- Eulogy for Burying a Crane and the Art of Chinese Calligraphy by Lei Xue
In this insightful study, Lei Xue explores the abstruse discourse of Chinese calligraphy through the lens of a famed stone-engraved inscription, Eulogy for Burying a Crane (Yi he ming 瘞鶴銘, hereafter Eulogy). Dated to 514, the Eulogy is an enigmatic inscription by an unknown Daoist author that has fascinated generations of scholars. As a solution to the enigma, Xue begins with a compelling interpretation about the original meaning and function of this stone inscription, identifying it as a communal memorial at a time when Daoism faced imperial proscription. Next, he examines the reinvention of the Eulogy as an artistic monument in the Northern Song (960–1127), late Ming (1368–1644), and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties, three crucial periods that deeply shaped the trajectory of the art of writing in China. The author gives concise analyses of how scholars, officials, antiquarians, and artists discussed, reproduced, promoted, and appropriated the Eulogy in different sociopolitical contexts. Though this project intends to be, in Xue's words, "a cultural biography of this stone," (p. 9) it also addresses the creation of artistic canons in imperial China and reconsiders calligraphic aesthetics as historical constructs. Canon formation and the highly subjective nature of calligraphy criticism are often elided in the conventional narratives centering on master calligraphers.
In the Introduction, Xue explains what was known about the Eulogy and how it was misunderstood. Carved into the cliff face on the small island of Jiaoshan in the Yangzi River near the city of Zhenjiang, the inscription had long been attributed to Wang Xizhi (ca. 303–ca. 361), renowned as "the Sage of Chinese Calligraphy." Supposedly inspired by the magical dance of his cranes, Wang was thought to have composed the Eulogy to mourn their departure from this world. Adding to this romantic origin, the rock of the cliff was later shattered and pieces of the inscription fell into the river. From the eleventh century onward, the remains could only be seen in the winter months when the water level was low. Xue makes a clear distinction between popular perception and historical fact to investigate questions about the Eulogy's origin, content, format, and status in the history of Chinese calligraphy, employing information from premodern epigraphic scholarship, recent archaeological excavations, and his own on-site investigations. To frame the scope of this study, the author provides a brief account of the "historiography of Chinese calligraphy" (pp. 9–11), some essential calligraphic terminologies (pp. 11–13), and the primary media for transmitting calligraphic works (pp. 13, 14). All of these are helpful for a general reader, as well as students and teachers of the history of Chinese calligraphy. [End Page 296]
The first chapter contextualizes the production of the Eulogy in the literary, material, and visual culture of sixth-century China. Xue effectively connects the content and style of the inscription to period literature about cranes, Daoist practices of carving inscriptions into mountains, and political events during the reign of Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty (r. 502–549). Close examination of its five surviving, incomplete fragments reveals that the Eulogy went through considerable damage and modifications. Xue painstakingly reconstructs the majority of its text using reliable ink rubbings and historical records to translate what may be read into English. Embedded with poetic metaphors, the Eulogy recounts the life of a crane, memorializes its unexpected passing, which traumatizes the author, and ends with the signature of obscure Daoist names. This content has often led scholars to treat the work as "a real epitaph for a real crane" (p. 22). However, Xue argues instead that the Eulogy is a symbolic monument that made use of "the epitaph" as an established literary genre and the topography of Jiaoshan to deliver a veiled expression of discontent by the Daoist community. As Xue shows, earlier poems and essays employed the metaphor of the crane to express the sense of sorrow...