original text by Zhuge, Liang (諸葛亮)
title of the text: Jie Zi Shu (Admonition to His Son) (誡子書)
calligraphic style: Yan Zhenqing’s Yan QinLi Stele Regular Script (顔真卿 顔勤禮碑 楷書)
calligraphic work and personal statement by Yuzhou Yan
edited by Lily-Cannelle Mathieu
Text in simplified Chinese
English translation by KS Vincent Poon
Here is the path that a righteous and virtuous person should follow: applying tranquility to mature one’s mind and pursue frugality to cultivate one’s character. If one is not modest and not free from materialistic ambitions, one cannot recognize and comprehend one’s true aspiration; if one is not tranquil and does not possess a peaceful mind, one cannot realize and obtain a deep and wide perspective on all matters. Learning requires a tranquil and peaceful mind, while talents require persistent learning to be fully developed. Without learning, one cannot realize one’s full potential; without a genuine aspiration, one will not achieve genuine learning and develop one’s thought properly. Procrastination does not encourage one to focus on working hard faithfully; impetuousness does not help in cultivating one’s mind and character. As time passes by quickly, one’s aspiration drifts away with each idling day; like a withering leaf, one becomes disconnected and makes no contribution to the world. Eventually, one is trapped and niched in one’s own petty dwelling and can only lament on squandered days that can never be reclaimed.
“If one is not modest and not free from materialistic ambitions, one cannot recognize and comprehend one’s true aspiration; if one is not tranquil and does not possess a peaceful mind, one cannot realize and obtain a deep and wide perspective on all matters.”
The history and importance of the Jie Zi Shu
This legendary figure cannot be more well-known in contemporary China and East Asia for the numerous tales that showcase him as a being of superior intelligence and absolute integrity.
Jie Zi Shu is a type of Jiaxun (family precept), a common literary genre in ancient China. A Jiaxun often contains the reflection by elder members of a family over their life experiences and thoughts; therefore, Jiaxun written by outstanding historical figures are quoted by many Chinese people when they self-reflect or educate their children. Jie Zi Shu is such an example—it is even included in textbooks for Chinese secondary students. The second sentence in Jie Zi Shu is the most well-known, now widely interpreted as “tranquility is necessary for one to go far and reach goals.”
The style of this artwork is Yan Zhenqing’s Yan Qinli Stele Regular Script. Don’t be daunted by this long phrase. Regular script is just a term differentiating the script style from the more cursive ones. Yan Zhenqing is the name of one of the greatest master calligraphers in Chinese history (I feel lucky to have the same surname as he does!), and Yan Qinli Stele is his magnum opus.
Many of the famous calligraphy styles are named after their respective creators, such as the Yan style. Yan Zhenqing (709–785) lived in one of China’s most prosperous periods—Tang Dynasty (618–907), and he completed Yan Qinli Stele in His style in Yan Qinli Stele emphasizes strength and grandness. For example, with the same space available, characters of the Yan Qinli Stele style are written larger compared to other styles. Moreover, vertical strokes are thick; some straight strokes arch outwards (they have a convex shape). This style of regular script is imitated by people from all eras following him and claimed “peerless” or “unparalleled” by poets and artists, not only because it is ground-breaking and breath-taking, but also because Yan Zhenqing is admired on moral grounds. When he was a governor of the Tang Empire, he defended the court bravely during a threatening rebellion and was thus praised by subsequent rulers for his loyalty.
Personal meaning to the calligrapher
It has been more than five years since I started practising Chinese calligraphy. In the first few months, everything was about imitation: how to hold the brush, how to write each stroke, how to get the configurations right… Each of the steps would be a hard struggle for several days, or even for weeks. Then, I began transcribing some short proverbs and poems containing around four to ten Chinese characters. Over the years, I gradually gained proficiency and finally became able to produce longer artworks with confidence. Writing each single character is already not easy—there are several tacit principles to abide by, such as symmetry, balance, consistency of style and change of form. But transcribing long texts poses even more daunting challenges. The principles are now applicable not only to each single character but also to the artwork as a whole. For example, although the style needs not conform to those of the renowned calligraphers, it should still be consistent throughout one piece of artwork. The feeling of my handwriting can change a little bit even after I take a short break during my writing—which inevitably causes some change in my state of mind! Also, if a Chinese character appears more than once in a piece of work, it needs to be somehow different each time it appears so as to avoid dullness. Can you notice this in my Jie Zi Shu? —You can find several duplicate characters side by side in the 7th and 8th columns from the right, for example.
From practising calligraphy for so long, I have learned tranquility and focus. You might have noticed that “tranquility” is a keyword in that piece of family precept, Jie Zi Shu. Staying tranquil (or silent), indeed, is key to writing good calligraphy. No multitasking, no music, no murmurs—just me and my brush. This is the only way to fully focus myself on the writing. Remember what the man of wisdom Zhuge Liang admonished us: “if one is not tranquil and does not possess a peaceful mind, one cannot realize and obtain a deep and wide perspective on all matters (非寧靜無以致遠 / 非宁静无以致远).” Only when I truly sink myself deep into writing can I keep in mind the entire piece and write in a consistent style while not losing attention to the nitty-gritty of each upcoming stroke. As Zhuge Liang wrote, “learning requires a tranquil and peaceful mind, while talents require persistent learning to be fully developed (學須靜也，才須學也 / 学须静也，才须学也).” This cannot be more true for Chinese calligraphy; it is certainly true for all other kinds of learning as well.
Yuzhou Yan is a U1 student majoring in Computer Science and Linguistics. He lived in Zhengzhou, China for fifteen years before studying in Singapore for another four years. The elegant shape of Korean Hangul and the pleasant sound of Japanese sparked his interest in learning the two languages as well as the culture they carry. He also devotes himself to calligraphy, a traditional practice shared by the entire East Asia. He will exchange to the University of Tokyo soon and hopefully volunteer at the 2020 Olympics!