Zhao Zhiqian

Zhao Zhiqian 趙之謙 (1829-1884) was a Chinese calligrapher, seal carver, and painter in the late Qing Dynasty, “the leading scholar-artist of his day.” Zhao’s seal carving had profound influence on later masters, such as Wu Changshuo and Qi Baishi.

Zhao was born in 1829 in Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province into a merchant family. He became a xiucai at the age of 20, and obtained the title juren in 1859 in the Zhejiang provincial exam. With the outbreak of the Taiping Rebellion in the following year, his political ambition was hindered. During the rebellion, his family was shattered and a number of his art works as well as his collections were lost. Later, he went to Beijing for the national exams. After repeated failures, he gave up his dream of becoming a government official. He submitted a request to become an alternative governor of a county in Jiangxi Province. He was remarried at 46, and had children.

Zhao’s studio name was Yangshi qianyibaishijiu he zhai congsu, which may be translated as “The Studio where, looking upwards, 1,729 Cranes have been Observed.” Zhao died in 1884 at the age of 56. [Wikipedia]

“In his early years he followed the Zhejiang school but, after he had contacts with other styles like those of the Qin, Han, Song, and Yuan Dynasties, as well as the style of Deng Shiru, he changed his own style. He lived in the time when many seals and seal records were unearthed. Zhao incorporated many texts from the scripts on ancient bronze mirrors, currencies, measures, edict boards, and tablets into his seal creations. Zhao Zhiquian’s work reflected more about the artistic value of his time than other seal makers. The comparison of “strength” was an artistic measure he often used. His carvings were sometimes blunt and sometimes sharp for different purposes by using different methods. On the creation of side art for seals, he was the first to introduce portraits, figures, and tablet headers of the Han, Wei, and Six Dynasties to modern seal carving.”

“He engraved the side inscriptions of his seals in a style of calligraphy he learned from cave temple inscriptions, which tended to be rough in workmanship. Often he also engraved pictures on the sides of his seals. His calligraphy is characterized by strong, hard-edged, wedge-shaped strokes with an intricately balanced space between them. In his calligraphy, he often combined the freedom of runing script (xingshu) with the monumentality of stele inscription and clerical script. The overall effect is that of an almost effortless inevitability which has been characterized by critics as mei (charming) or shou (ripe). His seal engraving was inspired by ancient inscriptions found in a variety of sources, including coins from the Warring States period, imperial edicts from the Qin dynasty, mirrors, bricks, tile ends, sealing clays from the Han dynasty, and early stelae. His objective was to rein- vigorate his seal engraving with the liveliness of strong and fresh brushwork. As he himself put it: ‘The beauty in Han bronze seals is not in their varied patterns, but in their powerful simplicity. When studying [this principle and carving it into seals], one relies completely on the power of the wrist. An attribute of rocks is friability, and the strength of the wrist reaches towards the friable parts of a stone. This area of the material responds to the sudden attack of the hand, and falls off. The more unpretentious it is, the older its flavor. When you look at it, it seems ordinary, with nothing striking about it, but it is truly difficult to imitate … I maintain that one should use the method of penetrating deeply.'”

From: Lai, T.C. Chinese seals. Hong Kong: Kelly & Walsh, 1976. (p.77)

“When Chao first took up residence in Peking, his agent in Liu Li Chang had a sign put up which read, inter alia: ‘Seals: two taels of silver per character.’ Presently someone came with a piece of stone as large as a bowl, paid the proper charges for engraving just two large characters ‘Cheng Ann’ and left without further instructions. Cheng Ann incidentally was one of the other-names of Pan Chu Yin, a famous scholar-official. Scholars of any consequence normally paid him a courtesy call when they first arrived in Peking. Chao being proud and independent did not do anything of the kind. This, Chao suspected, was the reason behind the curious commission, and his sense of humour prompted him to make a special job of it and to deliver the seal in person. When the two met, they held each other’s hands and laughed heartily. They become fast friends ever after.”

  • Pinyin: Zhaò Zhīqiān
  • Wade-Giles: Chao Chih Ch’ien
  • Also known as: Bei’an 悲盦; Hanliao; Huishu 撝叔; Lengjun 冷君; Wumen; Yifu 益甫, Yipu; Zijiu
  • Affiliation: Deng School
A painting by Zhao Zhiqian in the Shanghai Museum

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