Li3 Yang2-bing1, courtesy name Shao3-wen1, was an 8th century Chinese calligrapher. He specialized in seal script (zhuan4-shu1). Li's dates are uncertain, but appear to have been from c. 714- c. 784, according to the modern scholar Zhou Zumo. More than a dozen specimens of his work survive in stone inscriptions and may be examined in Zhou's article, cited at the end of this writeup.
Tang dynasty sources describe Li Yangbing as the unparalleled master of his art. He was apparently a cousin of the great poet Li Bai (Li Po), who died suddenly while visiting him on his way back to the capital having just been recalled from exile. (The story about Li Bai's drowning while drunkenly trying to embrace the moon is apocryphal.) Bai left a long poem dedicated to Yangbing, praising his artistic gifts and hospitality. Yangbing compiled the first collection of Bai's works and contributed a preface.
Varieties of seal script had been popular before Li Yangbing's time, but calligraphers had generally created their own variations on unusual-looking ancient forms, emphasizing the strange at the expense of authenticity. Li undertook a special study of surviving examples of Qin dynasty inscriptions, which are the standard of seal script, and attempted to systematize them in his own teaching and practice. That led to his greatest contribution outside of the arts: his promotion of the Shuowen Jiezi, the Han dynasty dictionary of ancient characters. Since the Shuowen is based on seal script, Li used it as a vehicle for his own remarks on the characters. Those remarks were mainly of two kinds:
- notes on the mechanics of brushwork:
"write the three horizontal strokes of yu4 'jade' straight and even, as though stringing pieces of jade together"
- and original explanations of character structure.
The latter are very mixed - sometimes he has real insight because of his knowledge of seal script practice, but often he seems to us to be making things up.
Li may have been the first scholar to divide each of the Shuowen's 15 chapters into two, a practice which persists to the present day. His version of the Shuowen has not survived, but a number of his comments are preserved in the redactions of the Five Dynasties scholars Xu2 Xuan4 and Xu2 Kai3. The Xu brothers did not care much for Li's work; Xu Kai said Li had invented many new character-etymologies at the expense of the received tradition, and that the high reputation of his Shuowen edition was a case of
"overvaluing what one has heard and undervaluing the evidence of one's own eyes".
My opinion, however, is that many of his explanations are intended as mnemonic
s to guide the hand, rather than as literal graphic etymologies; he was an artist, not a true epigrapher
Li Yangbing's name perhaps recalls the lines from the third century poet Mu Hua's "Rhapsody on the Sea":
yang2-bing1 bu4 ye3
The sunlit ice does not melt,
but shaded fires burn submerged.
Sunlit ice not melting is a metaphor for cruel government. In the older Springs and Autumns of Yen-tzu (Yanzi)
there is a story in which a ruler asks whether the state he is about to attack has had a good harvest
, and is answered,
yin1-bing1 ning2, yang2-bing1 hou4 wu3-cun4
The ice in the shade has formed, but the ice in the sun is five inches thick.
Yanzi explains this cryptic reply to mean that the harvest in the other state is bad, because the seasons are out of their natural alignment, because the government is bad; his ruler should therefore try to win over the people of the other state rather than attacking them. Li Yangbing's courtesy name
means "there is little warmth", expressing the same sentiment indirectly.
Most of this writeup (excepting the discussion of Li Yangbing's name) draws heavily on an essay by the 20th century scholar Zhou Zumo, "Li Yangbing zhuanshu kao" (Research on the seal script of Li Yangbing), in his Wen4-xue2 ji2 (Inquiries into learning: a collection).