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Ascent to Yangtai Temple

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Period: Tang dynasty (618-907)
Medium: ink on paper
Format: handscroll

Calligrapher(s): Li Bai (701-762)

Dimensions: Height: 28.5 cm; width: 38.1 cm

Ascent to Yangtai Temple (Shang yangtai) is a poem and work of calligraphy written by the poet Li Bai (701–762) of the Tang dynasty (618–907). The piece masterfully expresses the beauty of mountain heights and flowing waters and the youthful vigor of the artist.

The Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736–1795) of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) added a four-character inscription to the mounted work. These characters may be translated to read, “Transcendent Brushwork of Qinglian” (Qinglian yihan, titled after Li Bai’s style name Qinglian Jushi, lit. “Green Lotus the Lay Buddhist”).

Immediately to the upper right of Li Bai’s calligraphy is a column of characters written by Zhao Ji (1082–1135), who is also known by his imperial temple name Huizong (r. 1100–1126). The inscription is in the emperor’s own slender-gold style (shoujin ti) of regular script (kaishu) and may be translated to read, “Li Taibai of the Tang dynasty, Ascent to Yangtai Temple.”

The mounted work features a variety of colophons and seals by the emperor Zhao Ji of the Song dynasty (960–1279); Zhang Yan, Du Ben, Ouyang Xuan, Wang Yuqing, Wei Su (1303–1372), and Zou Lu of the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368); and the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing dynasty. The seals on the scroll include the courtesy and style names of Zhao Mengjian (1199–1264; courtesy name, Zigu; style name, Yizhai) and Jia Sidao (1213–1275; style name, Qiuhe) of the Song dynasty and the full names of Zhang Yan and Ouyang Xuan. Other seals attesting to authentication or acquisition were added to the piece by Xiang Yuanbian (1525–1590) of the Ming dynasty, Liang Qingbiao (1620–1691) and An Qi of the Qing dynasty, officials of the Qing imperial treasury, and Zhang Boju (1898–1982).

Ascent to Yangtai Temple is the only extant work by the “Immortal Poet” Li Bai. The flowing characters show the artist’s proficient brush technique; his talent is especially seen in the beginnings and endings of strokes. The artist expressed himself through his calligraphy in a style unrestrained by conventional forms. The Song dynasty artist Huang Tingjian (1045–1105) wrote in his Comments by Shangu (Shangu tiba) how Li Bai’s calligraphy and poetry fill readers with emotion. He notes that during his adult life—the time from the Kaiyuan reign (713–741) to the Zhide reign (756–758) of the Tang emperors—Li was not especially known for his calligraphy but that by the Song dynasty it was considered comparable to works by the ancients.

Xu Bangda (1911–2012) believed that the work was rather unrefined, had been completed hastily, and lacked the characteristics of the hard brushes used during the Tang dynasty; indeed, he believed it was a forgery made in the Song dynasty. Conversely, Qi Gong (1912–2005) believed the work contains Li Bai’s own signature and comports with the poet’s audacious spirit; he also believed the work contains the imperial calligraphy of Huizong and, thus, decided that it is an original.

This work was acquired by the imperial treasury during the Xuanhe reign (1119–1125) during the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127) and later by Jia Sidao of the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279). The historic scroll was acquired by Zhang Yan in the Yuan dynasty and later, in the Ming dynasty, by Xiang Yuanbian who stored it in his Belvedere of Heavenly Sounds (Tianlai ge). The work passed through the hands of the collector An Qi, and it was later acquired by the Qing imperial treasury. During the demise of the Manchu Qing empire, it was taken from the palace. In the Republican period, Zhang Boju (1898–1982) came into possession of the work, and he later donated it to the newly established People’s Republic of China. In 1958, the scroll was allocated to the collection of the Palace Museum.

Ascent to Yangtai Temple was included in An Qi’s Ink Serendipity: Notes on Calligraphy and Painting (Moyuan huiguan, also translated as A Compilation of Ink Works), the first edition of the Precious Collection of the Stone Moat (Shiqu baoji chubian), and other catalogues compiled by Chinese collectors and art connoisseurs.

Authors: Li Yanxia et al.
Translated and edited by Adam J. Ensign, Zhuang Ying et al.

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