An image of Couplet

Su Tingkui

(China 1800 – 1878)

Couplet

Location
Not on display
Further information

‘If planting virtue, make sure your plants will grow and spread;
This saying describes the most profound essence of a sage.
To be at one’s happiest one should perform benevolent deeds;
This saying is a stepping-stone to fortune and glory.’
Inscription and signature: Written for Nianfu as he requested, Su Tingkui, style name Gengtang.

The idiom in the first line was taken from ‘Shangshu’ or ‘Book of documents’ (one of the Thirteen Classics), a text compiled in the late Shang and early Zhou dynasties (1). The second line alludes to a story from the Eastern Han dynasty: when Prince Liu Cang was asked what would make him happiest, he replied, ‘performing benevolent deeds’ (2). The couplet would be considered a suitable motto for scholar-officials conducting their government service.

Su Tingkui (alias Gengtang) was a native of Gaoyao in Guangdong. In 1835, he was granted the title of ‘jinshi’, becoming a compiler at the Hanlin Academy. Soon after he was appointed ‘yushi’ (censor). His upright nature and outspoken style were hailed not only by his colleagues, but even by the emperor. In 1858, when the British and French allies attacked Guangdong, he played a key role in organising the local militia forces to resist the invaders. In the early 1860s, he was appointed treasurer of Henan, then governor-general of Donghe, undertaking dredging the Yellow River to prevent flooding (3).

The couplet is written in ‘kaishu’ (regular script). This script developed at the end of the Han dynasty, but reached its zenith in the 7th century. One of the most famous calligraphers of this style at the time was Yan Zhenqing, whose style was imitated by many who came after him. Yan’s style in this script reflects strength, boldness and grandness. Su Tingkui’s script in the couplet is very close to Yan’s style, emphasising both composure and firmness in the brushstroke, tenderly managing brush lines within powerful frames. Yan’s style was popular with scholar-officials, not just for aesthetic reasons, but also because of its consistency, as the Chinese believe that the style of one’s calligraphy truly reflects one’s inner nature.

1 'Shangshu', in chapter of ‘Taishi’.
2 Fan Ye 1965, ‘Hou hanshu’, Zhonghua Press, Beijing, ‘Biography of Liu Cang’.
3 See Ke,Shaoming, et al. 1977, ‘Qing shigao’ (History of the Qing dynasty), Zhonghua Press, Beijing, 'Biography' 165.

‘The Poetic Mandarin: Chinese Calligraphy from the James Hayes Collection’. pg.61.
© 2005 Art Gallery of New South Wales

The couplet, written on two narrow pieces of paper or silk, and hung either side of a large painting or doorway, is one of the most common forms of calligraphic art and has a long standing history in China. They first appeared in the Five Dynasties period (907-979) as pairs of plaques, carved after written master copies, to decorate architectural columns, courtyards and garden doorways. Couplets for indoor display, written on paper or silk, came into existence in the 17th century and gained great popularity in the Qing dynasty. The couplets themselves are either taken from classical poetry or contemporary literary works composed by the calligraphers themselves and their friends. A couplet is made up of two parts called the head and the tail. The two lines of verse are antithetically parallel. Formerly it was a very common practice to send them to friends or relations on such occasions as marriages and birthdays, or as condolences to families of deceased persons.

Asian Art Department, AGNSW, August 2003.

Place of origin
China
Period
China: Qing dynasty 1644–1911
Media
Calligraphy
Medium
pair of hanging scrolls; ink on paper
Dimensions
a - right scroll; 235.5 x 36 cm; image
a - right scroll; 270.5 x 44.2 cm; scroll
b - left scroll; 235.5 x 36 cm; image
b - left scroll; 270.5 x 44.2 cm; scroll
Signature & date

Signed c.l. part b, in Chinese, inscribed in black ink "... Gengtang, Su Tingkui".
Signed l.l. part b, in Chinese, stamped in red ink “Su Tingkui yin [artist's seal]".
Signed l.l. part b, in Chinese, stamped in red ink “Gengtang [artist's seal]".
Not dated.

Credit
Gift of Dr. James Hayes 2003
Accession number
282.2003.a-b