After making the trip back into town from the Han Yangling tombs, my colleague and I went east of the south gate to Bei Lin, or the Forest of Stone Tablets. Along the way is an artisan street, basically stalls selling all kinds of calligraphy items from paper to brushes, handicrafts, jewelry, jade and stone-carved seals.
Bei Lin was first built at the end of the Northern Song Dynasty and buildings from the Ming and Qing dynasties were subsequently added.
It's a giant compound, with numerous rooms containing an amazing collection of stone tablets with Chinese calligraphy carved into them.
Almost all the best ones were collected around the country and put in this museum for safe keeping. In total there are seven showrooms, with more than 3,000 tablets and epitaphs from throughout Chinese history.
It's like a library of the best calligraphers put together in one place.
However, unlike a library, they aren't catalogued and arranged chronologically or in terms of styles -- it's literally a mish-mash of tablets haphazardly put together which is unfortunate. Nevertheless, it gives an idea of how busy stone carvers were throughout the ages.
One thing I still can't understand is how the carvers were able to take a sheet of paper with calligraphy written on it and translate that, brushstrokes and all, onto stone. My colleague wasn't able to explain this to me clearly, but it sounds like a tough job. It would be a drag to carve a giant piece of stone and then make a mistake...
Each calligrapher has his own style, and like a painting, experts can recognize them easily.
She pointed out a few famous calligraphers to me, such as Yan Zhenqing of the Tang Dynasty, whose writing was rigid and straight, whereas those from Wang Xizhi and Zhang Xu had a running script style, where the brush hardly left the paper and the characters "run" into each other.
Huai Su from the Tang Dynasty also wrote in a running script and Chairman Mao liked to follow his style.
There's also a tablet that looks like a carving of bamboo trees, but in fact the leaves are a series of Chinese characters that make up a poem.
Some staff put thin pieces of paper over some carvings, carefully spread it on top and then with a round cloth pad, used ink to blot around the characters to make them show through. These are later sold as souvenirs in not only the gift shops there, but in the vicinity as well.
Another room contained a number of Buddhist statues, but not as extensive as the collection in Beijing's Yonghegong Temple.
And finally there was a room dedicated to funeral carvings, including a giant coffin where a senior official's body would have been placed. Inside were paintings of figures, probably attendants who would look after him in his afterlife.
There were also a series of horses that were carved in stone from the Tang Dynasty. They look very lively and it's too bad they are not all in tact. Apparently the owner loved horses and had six carvings made on his tomb. However, two of them were apparently plundered in the 1860s and are now in a museum in the United States. My colleague specifically pointed out this horrible crime... they always seem to remember negative things about foreigners...
Nevertheless, it was an educational trip to Bei Lin, one that left me with a greater appreciation for calligraphy, but probably more for the real unsung heroes, the stone carvers who helped preserve these works for centuries.