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Written over 1,700 years ago, A Consoling Letter is a letter by Lu Ji (261–303) of the Western Jin period (265–316) and is believed to be the oldest extant work of calligraphy by a well-known artist. Esteemed as the “Precursor of Model Calligraphy,” the piece holds an unrivaled place in the world of Chinese art.
The content of A Consoling Letter (Pingfu tie) involves three individuals. The first person is Lu Ji’s friend He Xun (260–319, courtesy name Yanxian) who suffers from divers ailments that are difficult to treat or cure. Lu Ji praises him for accomplishing the difficult task of maintaining his current state of health and encourages him not to worry since the ill man’s son is able to care for him. The work is named after a phrase (i.e., kongnan pingfu) in which Lu Ji expresses concern that this friend He Xun may never recover from his illness. The next individual is Wu Ziyang, who had previously visited the Lu residence but did not receive the attention worthy of an important guest. As Wu prepares another journey west during which he will see Lu, he presents himself in an impressive manner, and the Lu family prepares to host him with greater honor. Finally, Lu Ji discusses Xia Borong, who is plagued by various tribulations and from whom Lu Ji has not received any word for some time.
Written with a worn brush (tubi, or a brush with worn and missing bristles) on jute paper (mazhi, a paper made from rough vegetable fibers), the work has nine columns with over eighty characters in a blended style with elements of cursive and clerical script. The artist employed a flowing brush technique to produce this unpretentious composition. Serving as an important testament of the evolution of the regular script (kaishu) from the earlier clerical script (lishu), the work is highly regarded by historians of Chinese calligraphy.
The distinguished provenance of this piece is evidenced by the colophons and the large collection of vermillion seals added to the piece over the centuries. Dong Qichang (1555–1636), Puwei (1880–1936), Fu Zengxiang (1872–1949), and Zhao Chunnian (1864–1942) all added their own colophons to the end of the work. During the Xuanhe reign (1119–1125) of the Song dynasty (960–1279), the work was acquired by the palace treasury. The father-son duo Han Shineng (1528–1598) and Han Fengxi (act. early seventeenth century) and then Zhang Chou (1577–1643) acquired the work during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). In the early-Qing period (beginning in 1644), the work passed through the hands of Ge Junchang, Wang Ji, Feng Quan (1595–1672), Liang Qingbiao (1620–1691), and An Qi (act. early eighteenth century) before being acquired by the treasury of the Qianlong Emperor’s (r. 1736–1795) palace. That emperor gifted the ancient scroll to his eleventh son, the Prince of Cheng, Yongxin (1752–1823). Eventually, the Prince of Gong, Yixin (1833–1898) possessed the work during the Guangxu reign (1875-1908), and his grandsons Puwei and Puru (1896–1963) inherited the treasured manuscript as members of the imperial clan. Seeking to live up to expectations of filial piety, Puru decided to sell the work in order to muster funds to pay for the funeral of one of his parents. Fu Zengxiang served as a mediator in the trading of the piece, and Zhang Boju (1898–1982) became the final private collector to own the work after spending an incredible amount for its purchase. In 1956, Zhang Boju and his wife Pan Su (1915–1992) donated A Consoling Letter, and many other works from their collection, to the newly established People’s Republic of China.
Beginning in the Qing dynasty, A Consoling Letter was listed in various catalogues by art connoisseurs and collectors, such as Wu Qizhen in his The Wu Catalogue of Paintings and Calligraphy (Wushi shuhua ji), An Qi in Ink Serendipity: Notes on Calligraphy and Painting (Moyuan huiguan), and Gu Fu (1894–1979) in Magnificent Sights of a Lifetime (Pingsheng zhuangguan).
Hua Ning, “A Consoling Letter, handscroll in cursive and clerical script by Lu Ji” (Lu Ji caolishu pingfu tie juan), original Chinese, online description (Beijing: The Palace Museum).
The Palace Museum, “Exhibition Commemorating the 120th Anniversary of Zhang Boju's Birth,” online exhibition introduction, translated and edited by Adam J. Ensign and Zhuang Ying (Beijing: The Palace Museum, 2018).
Authors: Hua Ning et al.
Translated and edited by Adam J. Ensign and Zhuang Ying