China’s Stele School of Calligraphy Emerges Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Influenced by the discoveries of ancient artifacts, Qing Dynasty artists created new Chinese art styles based on ancient forms of inscription. A group of calligraphers who formed the Stele School borrowed designs from ancient stone carvings on columns, or steles, and from bronze bowls and other artifacts and blended these old forms and methods with modern methods in calligraphy.

Summary of Event

During the last third of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), Chinese scholars took a renewed interest in their country’s ancient stone and bronze carvings and engravings as archaeologists uncovered countless artifacts that had been hidden from view for centuries. Calligraphers also took note, particularly of the newly uncovered ancient stone monuments that are called stelae in English, after the Latin word for stone pillars. Drawing on the stelae for inspiration, the calligraphers created a new style of artistic writing, or calligraphy, that fused ancient and more modern scripts. The movement to create these new forms was later called the Stele School in English, after the singular Greek word for stela, stele (pronounced STEE-lee). Stele School of Calligraphy Calligraphy China;calligraphy Qing Dynasty Calligraphy Deng Shiru Qianlong Zhao Zhiqian China;Qing Dynasty [kw]China’s Stele School of Calligraphy Emerges (1820’s) [kw]Stele School of Calligraphy Emerges, China’s (1820’s) [kw]School of Calligraphy Emerges, China’s Stele (1820’s) [kw]Calligraphy Emerges, China’s Stele School of (1820’s) [kw]Emerges, China’s Stele School of Calligraphy (1820’s) Stele School of Calligraphy Calligraphy China;calligraphy Qing Dynasty Calligraphy Deng Shiru Qianlong Zhao Zhiqian China;Qing Dynasty [g]China;1820’s: China’s Stele School of Calligraphy Emerges[1040] [c]Art;1820’s: China’s Stele School of Calligraphy Emerges[1040] Bao Shichen Ruan Yuan Yi Bingshou

Qianlong, the fourth emperor of China’s Qing Dynasty, was a passionate art collector. Using his imperial powers, he amassed a great collection of important works, including porcelains, bronzes, rare books, calligraphy, and many early paintings. For many years artists were not able to study China’s early works and thus learn from them because Qianlong gathered so much of the country’s important work. Landscape painters, especially, were disadvantaged by the collection, because, traditionally, they had found their inspiration for new works by studying older works. As Qianlong’s reign continued, Chinese painting began to stagnate as an art form, and other forms, including calligraphy, took on greater importance. At the same time, Chinese intellectuals were increasingly denied active roles in government, so many of them, too, changed their focus to scholarly research on China’s antiquities. Qianlong was himself a moderately skilled calligrapher, and he had gathered an extensive collection of early examples. This collection was guided by his own taste, and as he encouraged scholars to study and write about this collection, his views came to shape what was valued and what was not.

Under Qianlong’s influence, scholars reexamined Confucian texts. Classical education at the end of the eighteenth century had been based heavily on eleventh and twelfth century commentaries on the writings of Confucius Confucius (551-479 b.c.e.), the ancient Chinese sage whose Philosophy;Chinese philosophies have informed much of Chinese thought for more than two millennia. Rather than rely on these commentaries, scholars began to search for as much of the original ancient texts as possible. To find the most authentic versions of the texts, epigraphic studies examined ancient inscriptions that had been carved into the stone monuments called stelae, as well as bronze engravings, old books and manuscripts, and other objects. Qianlong’s reign, and the reigns of his successors Jiaqing Jiaqing and Daoguang, Daoguang saw the unearthing of many stelae that had been buried for centuries.

Deng Shiru was one of the first calligraphers to study the stelae and to move toward a truly new style combining formal qualities of the ancient inscriptions with new artistic techniques. Working at the end of the eighteenth century, Deng focused his attention on the stelae produced during the Northern Wei China;Northern Wei era period (386-534). Because he had wealthy patrons who supported him, he was able to spend long periods studying individual objects and the rubbings of objects. He copied them repeatedly until he mastered their scripts. Most significantly, he wrote scholarly treatises about what he learned, passing his discoveries to the next generation. In one of his most important works, the Four Styles Album (Siti tie), he broke with tradition by combining brush techniques from various scripts. Tradition dictated the strict description of each character in each different script, giving no value to the unique variations and combinations from individual calligraphers.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, most Chinese calligraphers received formal training that involved reproducing master works of calligraphy from copybooks or model books. These copybooks included tracings and copies of older works. Students copied and recopied the models until they mastered every stroke of every character, leaving little room for innovation. As calligraphers became more familiar with and attracted to stele inscriptions, a new style of calligraphy developed, which was modeled after the stele inscriptions.

The mathematician Mathematics;and calligraphy[Calligraphy] and astronomer Ruan Yuan Ruan Yuan wrote several academic texts about calligraphy, including On the Northern and Southern Schools of Calligraphy (1823; Nanbei shupai lun) and On the Northern Stelae and Southern Album (1823; Beipai nantie lun), comparing the calligraphy produced in northern China, which was based on stelae, and that produced in southern China, which was based on copybooks. Ruan was thus the first scholar to formally describe a division of calligraphy into two branches, and to describe the Stele School as a separate and worthy movement. For this reason, some scholars consider the 1820’s to be the beginning of the Stele School. Ruan owned nearly five hundred inscribed bronze vessels that dated from the year 1600 b.c.e., and he based much of his study of calligraphy on objects in his own collection.

Bao Shichen Bao Shichen was the first art historian to celebrate the work of Deng Shiru. Bao’s treatise Oars of the Boat of Art (1829; Yizhou shuangji) praised Deng and influenced others, including Wu Rangzhi Wu Rangzhi (1799-1870) and Yi Bingshou Yi Bingshou , to pattern their calligraphy on stelae instead of copybooks. Bao was a skilled calligrapher, but he was better known as a theorist. He wrote about the significance of the stelae even as he would produce most of his own work in the copybook style.

A generation after Bao Shichen saw the arrival of Zhao Zhiqian, a civil servant and an artist who was fascinated with ancient artifacts. He had become interested in stelae through his epigraphic studies of ancient inscriptions. In 1863, on a trip from Shanghai to Beijing, where he took part of the national civil service examination, he began to make copies in calligraphy of carved stelae from the Northern Wei China;Northern Wei era period, as Deng Shiru had done. Working in a new “square brush” style that imitated the stele carvings, Zhao produced calligraphy that was more angular than was his previous work. Influenced by the theories of Ruan Ruan Yuan and Bao Bao Shichen , Zhao developed his own brush strokes and effects.

Although calligraphers had studied the stelae for more than half a century and had produced work influenced by them, Zhao’s work was the first to capture the attention of other artists in great numbers. After Zhao’s example, the Stele School became something of a fad, although Zhao himself abandoned the new style near the end of his life.


Breaking with tradition, Zhao Zhiqian created important work in more than one medium. He carried some of the aesthetic ideals of the Stele School into painting, creating flower paintings that blended old and new effects, and he demonstrated new directions for modern artists working in traditional genres. The commonplace format of paired hanging scrolls can also be traced to the Stele School.

The new approaches to calligraphy coming out of the Stele School influenced Chinese art into the twenty-first century. Calligraphers influenced by the Stele School include Qian Juntao Qian Juntao , who has amassed a large collection of work from the Qing and has patterned his own work on that of Deng Shiru. Other inspired calligraphers include Wu Rangzhi, Zhao Zhiqian, and Hua Rende, whose work frequently pairs his own texts with rubbings of stelae and other carvings, demonstrating the range of possibilities available to artists inspired by the scholarship of the Stele School and its willingness to blend old and new forms.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fu, Shen C. Y. Traces of the Brush: Studies in Chinese Calligraphy. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Art Gallery, 1977. An analysis of the calligrapher’s dependence on a firm grasp of tradition in cultivating a personal style. Many black-and-white illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harrist, Robert E., Jr., and Wen C. Fong. The Embodied Image: Chinese Calligraphy from the John B. Elliott Collection. Princeton, N.J.: Art Museum, Princeton University, 1999. An exhibition catalog, lavishly illustrated, which includes analysis of the scholarship of Ruan Yuan and examples of Stele School work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hearn, Maxwell K. “Art in Late Nineteenth-Century Shanghai.” Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art 58, no. 3 (Winter, 2001): 10-13. A brief exploration of Zhao Zhiqian as a transitional figure who borrowed from traditional styles to create new forms.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hummel, Arthur W. Eminent Chinese of the Ch’ing Period, 1644-1912. 2 vols. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1943-1944. The first biographical dictionary in any language to cover this period, with brief but thorough entries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nishibayashi, Shoichi. “Copybook and Stele Studies of the Qing Dynasty.” In Chinese Calligraphy, edited by Yujiro Nakata and translated by Jeffrey Hunter. New York: Weatherhill/Tankosha, 1983. A 238-page history of calligraphy in China, part of the History of the Art of China series.

Hokusai Produces Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji

Hiroshige Completes The Tokaido Fifty-Three Stations

Related Article in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

Hiroshige. Stele School of Calligraphy Calligraphy China;calligraphy Qing Dynasty Calligraphy Deng Shiru Qianlong Zhao Zhiqian China;Qing Dynasty

Categories: History