I find it fascinating that in China letters provide some of the earliest evidence of calligraphy being considered a visual art. As Bai Qianshen points out in a recent essay, the earliest extant personal letters in China date from the time of the First Emperor (221–210 BCE—be sure to visit our exhibition, coming in February). Early in the first century CE an emperor of the Han dynasty is said to have sent a special envoy to request ten letters from a famous calligrapher who was on the verge of dying. By the late fourth century, the famous calligrapher Wang Xianzhi (344–404) finished a letter he was sending to his emperor: “my calligraphy in this letter is quite good. I wish it to be kept and stored away.” Letters like his and many, many others serve as an example of two different functions of calligraphy: as writing and as a visual art. The content of most letters tends to be personal and private; on the other hand, the calligraphy is intended for public consumption.
By the Ming dynasty (1369–1644) treating letters as works of art was a well-established tradition. Special colored and decorated papers were designed specifically for them and letters were collected and bound together in large albums. An example of such a collection is on display in Lee Gallery. We can only show two pages each from two of the five albums in the collection, which features letters written by a remarkable array of Ming dynasty scholars, court officials and calligraphers. A discussion of these letters can be found in Xiao Yanyi’s essay in the exhibition catalogue (see pages 118-127).