Eulogy to a Crane, or Subversive Political Commentary?

Oregon State Professor Lei Xue discusses a masterful example of Chinese calligraphy

On October 16th, Reed College had the privilege of hosting Lei Xue, Professor of Art and Art History at Oregon State University, to give a lecture titled “A Crane’s Tombstone: Monument, Landscape, and Calligraphy in Sixth Century China.” 

Described as “one of the most famous and mysterious pieces of Chinese calligraphy,” this sixth century eulogy was found etched into limestone boulders on the small island of Jiaoshan, off the southern bank of the Yangtze River, near the city of Jingjiang in modern day Jiangsu Province. Sometime before the 11th century, the limestone boulders collapsed into the river, eroding over half of the text. Scholars have since attempted to reconstruct the text by comparing it to other writings, although much remains educated guesswork. 

What’s interesting about this artifact is that it presents a combination of two unique engraving traditions. The first tradition is known as muzhiming, which denotes an epitaph usually buried within a tomb. The second tradition is known as moya, which were giant, public inscriptions carved into cliffs, usually to celebrate building projects. 

The physical layout of the eulogy is unusual, but not unique. Unlike most inscriptions from this time, it is read from left to right, a stylistic choice more common among certain religious sects. The content consists of several verses praising the bird, relying heavily on literary tropes and allusions relating the bird to other mythological birds. The crane is an animal imbued with great metaphorical weight, often evoked as a symbol of spiritual transcendence. Due to their impressive lifespan and keen intelligence, cranes were also thought to be celestial beings. 

Since its rediscovery sometime during the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127), this eulogy has become famous for a very different reason: its calligraphy. As Professor Xue explained, “The inscription is a revered masterpiece of Chinese calligraphy and served as a model for calligraphy to this day.” During the 17th century, the eulogy became famous when it was published as part of a calligraphy book. Its calligraphy became so celebrated that its authorship has been attributed to Wang Xizhi, the famous Jin dynasty forefather of Chinese calligraphy — although this theory has been widely debunked. 

In his closing remarks, Professor Xue posed a biting question: Was this really for a crane? It’s very unlikely, Xue argues, especially given the lack of historical evidence. Understanding the crane as representing the sacred spirit of Daoism, moreover, it’s difficult not to view it as a political metaphor. In 504 CE, Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty became a fervent Buddhist and banned the practice of Daoism. Given the crane’s symbolic association with Daoism, Professor Xue argues that this eulogy serves as a “symbolic memorial to the freedom and faith the Daoists lost during this persecution.”

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