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Photo credit: Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University

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Culture: China
Period: Ming dynasty
Title: Thousand-character Essay (Qian zi wen)
Date: 1542-46
Medium: Handscroll: ink on paper
Dimensions: Each: 10 9/16 x 22 13/16 in. (26.8 x 58 cm)
Credit Line: Acquired through the generosity of Judith Stoikov, Class of 1963
Object Number: 99.008.002
Label Text: Wen Zhengming’s poor handwriting during his youth prevented him from sitting for a local examination, a setback that prompted a daily devotion to calligraphy practice. This became a lifelong passion and for centuries he has been regarded as one of China’s greatest calligraphers.

Inspired by the earlier master Zhao Mengfu’s (1254–1322) four-script Thousand-character Essay, Wen copied this classic, composed of a thousand characters (none of which repeat) in all of the main calligraphic styles. The scripts in this set include regular, grass, clerical, and seal scripts, respectively. Kaishu (“regular script”) has been the standard script since the Tang dynasty. Caoshu (“grass script”) contains characters written in the most energetic cursive that allows the flowing energy of the brush to emerge. Lishu was the official script of the Han dynasty, hence the name “clerical.” Zhuanshu derives from the oldest form of writing that appeared on metal and stone carvings, and in later Chinese history was adapted to seal-carving, hence its name “seal script.” ("Xu Bing: The Character of Characters," curated by Ellen Avril and presented at the Johnson Museum August 11-December 23, 2018)


Consisting of a thousand characters without repetition, this classic essay has for more than fifteen centuries been memorized and copied by student and veteran calligraphers alike. Due to the familiarity of the text, viewers would focus on the style and quality of the calligrapher's work, rather than on the meaning of the words.

The Ming dynasty master painter and calligrapher Wen Zhengming wrote the Qian zi wen as a daily exercise and inscribed each copy with the day, month and year that it was written. Compiled into this handscroll are four renditions of the essay, each executed on a sheet of sutra paper in a different script style, including regular (kai), cursive (cao), clerical (li) and seal (zhuan) scripts.

NOTE: This electronic record is compiled from historic documentation which may not reflect the Johnson Museum's complete or current knowledge of the object. Review and refinement of such records is ongoing.