Situated in the famous Three Schools Street of Xi'an (the three schools refer to the Chang'an School, Fu School and the Xianning School of Qin Dynasty), the steles forest was established in the second year of the Northern Song Dynasty (1078 AD) to store the Kaicheng Stone Inscriptions. Since then, the collection of the steles forest has been constantly expanding. To date the stone tablets total about 3,000 and they are stored and displayed in six steles corridors, seven steles exhibition halls and eight steles pavilions. Collections here are of high value for exploring both Chinese history and Chinese calligraphy. Here stand a number of stone tablets that bear the works of many outstanding calligraphers in ages and styles.
Chinese calligraphy boasts a long development history and basically five basic script forms, namely: seal script, clerical script, regular script, running script and cursive script. Calligraphy is an art dating back to the earliest day of history, and widely practiced throughout China to this day. Although it uses Chinese words as its vehicle of expression, one does not have to know Chinese to appreciate its beauty, because in essence, calligraphy is an abstract art. While viewing a Western abstract painting, one does not ask, “What is it?” When viewing Chinese calligraphy, one need not ask, “What is the Chinese word?” Therefore the steles museum is also highly attractive to tourists and arts lovers from outside China, although most of them cannot read Chinese. The most famous includes the Cao Quan Stele, erected in Han clerical script and famous for its elegant, ingenious inscription.
The Tang dynasty is commonly seen as the summit of China's feudal society and its calligraphy marked by the widespread and popularity of regular script also came to a peak. The most distinguished Tang stele is "the Preface to the Holy Buddhist Scriptures" in the handwriting of Wang Xizhi, a famous Jin calligrapher who was named the Sage of Chinese Calligraphy. Some poems of calligraphy are also collected here.
The first steles exhibition hall
In front of the first exhibition hall stands the biggest stone tablet engraved in 745 AD. The inscription on filial piety was written by Emperor Xuezhong Li Longji of Tang Dynasty. The Scripture on Filial Piety was compiled by Confucius's student Zen Can and the tablet bears the preface for the scripture by Li Longji. His preface was aimed to demonstrate his political philosophy, that is, to govern his empire by filial piety. Following the preface is the original text of the Scripture on Filial Piety and the smaller Chinese characters on the side are the notations by Li Longji. The base of the large stele consists of a three-layer stone platform adorned with lively vines, grass and lion flower, which is a typical decoration of Tang style. On top of the tablet there are clouds and some imaginary beasts that signify good fortune. Made of four pieces of stone and supported by a stone platform, the stele is also called the Scripture on Filial Piety on the Stone Platform.
This exhibition hall altogether houses 114 stone tablets that bear 12 important Chinese classical literary works, including Zhou Yi, or Books of Changes (6 volumes), Shang Shu (13 volumes), Shi Jing or Classic of Poetry (20 volumes), Zhou Li (11 volumes), Li Yi (17 volumes), Li Ji or Book on Rites (20 volumes), Biography of Zuo of Spring and Autumn Period (30 volumes), Biography of Gongyang of Spring and Autumn Period (12 volumes), Er Ya (3 volumes), as well as Gongyang Chunqiu, Scripture on Filial Piet and Lun Yu or the Analects of Confucius. These books are composed of 650,252 Chinese characters and were the most essential text books for China's ancient feudalist intellectuals. To preserve and standardize the correct spread of these classics nationwide in an age lacking modern printing technology, the emperor had them engraved on stone tablets, on both sides. This is one of the most important functions of the steles forest. Such practice starts from East Han Dynasty and seven times of large scale stone carvings for classics took place in Chinese history. But the steles forest that we see today in Xi'an is the only survival.
Other exhibition halls
The second exhibition hall houses the masterpieces of such famous calligraphers as Ouyang Xun, Zhu Zhuliang, Yan Zhenqing and Liu Gongquan. The third exhibition hall is all about the history and evolvement of Chinese calligraphy. Therefore calligraphies in all the styles: bone script, bronze engraving, seal style, official style, grass or swift style, regular style and running style can all be found here. By studying and appreciating these master pieces of different ages and styles, one easily obtain a clue of the development of Chinese calligraphy. The fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh exhibition hall and the Exhibition Hall of Artistic Stone Carving all have their own unique feature and charms. Thanks to the immense collection, the museum is entitled the Treasury of Oriental Arts, the Mine of Chinese Calligraphy, and the Most Ancient Stone Book Storeroom in the World and so on.