By Ka Bo Tsang, ROM Assistant Curator, Chinese Pictorial Arts
In this age when the electric fan and air-conditioning provide us instant relief from the summer heat, the hand-held fan has become almost obsolete. But in the past the fan was the indispensible cooling device.
In China, the fan came in two major formats: the stationary rigid fan and the movable folding fan. Both types were often embellished with images (scenes of nature and human activities) and/or writing. Fans graced with outstanding artistic creations or fine works by renowned painters and calligraphers were much treasured by their owners. When being admired as artwork, fans may be preserved in their original formats. Alternatively, their decorated surfaces – fan faces in the case of rigid fans and fan leaves for folding fans – may be removed from the frames and remounted on sheets of sturdy paper.
This folding fan leaf is amazing in several ways. Most fan leaves adorned with calligraphy likely would be emblazoned with the flamboyant running script (xingshu) or cursive script (caoshu). Both scripts emphasize simplified and abstract forms executed with flowing lines. This specimen displays texts written in the standard script (kaishu), an unassuming writing style that calls for the constructive strokes being neatly represented to form well-balanced words. The tiny words, in fact, are written in the so-called small standard script executed in the size of a fly’s head (yingtou xiaokai), a specialized skill few calligraphers are inclined to develop.
Written here are 13 poems by six of the most celebrated poets of the Tang dynasty (618-907), including Li Bai, Du Fu, Wang Wei, and Bai Juyi. They were transcribed in 1948 by Wu Huizhang from Three Hundred Poems of the Tang Dynasty, an anthology known to all intellectuals. The poems have been arranged to run consecutively, forming alternating long and short columns to make up a layout design that echoes the curved shape of the fan leaf. Seen under a microscope, each word has been clearly written, even some of the words are composed of more than 15 strokes. The spacing between each word and between each column, too, is evenly maintained. All these demonstrate that Wu Huizhang possessed not only accomplished penmanship, but also, good judgment of compositional layout, infinite patience, a long span of concentration, and above all, excellent eyesight.
The result of his painstaking effort? A mind-boggling 3,870 words fitted comfortably into a fan leaf!
This work is on view in Small Skills, Special Effects: Unusual Chinese Works of Art (July 28, 2012 – February 3, 2013).