Thursday, July 30, 2020

Mystery Object Revealed—Chinese Calligraphy Guides or Frames



This mystery object was used in the production of calligraphy. To keep the columns of characters straight, sometimes guide lines were lightly inscribed. But for those who preferred a more freehand look, these brass frames placed on the paper or silk ensured proper proportions and alignment of the characters as they were painted. They are thus among the many items that belonged in the scholar’s studio.

This was probably a difficult object to guess for those who don’t do drafting or calligraphy, but two readers used the clues and very much narrowed down the answer. Bazza directly mentioned calligraphy, and Rosemary’s mention of a template is so tantalizingly close that I have counted it as a winner.

The top example is made of cast brass, lending it some weight so that it could also be used as a paperweight, and so that it would not slip easily. The top side has a floral decoration, while the bottom is polished to lie flat against the work as it was produced.


The smooth and polished underside of the frame show that it was used directly on the paper or silk

These frames are still very much used by those who practice Chinese calligraphy. The following screen shot take from a Google search shows them in use, and that they often come in sets of varying sizes. Notice that some have rulers stamped along the edges, as a further aid in getting the proper proportions to the characters.



These frames also helped to align the placement of the seal-stamps that were used by Chinese artists and collectors. Painters and calligraphers often sign their own productions with red seals, and collectors of fine paintings and calligraphy may add their own seals, even to famous paintings of important cultural value.

Over time, the accumulation of the stamps adds a characteristic look to Chinese paintings, a visible record of appreciation over many generations. The seals also provide a provenance, and the seal of a famous collector or emperor adds to the cachet of a work.

Zhao Meng-fu (1254-1322) was a revered Yuan Dynasty painter. His Autumn Colors on the Qiao and Hua Mountains is considered one of the greatest masterpieces of Chinese paintings. Notice how many red seals are on the painting, and how carefully they are placed. I have been fortunate to see this painting in person, and the effect of Zhao Meng-fu’s genius is truly astounding.


This famous painting has accumulated many seals over the last 700 years. To see its beautiful detail, visit the original photo in Wikipedia, then click to enlarge.

Detail of above. Imagine the nerve it must take to add one of these seals. What if you botched it and got a red smudge on this treasure?

The next calligraphy alignment frame sports a meander or Greek key design. It could use some cleaning up, but I am afraid that removing the paper tag would create a “clean” spot on the frame, and I certainly do not want to polish it. Usually I remove tags immediately, but this is an old one that had been on there a long time, and would not come off easily. The same is true of the paper tags on the bottom of the floral one.
 

My final calligraphy frame is less fancy, although it is still decorated. It has engraved trophies in the middle of the long sides, interspersed with punchwork bats and corner elements. It is interesting how the corner designs closely echo the pattern of the bats. Perhaps not as heavy as the other two, it is still somewhat substantial, as one would not want these to move easily once one started writing!


When I was learning Chinese writing, I used specially ruled paper to keep the characters somewhat in order. In great calligraphy, the apparent freedom of the artist's brush is especially admired, and although some artists use genuine freehand, who knows how many rely on mechanical aids like these decorated brass frames.

(All original objects and photos property of the author. Zhao Meng-fu painting is from Wikipedia, and the Google search is of course from Google.)

31 comments:

  1. Dearest Jim,
    What a precious object to come across and actually purchasing.
    One only can admire you for learning Chinese writing. All my languages are of the Roman alphabet and I would do very poorly I guess if trying to learn such complicated characters.
    My guess had been also a kind of gadget to write with chalk in/on, which part must have been gone. After all that thought was not too far off.
    Congrats to Bazza and to Rosemary!
    Hugs,
    Mariette

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    1. Hello Mariette, I should have mentioned that this object was complete as is--several people thought it was a fragment of some sort. At least it made you think of writing. I'm kind of surprised that some people who use drafting tools like T-squares didn't guess it! --Jim

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    2. Chinese writing is easier than it looks. There are only a few basic strokes, and most characters are made of simpler characters put together in various ways. --Jim

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  2. The name of the item I thought of was a slate stone for writing with chalk...

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    1. Hello again, O yes, writing slates are old-fashioned items that one sees in antique stores now! The Romans similarly used a metal stylus to write on a wax tablet set in a rectangular frame. --Jim

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  3. Fascinating! -- both the info about the calligraphy frames and the red seals. As always, you educate me! Congrats to the two perceptive winners!

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    1. Hello Debra, The red seals are still used everyday here (I use one myself), and it is difficult to get a good impression--they can be too faint, doubled, or too inky, so those hundreds of beautifully stamped red seals really impress me. --Jim

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  4. I did not mean a TIEBACK I meant for clothing like a GREEK GODDESS!
    I would NEVER have guessed!GOOD thing you told us!!!
    SO INTERESTING.........

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    1. Hello Contessa, I am not sure how a rectangular metal frame would hold up a goddess's clothing--perhaps men are not supposed to know these things. If I did meet a Greek goddess I certainly would not ask such a question, but I am sure that you would to interview her for your blog!
      --Jim

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  5. Hello Jim - It was very generous of you to credit me as being a winner - I don't know whether I actually deserve the accolade. I was grabbing at straws and could think of nothing else that was constructive, but you have made me feel happy.
    You have some fascinating and unusual objects.
    I am now off take a look at Zhao Meng-fu's Autumn Colours on the Qiao and Hua Mountains.

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    1. Hello Rosemary, The Chinese paintings here are incredible. They usually only have one or two out at a time for light-exposure purposes, but once I went to the Palace Museum and they were having a special event with virtually all of their most famous paintings exhibited at once. --Jim

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  6. I have learned more from blogging than I did in 6 years of primary school and 6 years of high school :)

    These frames might still be used by those who practice Chinese calligraphy, but I haven't seen that in real life and not in films. So the six small photos are very helpful.

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    1. Hello Hels, In Taiwan it seems that everyone I know "once took calligraphy lessons" (or still practices it) and there are many shops specializing in calligraphy paraphernalia. Some of it is costly and very beautiful, and there are many items whose function is not immediately apparent. I always pause to look at the fancy ink-stones. --Jim

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  7. In Western art there are no rules regarding the use of aids such as projection onto paper, rulers, squaring of paper etc. I can't see the problem with a calligraphy aid such as these.
    I remember, in the far-off days when one actually wrote letters, you could buy good quality plain writing pads with a lined sheet that you placed underneath to prevent your lines from creeping up or down.
    CLICK HERE for Bazza’s meaningfully minatory Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

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    1. Hello Bazza, There is no problem with using drafting tools. In many masterpieces of Chinese calligraphy, one can clearly see the thin lines used to separate the columns of writing and to keep them straight. Even in ancient Egypt, unfinished paintings and statues show the grid marks that the artists used to guide themselves.

      Some writing paper is ruled, and I could used such a lined sheet as you describe. When I write freehand (not too often these days) the lines all tend to slant at the end, and the indentations at the beginning of each line similarly seem to have a life of their own. --Jim

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  8. Well that is interesting. I had no idea that calligraphy frames existed, and I would not have had a clue. I am glad that old traditions and crafts keep going in Taiwan. I know Taiwan was under Japanese rule for a while, but would I be right in assuming that the way of doing calligraphy might not have changed too much in that time?

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    1. Hello Jenny, Since Chinese-speaking countries and Japan had similar traditions of calligraphy, I don't think the Japanese rule would have altered much, but see roughterrian crane's comment below. In the art museums here, people spend just as much time examining scrolls of pure calligraphy as they do paintings. --Jim

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  9. I was very surprised to know the usage. I have not seen this type. We use a heavy bar called bunchin (文鎮)in stead of your frames. Bunchin is placed on the top of a sheet of paper.
    Zhao Meng-fu was good at 行書. He studied Wang Xi-zhi deeply. I love their works.

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  10. Hello rtc, To be honest, when I have seen people do calligraphy, they have not used these frames. Many people use ruled paper or simply a ruler or straight-edge as a guide. I have seen people on the street inscribe those "red papers" but those characters are usually larger and drawn free-hand, and also there is the narrowness of the paper to use as a guide.

    Now that my curiosity is piqued, I will ask my friends, and also at a calligraphy shop the next time I am near one, about current and past standards regarding alignment guides. --Jim

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    1. Hello Jim, I have never used a frame for calligraphy in school in Japan. Time is always changing.I will ask some younger friends whether they know it.
      Though the infection in Taiwan is still not bad, please take good care.健康第一

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    2. Hello rtc, Yes, the virus is seemingly under control here, yet the summer crowds are so dense that I start to worry. I try to read about the situation in Japan--the virus appears somewhat under control, but it is sometimes difficult to interpret all the reports and read between the lines. The upshot is to be careful, which I am sure you are! --Jim

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  11. This was fine reading; I learned a lot.
    Thank you again for translating my chopsticks; you are a dear.

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    1. Hello Ur-Spo, Most of the fun in collecting is in trying to find out what you have obtained. I imagine that these days you use chopsticks a lot more than when you were in Michigan, so you can get some use out of them. --Jim

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  12. Well, I'll be. Maybe if that had something like that for cursive handwriting, I would have gotten better penmanship marks in grade school.

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    1. It's funny you mention handwriting. Just the other day I was talking about trying to improve mine. I write so little now that my hand cramps up after a few lines, and my handwriting was no object of beauty to begin with. --Jim

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  13. I have to start learning Chinese calligraphy

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    1. Hello Haddock, Chinese calligraphy can be creative and a lot of fun--I recommend trying it. You can get sets of the basic materials--ink, brushes, etc., very inexpensively to start with, from Asian stores or from the internet. Good luck with it! --Jim

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  14. Thanks for your comment on my coffee post. Its package says the Laotian coffee processed by unwashed has melon-like fravor and is sweet. But I didn't got such fravor.
    Me, too. I enjoy Nestle coffee usually.

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    1. Hello rtc, These days, so many refined "connoisseurs" compare the taste of something to many other flavors. Wines (which I don't drink anyway) are said to have undertones of raspberry and hazelnut, or apples have fragrances of oranges and bananas. Why can't coffee taste like coffee, and melons like melons? But I'm sure that the Laotian coffee is good in its own way, melons or no! --Jim

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I would love to know what you think. Please feel free to comment--no tricky security words required! Any difficulties or questions, email at: clavicytherium@yahoo.com