Chen Xianzhang (1428–1500) occupies an irreplaceable position in the cultural history of Guangdong in the Ming and Qing Dynasties. As he taught in Baisha Town in Xinhui for a long time, he was respectfully called “Mr. Baisha.” At the age of twenty (1447), he achieved the title of juren in the provincial examination. In 1466, he returned to the Imperial Academy at the capital, where he composed poems and held lectures, and became very well-known in the capital as the “Return of the True Confucian.” In 1574, the Emperor ordered the construction of the Chen Baisha Shrine to commend his scholarship and self-cultivation. In 1585, an imperial edict was issued to erect a memorial tablet of Chen Xianzhang in the Temple of Confucius in China. Mr. Baisha became the only person in the Lingnan area to receive this honour.
Chen Xianzhang advocated “the realization of Heaven’s principles with an empty and quiet mind,” and achieved a harmonious fusion of one’s mind and Heaven’s principles by means of “meditation.” He attached the greatest significance to “dao” [method, way] and “li” [principle], saying, “the plain qin zither had no string in the first place [but the music can be apprehended by those who appreciate it].” As the famous saying from Zhuangzi goes, the trap can be forgotten as soon as the fish is caught; music, language, rhetoric, and calligraphy are only mediums for the transmission of “dao,” and working meticulously on the carriers of “dao” is simply a case of putting the cart before the horse. When it comes to his calligraphic style, Chen did not have an assiduous pursuit for refinement, and was instead guided by nature. It is different from the Secretariat Style, which emphasizes neatness and tidiness. Instead, in Chen’s calligraphic works, the ink follows the movement of the brush and forms dry strokes, with little or no lifting and pressing, and the strokes of the characters are archaically simple and collected. When he lived in the countryside, it was inconvenient for him to buy brushes, so he used local materials and bound cogon grasses together into a brush, forming his unique and creative “Cogon Grass Dragon” calligraphy.
Chen Xianzhang was an expert in cursive calligraphy, and his style was inspired by that of the Jin Dynasty and Ouyang Xun of the Tang Dynasty. In Response to the Poems of Night Sprinkle in White Horse Temple with Matching Rhyme in Running-cursive Script (1493, age sixty-six), the style is simple and confident, with natural strokes. This work was passed on to Gan Zuofan (1859–1941) in the late Qing. Gan’s friend Yang Shoujing (1839–1915) wrote an introduction and a postscript. Yang claimed that the calligraphy of Chen Xianzhang was inspired by Zhang Xu and Huaisu of the Tang Dynasty, and his strokes are thin and hard, with extraordinary expressions. Yang used the phrase “flying hawk and leaping fish” as the opening line of his inscription. He compared the free style of Chen Xianzhang’s calligraphy to the freedom of flying hawk and leaping fish, and praised the theory of Baisha as a means of understanding the lively “dao” existing in all things in the world, allowing one to break away from the tedious study of words and to master the meanings and principles through subtlety and silence. (Peggy Ho)