2015 No.4
2015 Institute of Chinese Studies Luncheon IV: Revealing the Secret of Black Tiger: Exquisite Specimens of Rubbings in the Art Museum
At the ICS Luncheon on 21 September 2015, Dr. Ho Pik Ki, Research Associate of the Art Museum, presented her recent research on rubbings and shared with us a forthcoming exhibition (October 2015 to January 2016) "The Bei Shan Tang Legacy: Rubbings of Stone Engraving and Model Calligraphy ".

Ho Pik Ki, Research Associate of the Art Museum, CUHK

Dr. Ho completed her B.A. in Geography at CUHK. She continued to study with Professor Jao Tsung I and Professor Mok Kar-leung, and received her M.Phil. from the Department of Fine Arts at CUHK. In 2011, she completed her Ph.D. in the history of Chinese calligraphy and Intellectual history of China at the Graduate Institute of Art History, National Taiwan University with Professor Fu Shen and Professor Wang Fan-sen. Her dissertation was entitled "A Study of Weng Fanggang: Calligraphic Style and Collection Culture of Stele and Model-letters Rubbings in Qianlong and Jiaqing Periods". In addition to more than twenty published articles on Chinese calligraphy, paintings and rubbings, Dr. Ho has also participated in studies of Song rubbings of Chunhua Ge Tie in the Art Museum, and edited《祕閣皇風:〈淳化閣帖〉刊刻1010年紀念論文集》 (2003) and The Bei Shan Tang Legacy: Rubbings of Stone Engraving and Model Calligraphy (2015). She has also curated relevant exhibitions, organized conferences and seminars. She is currently participating in a project on the history of Chinese Precious Ancient Books series organised by the National Library of China, and her new book The History of Chunhua Ge Tie《淳化閣帖史話》 will be published very soon.


Dr. Ho first explained what "black tiger" refers to in terms of Chinese rubbings. Ink was rubbed or dabbed only on the flat and convex parts of a piece of white paper laid over a sculpted surface of wood, stone or bronze, and other incised parts were left blank, making the original inscriptions or patterns appear on the paper from the contrast of black and white. Rubbings of re-engraved inscriptions are very common and it is very difficult for even collectors or scholars of ancient China to distinguish originals from recut editions. Buyers often run a very high risk when purchasing expensive rubbings. As a result, rubbings are called "black tigers". Using Yan Zhenqing's Magu Xiantan Ji (《麻姑仙壇記》 the Record of the Altar of the Goddess Magu) as an example, Dr. Ho introduced a few strategies to reveal the real face of black tigers, and discussed how to study Chinese rubbings.

Three font sizes (large, medium and small) of Magu Xiantan Ji are known to exist. The small font size version was quite popular during the Ming and Qing dynasties, whereas the large font version was more well-known during the Song dynasty and late Qing. The small font version in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei was regarded as a Tang copy in the imperial catalogue Shiqu Baoji (《石渠寶笈》the Records of Treasure at the Stone Canal), was compared with the large font version of the Art Museum. The Emperor Qianlong highly regarded the so-called "Tang copy", not only his seals were found on it, according to Shiqu Baoji, he copied the small font version for five times. The calligraphy of the rubbing is clear and neat. Comparing the large font version of the Art Museum with other small font versions, Dr. Ho tried to examine whether both the small and large font versions were original inscriptions of Yan Zhenqing, as assumed by previous scholars.

Dr. Ho pointed out that even though the Art Museum version was not rubbed from the original stele, the inscriptions were written in a classical manner with broad characters and strong strokes. The style was very close to Yan Zhenqing's calligraphy, and Dr. Ho inferred that it was a refined reduplication of the authentic stele written by Yan and dated not later than the Song dynasty. During the Qing dynasty, the Art Museum version was once in the collection of the famous collector Lu Gong in Suzhou and the renowned calligrapher He Shaoji, whose calligraphy was developed from Yan's. The significance of the Art Museum version is also revealed by its impact on contemporary calligraphy from the mid-Qing period.

Since the Song dynasty the small font version of Magu Xiantan Ji was often considered a genuine copy of Yan Zhenqing's calligraphy; for example, Ou Yangxiu first suspected its authenticity and later confirmed that it was a true copy. Only a few scholars, including Huang Tingjian, the jinshi (the study of epigraphy) scholar Zhao Mingcheng and a few others considered it to be fraudulent. Dr. Ho selected three types of small font versions, namely the "nancheng version" 南城本 (the original "zhen jian chang version" 真建昌原本 in related documents), the "jintang xiaokai version" 晉唐小楷本 and the "tingyun guan version" 停雲館本, to compare with the large font version of the Art Museum. The three versions were generated from one another. The "jintang xiaokai version" was recut according to the "nancheng version", and the "tingyun guan version" was copied from the "jintang xiaokai version". This kind of inherited relation was quite common among original rubbings and recut editions. Many original rubbings from the Song dynasty were reproduced in the later Ming and Qing dynasties. As a result, the relationship between different copies of rubbings in the Ming and Qing dynasties became highly complex. It is very difficult to distinguish the original copy from its recut editions, and establish their connections.

Dr. Ho explained that the biological concept of systematic evolution, shown in a phylogenetic tree of relationships, can be applied as a research method to the studies of Chinese rubbings. Every line and character in different copies is carefully compared and similarities and differences listed and grouped. In this way, different features of each copy are revealed and their evolutionary relationships disclosed. Copies sharing a series of the same features belong to the same phylogenetic tree, which implies that they developed from the same original version. Similarities among these copies reflect the features of the origin.

Borrowing the concept of the phylogenetic tree, Dr. Ho selected three small font versions – the "nancheng version", the "jintang xiaokai version" and the "tingyun guan version" – to compare with the large font version of the Art Museum. Through cautious comparison, she found resemblances and variations between each version in terms of character structure, format of repeated characters, naming taboos of the state and other features. The large font version did not share many similarities with the three small font ones. Instead, it had seventeen distinguishing features in its character structure and format of repeated characters that did not appear in the small font versions. Dr. Ho thus concluded that the small font versions did not develop from the large font one. When dealing with naming taboos, the small font versions of Magu Xiantan Ji did not avoid Emperor Tang Taizong's name and there was no space between the characters "meng" and "zhao" (蒙召, being summoned by the emperor), which was usually left to show respect for the emperor. These findings indicated that the small font versions were made after the beginning of the Northern Song dynasty (around the 10th century). Therefore, Dr. Ho decided that the small font version was not actually written by Yan Zhenqing. Her conclusion was also supported by Zhao Mingcheng in the Song dynasty, Feng Fang in the Ming dynasty, Sun Chengze, Gu Yanwu and He Shaoji in the Qing dynasty. Through character-by-character comparisons of the three small font versions of Magu Xiantan Ji, Dr. Ho also found that the "nancheng version" was the earliest copy among the three. The "jintang xiaokai version" and the "tingyun guan version" were later recut editions with their own features. The "Tang copy" of the small font version in the collection of the National Palace Museum in Taipei shared more similarities with the "nancheng version" than with the "jintang xiaokai version", but it also displayed a lot of revisions compared with the "nancheng version". Dr. Ho inferred that the special features emerged on the "Tang copy" because it was recut and revised from a damaged rubbing or inscription on the stele. Besides, the "Tang copy" was very different from the large font version. Among all the existing small font versions, the "nancheng version" was the earliest. Based on these observations, Dr. Ho concluded that the "Tang copy" highly praised by the Emperor Qianlong was actually not produced in the Tang dynasty, but a revised edition produced during the middle or later Ming dynasty which was based on a damaged later rubbing of the broken "nancheng version".

Dr. Ho concluded that by borrowing the concept of the phylogenetic tree from biology to analyze the result of the word-by-word comparisons, the controversial small font version was finally proven not written by Yan Zhenqing. She went further that Emperor Qianlong was not truly studying Yan Zhenqing's calligraphy. It is worth noting that careful selection of proper editions of historical records or rare books are important for studies of Chinese history, similarly, awareness of different rubbing versions of model calligraphy and stone encarving are very vital in the study of the history of Chinese calligraphy. Even though a copy may be considered doubtful or counterfeit, it might nevertheless have influenced calligraphers and its value should not be denied completely.

At the end of her talk, Dr. Ho introduced "The Bei Shan Tang Legacy: Rubbings of Stone Engraving and Model Calligraphy" exhibition held by the Art Museum from October 2015. The exhibits are displayed in five sections: Ten Treasures of Bei Shan Tang, The Lanting Preface from the Grand Councillor You Collection, Stelae and Mountainside Inscriptions, Model Calligraphies and Tomb Epitaphs. Among them eight rubbings are under consideration for listing in the Fifth batch of the National Catalogue of Precious Ancient Books of China. This is the first time that the rare books and rubbings collection of Hong Kong is selected.

Back to Issue
Interview with Professor Joseph M. Chan: The History and Development of the Universities Service Centre for China Studies of CUHK
2015 Institute of Chinese Studies Luncheon IV: Revealing the Secret of Black Tiger: Exquisite Specimens of Rubbings in the Art Museum
2015 Institute of Chinese Studies Luncheon V: Lui Shou-kwan and Modern Chinese Art
2015 Institute of Chinese Studies Luncheon VI: Classical Chinese Poetic Prosody and Parallel Prose Prosody
Public Lecture by CUHK–CCK Foundation Asia-Pacific Centre for Chinese Studies 2015 Visiting Scholar (Professor Shih Chi-yu)
Lingnan Cities Culture Lecture Series III: Zhang Yinhuan and His Friends
Opening Ceremony of The Bei Shan Tang Legacy: Rubbings of Stone Engraving and Model Calligraphy, Art Museum
Research, Conservation and Collection of Chinese Rubbings Public Lecture Series, Art Museum
Special Preview and Opening Ceremony of Restrained Lustre: Chinese Jades from the Cissy and Robert Tang Collection, Art Museum
The 20th International Conference on Yue Dialects, T.T. Ng Chinese Language Research Centre
Twenty-First Century Bimonthly Silver Anniversary, Research Centre for Contemporary Chinese Culture
New Publications
ICS Luncheons, Institute of Chinese Studies
Twelfth Graduate Seminar on China, Universities Service Centre for China Studies
Exhibition: The Bei Shan Tang Legacy: Rubbings of Stone Engraving and Model Calligraphy, Art Museum
Exhibition: Restrained Lustre: Chinese Jades from the Cissy and Robert Tang Collection, Art Museum
Exhibition: Heavenly Crafted: Selected Mughal Jades from the Palace Museum, Art Museum
Editorial Board Committee
Past Issues
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