“Autobiography”, the Tang dynasty masterpiece of “wild” cursive script by the monk-calligrapher Huai-su (懷素, ca. 737-799), is a handscroll measuring 28.3 centimeters tall by 755 centimeters long. The calligraphy itself is divided into 702 characters arranged in 126 lines. In terms of the dimensions, number of characters, and size of the script, this piece stands out as unique among all the examples of cursive script from the Tang dynasty or before. Huai-su dated the scroll to the twelfth year of the Dali (大曆) era, which corresponds to 777 in the Western calendar, making this a classic from about the age of 40.
In the Song dynasty (960-1279), three “Autobiography” handscrolls reportedly existed. This handscroll, now in the collection of the National Palace Museum, is apparently the only one to have survived. A record of connoisseurship indicates it was in the court of the Southern Tang (937-975), and by the early Song dynasty it appeared in the collection of the connoisseur Su Shunqin (蘇舜欽, 1008-1048). Passing through private hands from the Northern Song, Southern Song, Ming, and into the Qing period, it entered the Qing court collection during the reign of the Qian-long Emperor (r. 1736-1795), thus having a documented history of more than a thousand years.
Huai-su was originally surnamed Qian (錢) with the style name Zang-zhen (藏真). Born around 737 in Ling-ling (零陵), Hunan (湖南), he later moved to Chang-sha (長沙). In his youth, he took the tonsure and became a Buddhist monk, adopting the name Huai-su. In his spare time from reading Buddhist scriptures, he devoted himself to the art of cursive script. In the local area, he acquired a name for himself in calligraphy, being praised by poets and scholars who flocked to present him with poems and songs. Around 768, he traveled west to the capital of Chang-an (長安), where he searched for ancient works of calligraphy and associated with members of the nobility and elite. At the capital, his consummate art of wild cursive script achieved even greater fame. In 772, he returned home and passed through Luo-yang (洛陽) on the way, having the opportunity to meet Yan Zhenqing (顏真卿, 709-785), an established calligraphy master. Yan Zhenqing wrote a preface for the admiration expressed by others, and Huai-su transcribed a portion of these poems and verses while also narrating the course of his study in calligraphy. The poetry describes the forms of Huai-su's cursive script, the wild manner as he did cursive script, and the speed of his brush. When compared to the features of this handscroll, one finds that the galloping and surging manner of the energy in the brush - while still within the rules governing calligraphic forms and procedures - is remarkably varied. Breathtakingly animated and unrestrained, Huai-su brought the fine art of cursive script calligraphy to its ultimate expression in this work.