An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

kuanzhi 款識, inscriptions on vessels or artworks

Mar 28, 2023 © Ulrich Theobald

Kuanzhi 款識 [a special reading], also called zhikuan 識款, tikuan 題款, kuanshu 款署, kuanti 款題 or luokuan 落款, is a kind of dated signature or a brief note of an artist of a calligraphy or painting. It usually includes the name of the artist (often just the courtesy name or style), and the date (season and cyclical characters of the day), and in some cases also a hint to the occasion when the artwork was produced, or include a kind of dedication.

The custom of adding the date begun during the Song period 宋 (960-1279), while artists from the Yuan period 元 (1279-1368) on added shorter or longer prose or lyrical texts to their artworks, like eulogies (huazan 畫贊), poems (tihua shi 題畫詩, tihua ci 題畫詞), notes (tihua ji 題畫記), "afterwords" (tihua ba 題畫跋), or other accompanying texts (huati 畫題). In early times, such texts written on paintings or at the side of calligraphic works had often an educational purpose, but from the Song period on, the integration of kuanzhi texts on artworks reflected an artistic and mental combination of several mental and cultural skills, namely painting, calligraphy, and poetry, and was thus an expression of cultured unity and identity. Notes, poems, and "prefaces" or "afterwords" (ti-ba 題跋) had thus several purposes, namely an enhancement of the overall impression of the artwork, an extension of the visual content to the mental and contemplative sphere, a dilation of artistic expressions as a kind of multiple beautification, and, lastly, explanation of a painting's meaning and message.

Scholars discern between different types of kuanzhi inscriptions, namely dankuan 單款 (qiongkuan 窮款, mingkuan 名款) - the name or designation of the artist; shuangkuan 雙款 - the name of the recipient, and that of the calligrapher or painter; tishikuan 題詩款 - a poem (in full or only some verses) related to the painting, either composed by the painter him/herself, or by a famous poet (of former times); tijikuan 題記款 - notes on the genesis of the artwork, its meaning, or related content; and jiahuakuan 夾畫款 - a special arrangement in which additional text is inserted closely into the area of the painting or the calligraphy to make it also optically part of the artwork.

The word kuanzhi was originally used for inscriptions on bronze vessels, like in Ruan Yuan's 阮元 (1764-1849) catalogue Jiguzhai zhongding yiqi kuanzhi 積古齋鐘鼎彝器款識. In this meaning, the word is first mentioned in the imperial biography of Emperor Wu 漢武帝 (r. 141-87 BCE; 12 Xiao Wu benji 孝武本紀) in the history book Shiji 史記. Pei Yin’s 裴骃 (5th cent.) commentary explains that kuan meant "to carve" (kuan, ke ye 款,刻也), while Sima Zhen 司馬貞 (679-732) added that the word zhi meant "to express" (zhi you biaoshi ye 識猶表識也). The expression is also mentioned in the chapter on state sacrifices (Jiaosi zhi 郊祀志) in the official dynastic history Hanshu 漢書.

Concerning the expression kuanzhi, there are several interpretations. As Pei Yin, the scholars Wei Zhao 韋昭 (201-273) and Yan Shigu 顏師古 (581-645) hold that kuan meant "to carve", while zhi meant "to record" (zhi, ji ye 識,記也). Kuan might also refer to incised characters (yinzi 陰字), and zhi to protruding shapes (yangzi 陽字). This interpretation is presented in Tao Zongyi's 陶宗儀 (1322-1403) Chuogenglu 輟耕錄 (17 Gu tongqi 古銅器), with the remarks that incised characters were a mark of ancient vessels, while protruding patterns were created from the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) onwards, and thus a sign of younger, non-antique, vessels.

Alternatively, kuan were inscriptions inside, and zhi such on the outer surface of objects. This interpretation is presented in Fang Yizhi's 方以智 (1579-1671) Tongya 通雅 (8 Qiyong 器用) as a quotation from the book Bogutu 博古圖. Fang also presents another explanation, namely that kuan could refer to patterns, while the word zhi denoted words or texts.

With the development of industrial production of porcelain, stamps were attached to the bottom of objects which referred to the place and time of production.

Figures 1-3. Examples for kuanzhi 款識 inscriptions
Painting of Monk Puhe 普荷 (1593-1683), style Dandang 擔當, from a four-leaves album with very inventive landscape paintings, Shanshui ce 山水冊. His own signature is Dan Laoren 擔老人 "Old Man Porter", with the saying, inspired by Chan Buddhist thought, "Even if a brush stroke counts as a painting, it is no painting; and if no brushstrokes counts as a painting, it is none as well." (有一筆是畫,也非畫;若無一筆是畫,亦非畫。) From Xie Zhiliu 謝稚柳 et al., eds. (1986). A seal is imprinted (yinji 印記) as well.Zhongguo meishu quanji 中國美術全集, part Huihua bian 繪畫編, 9, Qingdai huihua 清代繪畫 (Shanghai: Shanghai renmin chubanshe) Vol. 1, no. 13.
Kuanzhi notes with date, signature, poem and dedication on a painting (Meihua tianzhu baitouweng 梅花天竹白頭翁, 1893) and a calligraphy (Zeng Guan Weishan wuyan lian 贈關蔚山五言聯, 1938) of Qi Baishi 齊白石 (1864-1957), from Mou (2019).
Beijing Dongfang Shoucangjia Xiehui 北京東方收藏家協會, ed. (1996). Zhonghua shoucang da cidian 中華收藏大辭典 (Beijing: Beijing Yanshan chubanshe), 36.
Cui Erping 崔爾平, ed. (1990). Shufa zhuanke shuyu cidian 書法篆刻術語辭典 (Xi'an: Shaanxi renmin chubanshe), 335.
He Xilin 賀西林 (1993). "Kuanzhi 款識", in Zhongguo xiaoxue jiaoxue baike quanshu 中國小學教學百科全書, Vol. Meishu 美術卷 (Shenyang: Shenyang chubanshe), 267.
Luo Zhufeng 羅竹風 et al. (1993). Hanyu da cidian 漢語大詞典 (Beijing: Hanyu da cidian chubanshe), Vol. 6, 1444.
Mou Jianping 牟建平 (2019). "Qi Baishi de shufa yu huihua kuanzhi 齊白石的書法與繪畫款識", Shoucang 收藏, 2019 (5): 90-101.
Qi Tinggui 戚廷貴, Liu Xiaoyan 劉孝嚴, Tang Shufan 唐樹凡, eds. (1992). Dong-Xifang yishu cidian 東西方藝術辭典 (Changchun: Jilin jiaoyu chubanshe), 219.
Wang Keping 王可平 (1998). "Kuanzhi 款識", in Tang Jiahong 唐嘉弘, ed. Zhongguo gudai dianzhang zhidu da cidian 中國古代典章制度大辭典 (Zhengzhou: Zhongzhou guji chubanshe), 448.
Wang Xueqi 王學奇, Wang Jingzhi 王靜竹, eds. (2002). Song-jin-Yuan-Ming-Qing quci tongshi 宋金元明清曲辭通釋 (Beijing: Yuwen chubanshe), 632.