of calligraphy elite in Suzhou while expressing dissatisfaction with the Secretariat Style popular since the early Ming. Zhu Yunming indeed practiced what he preached, using his spectacular and unparalleled form of calligraphy to imitate the old masters and prove that “copying the ancients” can be an exceptional form of creativity as well. In addition to presenting the styles of various calligraphers, Zhu was ultimately able to achieve a thorough and comprehensive mastery to create a unique and personal manner of his own. Among them, Zhu Yunming’s most praised forms of writing were small regular and cursive script, at the same time also inaugurating new trends in Suzhou calligraphy circles.
The collection of the National Palace Museum is home to excellent examples of Zhu Yunming’s calligraphy in terms of both quantity and quality. Some of the finest works in his regular, running, and cursive script have been selected for this special exhibition, providing a fascinating glimpse at his stylistic versatility and his view in calligraphy of drawing upon antiquity to serve as a foundation for personal creativity.
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