'Zi Xu Tie' acclaimed as the finest cursive script in history

Considered one of the finest cursive scripts in Chinese history, the "Zi Xu Tie," or "Autobiography" was scripted by a Buddhist monk named Huai Su in the Tang Dynasty (618-907) more than 1,200 years ago. It stands out as unique among all the examples of the cursive script from the Tang Dynasty, and even earlier, in terms of its dimensions, number of characters, and size of the script.


The original scroll of the "Zi Xu Tie" measures 28.3 centimeters in height and 755 centimeters in width, with a total of 698 characters, making it a monumental work. In the self-narrative, Huai Su quoted a series of poems others wrote for him, which is believed to be a clever way of self-introduction.

According to Professor Qiu Zhenzhong from the Central Academy of Fine Arts, it was customary for scholars in the Tang Dynasty to present their own poems and writings to introduce themselves to the nobles.

"It was a characteristic of the Tang Dynasty. Scholars who went to the capital city to further their studies or take examinations had to pay tribute to aristocratic clans and present their own poems and writings. If you didn't even have a self-introduction, how could those influential clans know who you were?" said Qiu.

A detail from the
A detail from the "Zi Xu Tie," or "Autobiography" by Huai Su in Tang Dynasty (618-907). /CGTN

A detail from the "Zi Xu Tie," or "Autobiography" by Huai Su in Tang Dynasty (618-907). /CGTN

Before the emergence of wild cursive scripts, calligraphy in China was primarily a practical form of writing. However, the emergence of wild cursive script during the Tang Dynasty brought about a great liberation of its aesthetic qualities.

"It no longer matters whether the reader recognizes the characters or understands the content of a letter. This led to an important characteristic, which is the power of imagination. 'When he unleashes his madness, he looks down on all worldly limits; and when he's drunk, he achieves the Tathata.' This does not use today's language to describe such imagination. But if we concentrate and meditate on what is 'the Tathata,' we have no idea. It encompasses the entire world, a state and power that permeate the entire universe and are beyond comprehension," explained Qiu.

Professor Meng Man from the Minzu University of China believes this achievement was closely related to the larger historical context of the time.

"I believe it's this kind of confident, assertive, and romantic atmosphere of the time that led to this large group of people and the emergence of such calligraphy. So, Mr. Yu Guangzhong said Li Bai portrayed "half of the flourishing Tang Dynasty with just one word." Then, Huai Su, with his bold strokes, captured the other half of the flourishing Tang Dynasty," said Meng.

Calligraphy enthusiasts showcase their copies of Huai Su's
Calligraphy enthusiasts showcase their copies of Huai Su's "Zi Xu Tie," or "Autobiography." /CGTN

Calligraphy enthusiasts showcase their copies of Huai Su's "Zi Xu Tie," or "Autobiography." /CGTN

When Huai Su was writing, he was completely spontaneous and inspired. In terms of copying this masterpiece, many calligraphers find it hard to balance this contradiction: if it's too faithful, it loses its freedom; but once you express yourself freely, it deviates from the original. Professor Qiu Zhenzhong noted that since the structure of each character in wild cursive script doesn't have a fixed routine, it was very important to grasp the inherent rhythm, and the spatial relationships.

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