Christies New York feature Zheng Xie and the art of Chinese calligraphy

This article was originally published by Christie’s New York as a taster for their sale on March 16 2016 in New York. The scroll illustrated below will be offered for sale. This analysis by Elizabeth Hammer helps us in the appreciation of Chinese calligraphy in general.


Zheng Xie (1693-1765) Calligraphy. Hanging scroll on paper. Estimate $60,000-80,000

Zheng Xie — The outsider who refused to compromise

Specialist Elizabeth Hammer offers an expert reading of the brush strokes in Calligraphy by Zheng Xie, an 18th century artist whose unorthodox and distinctive approach led to him being called one of the ‘Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou’

In China, calligraphy is traditionally considered the finest art form, as the artist’s goal is to express his skill, knowledge, personality and character all by using only line, ink tone and movement. Through this multi-faceted process, the calligrapher communicated with his viewer — with a message that continues to resonate today.

This powerful example of calligraphy by the erudite scholar-official Zheng Xie can, as we shall discover, be appreciated from a number of different vantage points.

Zheng Xie (1693–1765), Calligraphy. Hanging scroll, ink on paper. Estimate: $60,000–80,000. This work is offered in the Fine Chinese Paintings auction on March 16 at Christie’s New York


These charater demonstrate the varying thickness of strokes employed by Zheng Xie. 1 Short and stubby  2 Borad and thick  3 Open and expansive  4 Cramped and crowded 5 Some characters, like this one, are print-like  6Other strokes become abbreviated and cursive

  1. Visual impact

This hanging scroll is large, as are the characters written on it. The ink tone is uniformly dark and rich and the brush strokes are angular and geometric rather than graceful and elegant.

Chinese is traditionally read vertically from top to bottom, right to left; here, the characters are written in a set order of strokes, so that anyone who can write Chinese is able to follow how the calligrapher formed the strokes. In this way, we are able to trace how each stroke and character was formed and follow the creation of the composition in our mind’s eye.

Zheng Xie creates a strong sense of rhythm by varying the thickness of his strokes — some are short and stubby, and others are broad and thick; some are open and expansive, and others appear cramped and crowded. He also alternates between making some characters more print-like, while other strokes become abbreviated and cursive, adding dynamism and energy to the work as a whole.

Characters that show  the varying thickness of strokes employed by Zheng Xie: 1. Short and stubby; 2. Broad and thick; 3. Open and expansive; 4. Cramped and crowded; 5. Some characters, like this one, are print-like; 6. Other strokes become abbreviated and cursive


  1. A poet at work

There are some who approach Chinese calligraphy as if it were a work of abstract art, without interest in the meaning of the composition. But the writers of these inscriptions were keenly aware of the meaning, and Zheng Xie was a poet himself.

This poem focuses on creating an atmosphere of quiet and calm at the end of a hectic day of government service. It tellsof a secluded spot in nature where the author retreats and what he finds there to enrich and comfort him:

Outside the city, where is the foliage most lush? / By the decorated walls where the settling sunlight filters through the pine forest. / A single note comes from the pure-sounding stone, and the sky seems like water, / At evening on the river the reflection of the moon is like frost. / The monks are calm at this remote place, and I often visit, / Floating like a cloud from my government office; I am pained when I must depart. / On the trellis are grapes like ten thousand pearls, / The autumn wind must have rememberd that this old man loves to eat them. (Translated by Jonathan Chaves)

Can this sense of quiet and melancholy be seen in the calligraphy? That is for each viewer to say.


Here boldness and strength rather than elegance, a stylistic form he learned from the first master he copied, Huang Tingjian (1043-1105)

  1. Imitation as a form of flattery

Chinese calligraphy and painting are learned by copying the works of past masters, their achievements providing a firm foundation from which one can build one’s own style.

Looking at Zheng Xie’s calligraphy, we see the firm, vertical strokes; the dramatic, flaring diagonals; and the preference for boldness and strength over elegance that Zheng learned from the first master he copied, Huang Tingjian (1043–1105), who was said to have wielded his brush as though it was a sword.

Here we see Zheng’s preference for boldness and strength over elegance, something he he learned from the first master he copied, Huang Tingjian (1043–1105)

His style is also characteristic of the clerical script used for official documents during the Han dynasty and which Zheng studied intently and favoured.


  1. A break with tradition

Zheng Xie was part of a group of Qing dynasty artists who turned away from the classical tradition defined by fluidity and refinement, based especially on the style of the ‘Sage of Calligraphy’ Wang Xizhi. Instead, these erudite artists sought out and studied old Han dynasty clerical script writings that were preserved on stone stele carvings and rubbings, which had been largely ignored in preceding centuries.

In this austere, bold and somewhat awkward style of the past, they found a new energy, innovation and fresh expressivity for their work. This trend gained momentum and was widely influential into the modern period.


  1. Personal character

For a work of calligraphy to be truly successful, it must reveal the personality of its writer — it is believed that an immoral person cannot produce a truly fine work of art.

Zheng Xie was born in the Yangzhou area and was reportedly impoverished in his youth. He learned to paint from his father and managed to study to the point that he achieved the rare goal of passing the highest level of the imperial examination system. From there, a career in the government was largely assured, and Zheng was appointed as magistrate in Shandong.

During his tenure, he was noted for his efforts to assist the poor, especially during times of disaster, through building shelters and distributing grain. However, these actions caused conflict with some of the wealthier citizens and his fellow officials.

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Zheng resigned from the government because he refused to curry the favour of his superiors

Finally, after 12 years, Zheng resigned from the government because he refused to curry the favour of his superiors. Instead, he returned to Yangzhou, then a prosperous community supportive of artists, and made his living by selling his paintings and calligraphy.

He is well known by his nickname, Banqiao, which literally means ‘Plank Bridge’ and evokes an image of rusticity and functionality. His distinctive and innovative artistic style, as well as his strong personality, marked him as one of the key figures of the Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou.


  1. Unique style

When we examine Zheng Xie’s unique brand of calligraphy, preferring awkwardness to easy refinement, we see a man who refused to play political games and compromise his principles. We see the energy that he used to take actions to alleviate the sufferings of others. We see his deep and original understanding of the past. In his unmistakably distinctive style, we also glimpse the unique character of someone who was called an ‘Eccentric’.

Zheng’s signature illustrates his distinctive style of calligraphy and the unique character of a man who was called an ‘Eccentric’

Since the Song dynasty, the connection between calligraphy and painting has been often expressed. Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322) explicitly used calligraphy brushstrokes to form the various elements of his landscape paintings. Zheng Xie embraced the same idea, but it was his calligraphy that was informed by his paintings — he derived his calligraphy brushwork from the strokes he used to paint the orchids and bamboo that he is best known for today.

christies sale catalog

 With thanks to Christie’s New York


Chinese soapstone cleans up at Chiswick

chiswick auctions soapstone

Chinese soapstone figures are rarely the flavour of the month. They tend to sell relatively cheaply, living very much in the shadow of of more popular hardstone and jade relics. There was, however, a bit of a surprise this week at Chiswick auctions when a rather pretty figural group (illustrated above) made £32,400, inclusive of premium.

The catalogue entry did promise rather more than its modest estimate.

Lot 166


Qing Dynasty, 19th / 20th Century.

The group naturalistically carved to depict a Luohan standing in front of a bulging sack, wearing a long flowing robe and holding a ball, a recumbent lion looking up at him, borne on scrolling clouds, decorated with finely incised carving and inlaid decoration, signed Shangjun to the reverse, raised on a carved and pierced cloud-form wooden stand, 6.5cm.

Estimate: £1,500-2,000

19/20世纪 罗汉石雕

Shangjun is a pseudonym adopted by the mid-17th Century master carver Zhou Bin, a native of Zhangzhou, Fujian. For a similarly signed soapstone see Arts from the Scholar’s Studio, Oriental Ceramic Society of Hong Kong, 1986, no 44.

The Zhou Bin attribution clearly carried some weight but it was, nevertheless, a considerable achievement to get the price.

chiswick dtl

Well worked detail on the Zhou Bin soapstone group sold at Chiswick Auctions

Shifu Yan Lei: a monk and the art of Kungfu

26  Shifu Yan Lei

Shaolin Kungfu and Qigong is not reserved for monks apparently, it belongs to all of us. Young or old, we all have a mind and body that can be trained. You can enjoy inner peace, and optimal health, fitness and flexibility every day of your life. So says monk and martial arts expert Shifu Yan Lei.

“I help you unlock the peace and strength that is already within you.” – Shifu Yan Lei

Shifu Yan Lei was born in 1973 to a traditional family in the Xinjiang province of China. The son of a fisherman, he is the youngest of seven children.

“It was a struggle for my parents to look after seven children. I was constantly hungry. I was very naughty as a child; always skipping school and getting into street fights.”

He began his martial arts life at the age of fourteen when he travelled to the other side of China to train in the Shaolin Temple in Henan province.

“Temple life was very hard and sometimes I hated it. I had to get up every morning at five-thirty and prepare my teacher’s breakfast and bring him water so that he could wash himself, and then I would take the boys running up the mountain. But looking back I feel happy. Temple life gave me a strong focus. I stopped fighting on the street and trained every day, honing my Shaolin skills.”

His Master, the Shaolin Abbot, Shi Yong Xin gave him the name Lei – meaning thunder – and he became a 34th generation fighting disciple. When he was eighteen he travelled to different Kung Fu schools to learn additional Kung Fu and Qigong skills from famous masters.

“Because I was young my main interest was in fighting but the more I studied the more I realised that in order to do physical exercise you need to look after your internal organs through the practice of Qigong. This will give you a longer martial arts life. I then went back to the Shaolin Temple to read all of the ancient books they have on the subject.”

At the age of twenty-eight he was invited to the West to teach authentic Shaolin martial arts.

“Shaolin has become famous but unfortunately a lot of what is taught is not authentic. The Buddha said, “Question everything I say. Test it for yourself. Don’t just take my word for it.” This is the same with Shaolin. Try it, see it works for you, once you see it working then you can give your full commitment but be wary of claims people make. There are a lot of so-called secrets about Shaolin but the only secret I have found is that you have to train consistently.”

Shifu Yan Lei specializes is famous for his Iron Shirt Qigong, which was tested by scientists at the Science Museum.

“I use my Qi to defend myself from kicks or bricks, you can use your Qi to defend yourself against ageing and ill-health.”

Shifu Yan Lei is the author of Instant Health: The Shaolin Qigong Workout For Longevity, and the new book, Instant Fitness: The Shaolin Kung Fu Workout, he is among the most respected and sort after teachers of authentic Qigong and Kungfu. Thousands of people all over the world have benefited from his Shaolin Warrior series of DVDs, which offer a graded path to mind and body wellness. He teaches private classes and seminars around the world. He also plays a martial artist in the feature film The Turtle And The Sea.



High hopes for sale of the so-called Thornhill Cup

L & T Thornhill stem cup

It is rare that such high hopes are evinced for a piece of Chinese porcelain but Edinburgh-based auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull are rather more than bullish about the prospects for what is known now as ‘The Thornhill Cup’. Such are their ambitions for this object that they are to sell it in the Far East (Hong Kong) on May 31 , near to the big spending buyers. Even they will have to dig deep in their pockets with an estimate of between £2m. and £4m. Step forward Liu Yiqian?

According to L&T, the Ming Xuande (1426-35) mark and period blue and white stem cup is an excellent example of its type and is certainly a museum quality piece. This rare masterpiece is part of the Ernest S. Thornhill Collection of Asian Ceramics, comprising of some 270 pieces belonging to Staffordshire University, where it was bequeathed in 1944. The University’s Board of Governors has approved the sale of the stem cup, which, together with the rest of the collection, has been hidden away in storage for a significant number of years.

L&T’s Lee Young implies in his press release that the company is sparing no effort in bringing all experts and art advisers on board in recommending the stem cup to clients and potential purchasers. “In our industry, it is a privileged position when one is charged with selling an item of such historical importance. We have assembled a dedicated specialist team comprised of some of the leading lights in Asian art to ensure the best possible outcome is achieved.”

stem cup mark

The stem cup is crowned by the elegantly painted six-character reign mark within the cup, and circled by double rings, repeated on the inside and outside rim, and on the foot.

This is a truly remarkable and rare piece, of a type not seen at auction for many years. The motif of flying dragons was popular in the Yuan dynasty, but was revived in the Xuande as can be seen in this case. The fearsome five-clawed dragon flies amongst flames, chasing the eternally flaming pearl, above a sea with crashing waves tipped in white, with rocks seen around the base. The wares’ unique qualities include the glaze, which is thick and lustrous, with a buttery softness to it that responds to touch, and a luminosity unsurpassed in later wares.

This glaze is untainted by age, and, says L& T,  ‘consequently the piece still gives us the same pleasure today as when the Emperor Xuande held it in his hands. Today, very few examples exist outside museum collections. ‘


Some interesting lots feature in Dreweatts 2-day sale

Over the next ten days, with the Asian sale season not yet upon us, four English auction houses have some very mixed sales with Chinese lots cropping up randomly. As we have a penchant here for the curious and the unusual, these general sales (often termed ‘Interiors’) seem to turn up intriguing items which have somehow not made it into the specialist Asian sales. For the buyer, that can be good news as occasionally it cuts down on the competition! H0442-L88863219 Lot 238 at Dreweatts Four large Chinese porcelain figures of Lenin, Stalin and Mao (43-67cm. high) probably dating from the late 1950s or the 1960s. Estimate £4-600. We wrote a couple of days ago about Duke’s upcoming sale on February 18 and 19 ( Also Gorringes in Sussex ( have an Interiors Sale on February 23 with many Chinese lots, and Dreweatts at Donnington Priory have an Interiors Sale on February 23 and 24 which boasts over 100 Chinese lots on the 23rd. On the 24th, they are selling the contents of Cherkley Court, the former home of newspaper magnate Lord Beaverbrook. Cherkley is a late Victorian mansion near Leatherhead in Surrey, bult in 1893 in the French chateau-style. It was bought by Lord Beaverbrook in 1911 and was filled with antiques and miscellanea. There are a few Chinese items and several lots feature ‘lamped’ vases and stands. One of these seems interesting to us. Lot 319 is a very large Chinese yellow ground baluster vase, probably early 20th century. Standing at nearly 54cm. high, the honeycomb ground encloses flower heads reserved with panels of Taotie masks and Buddhistic lion masks, the shoulders decorated with wufu and shou medallions. It is an imposing piece and is estimated at £600-900. Cheap, if it falls within that price range. 319 Lot 319 at Dreweatts  Large and imposing lamped vase.

We have just been made aware that Hannam’s (Selborne, Hampshire) also have a Fine Antiques & Collectables sale on February 18/19 which features a large number of Chinese items (

Duke’s sale hosts some interesting curiosities

Dukes of Dorchester have a two day sale coming up next week (February 18-19) which is marked by a high standard of entries: An Important European Private Collection, Ceramics, Asian Art & Furniture. The private European Collection is the source of the first day’s entries. It is the second day of the sale which will be of most interest to the Asian art enthusiast with more than 440 Chinese, Korean and Japanese lotss although Lot 52 on the first day stands out as an item of some interest to collectors in the field of Chinese export art.

dukes 52

Lot 52 at Dukes  Estimated at £2,000 – £4,000

Lot 52 is a Chinese export lacquer model of a paddle steamer. It is beautifully and intricately crafted with a central red funnel flanked by twin-lidded compartments with gilt decoration of figues and buildings in landscapes, the lifting to reveal further compartments. The ship is on rotating paddles and decorated with stylised waves, 25 inches in length. It has some provenance – having been acquired from Mallett Antiques in London. It was probably made in the early 19th century and there is a similar model in The Peabody Essex Collection in the US, and there is some record of one formerly in the collection of the Earl of Perth. The present one for sale is estimated modestly at £2,000-4,000.

Dukes 699

Lot 699 at Dukes also estimated at £2,000-4,000

Our eye was also taken by Lot 699 which is said to emanate from ‘a West Dorset manor house’. It is a massive blue and white covered vase painted with creatures and trees and the lid sporting a biscuit lion finial. Quianlong and a massive 52.5 in in height, it  again appeared to be far too modestly estimated at £2,000-4,000. However magnificent it appears from the front when you first look at it, alas, there absolutely no back to the piece – half of it has simply disappeared in some terrible accident and, apparently, nobody thought to collect the pieces! Quelle domage!

Indeed, the Dukes estimates in the catalogue tend to be modest. There are some very beautiful small objects in the sale – in jade, hardstone and wood – which we predict will do very well indeed.

An Important European Private Collection, Ceramics, Asian Art & Furniture Dukes Auctioneers, Brewery Square, Dorchester DT1 1GA  Lots 1-511 on Thursday February 18; Lots 600-1247 on Friday February 19.

Is this a Chinese art book? We really don’t think so, Mr Amazon

opinion hl

You won’t be surprised to learn that we buy a lot of Chinese art books here at We maintain a large library of books to help checking all our entries and for help with delving into some of the arcane byways of Chinese art.

We buy books internationally and one of our largest suppliers is (or was) As you may know, not all books supplied by Amazon actually come directly from the Behemoth that is this vast operation, which operates internationally with virtually no policing. Some books are supplied by what is known as Amazon Marketplace – independent traders using the Amazon mantle.

Rather recently, we spotted a book on Amazon we wished to acquire: Chinese Ceramics: Porcelain of the Qing Dynasty 1644-1911, sold by an outlet called ‘the book house’, said to be part of Amazon Marketplace. We duly paid for same.

Imagine our surprise when the book illustrated below pitched up in the post!

Amazon fraud1064  Amazon fraud1065

It doesn’t look to us much like a book dealing with the porcelain of the Qing dynasty, does it? Maybe the book picker at the warehouse wasn’t very bright and made a little mistake? Oh, but what is this? If you look at the bottom of the back cover you will see that this unassuming cheap little paperback does, indeed, officially profess, with an official bar code, to be Chinese Ceramics . . . Even more disturbing, the book came in the same parcel as a guidebook bought DIRECTLY from Amazon books UK. So it did not come froma marketplace seller at all. That, Amazon, is what is called FRAUD.

Now, there’s been rather a lot in the press lately about people getting bricks in the post professing to be expensive phones or laptops. Perhaps this has now spread to the Amazon world of art books?

We emailed Amazon. The nice American-sounding man who came on the phone, Mr Christian, did not dispute the matter. I got the impression it wasn’t that unusual. So far we have got no credit for our postage (£2.80). I suppose if you take a few pounds or dollars off millions of people, you will become rather rich, especially if you don’t pay very much in tax.

If Amazon was based in the UK, I would fire off a legal missive. But, as we all know, they are based in remote Luxembourg, safe from all threats: from both governments and customers. The most you could do is hop on a plane and go and deface their nameplate.

Curiously, the very same morning an email came in, apparently from the organiser of a lecture on Chinese art (indeed, on fakes and forgeries!), I was to give a few days later. I was surprised to see that it advised me he was away at a conference in Krakow, Poland (what about my lecture???). His cases had been stolen and would I please send him some money pronto?

It’s sort of comforting to know that it’s not just the Chinese art scene which is replete with fakes and cons. They are, indeed, all around us. Let’s be aware . . .

The Year of the Monkey is upon us!



A stylised bronze monkey made by the Shanghai sculptor Chen Dapeng (2004)

Collection of Paul & Sulee Harris

The Year of the Monkey is upon us and we take this opportunity to wish our many hundreds of thousands of readers who come to this site every month a most prosperous, happy and successful year!

The new Lunar New Year will end the year of the sheep, a less desirable birth year according to Chinese astrology, and usher in the year of the monkey.

The lucky zodiac combined with the new government policy have many predicting a bumper year for babies in China. In Beijing alone at least 300,000 newborns are expected – a 20 percent jump from the 250,000 average in recent years. German fertility drug maker Merck, has seen a boost in sales on the mainland.


Traditionally, the monkey is considered to be very lucky and amny parents have deferred the opportunity to have children during the last year, The Year of the Sheep..


it is estimated that in Beijing alone more than 300,000 children (20% extra in terms of  population demographics) will be born this New Year, or at least before the end of it!


Monkey children are said to be smart and joyful, also energetic. Accordingly, they will likely cause much extra work for their long-suffering parents!


We are not altogether sure what thos is all about . . .

year of the monkey

A most ancient view of the monkey: Yi Yuanji’s ‘Monkeys in a Mountain Landscape’ painted around 1000-1054.


Is this a rather grumpy, elderly monkey? Make your own mind up. It is downloadable from

Zhu-Zhanji-Gibbons-at-Play, 1427 Xuande Emperor

This is an early 1th century view of the monkey painted by the Emperor Xuande.




Horses under the Hammer last weekend

The Horse has long been represented in Chinese art. There are many thousands of attempts to characterise this noble animal, not least amongst the thousands of terracotta warriors in Xian.

‘Throughout China’s long and storied past, no animal has impacted its history as greatly as the horse. From its domestication in northeastern China around 5,000 years ago, the horse has been an integral figure in the creation and survival of the Middle Kingdom. Its significance was such that as early as the Shang dynasty (ca. 1600-1100 BC), horses and vehicles they powered were entombed with their owners so as to be with them in the next life . . . As the empire grew, horses became essential for maintaining contact and control and for transporting goods and supplies throughout the vast and diverse country.’ (Bill Cooke in Imperial China: The Art of the Horse in Chinese History, Kentucky 2000).

Some rather smaller examples cropped up at auction a few days ago. At Auction House Bath, an attractive abd quite large Tang dynasty walking horse with some original pigment (size 61 cm height and 58cm length) was knocked down for £1800.

Bath Tang horse£1800 in Bath

Further north, at Swan & Turner in Jedburgh, a rather smaller but very finely worked and cast bronze of a Tang horse (16cm in height) appeared in a mixed lot of Orientalia. It did not get that sort of money ( it was sold in a lot of a dozen pieces of Chinese porcelain, gold-plated boxes and other sundries) but it is now available at £795 from Chinese Art in Scotland ( ). The small, heavy sculpture, which is thought to be 19th century, came up at a sale of the residual contents of Hallrule House, Bonchester Bridge, once the home of the Usher family of whisky repute, lately occupied by the St James family.


Available at £795 from Chinese Art in Scotland

The bronze horse illustrated above accurately displays many of the distinctive characteristics of the Tang horse (see diagram below from Imperial China).


In the worst possible taste, Ai Weiwei reaches a personal low

opinion hl

We have, from time to time, reported on the activities of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. He is, of course, an iconoclast; the archetypal artist without walls who operates entirely on his own personal agenda and who does not seek the approval of anybody, least alone the Chinese government who he has actively combated for many years.

However, it now seems that his personal judgement can no longer be trusted. The photograph which has recently appeared of him posing as a shipwrecked hapless refugee dead on the beach on the Greek island of Lesbos represents a new low for the artist. It is in the worst possible taste and displays an inability to discern between acceptable art and degrading trash. In our view, an apology is called for.

ai weiwei lesbos

Photograph copyright Rohit Chawla reproduced for the purposes of review and criticism

The black and white image, taken by Indian photographer Rohit Chawla, shows the artist lying on pebbles on the beach, with his palms upturned in the same manner as Kurdi.

Ai and his team “actively helped in staging this photograph for us,” Mr Chawla said. “I am sure it wasn’t very comfortable to lie down on the pebbles like that. But the soft evening light fell on his face when he lay down,” he said.

Come off it!