Yan Zhenqing was born in Linyi of Shandong Province to a reputed academic family which served the court for many generations. His great-great grandfather Yan Shigu was a famous linguist while his father Yan Weizhen was princes' private tutor and a great calligrapher himself. Under the influence of the family tradition and the strict instruction of his mother, Lady Yin , Yan Zhenqing worked hard since his childhood and was well-read in literature and Confucianism.
In 734, at the age of 22, Yan Zhenqing qualified from the national wide imperial examination and was granted the title of ''Jinshi'' . He then gained the rare opportunity of taking a special imperial examination that was set for candidates with extraordinary talents, again excelling in it. With outstanding academic background, Yan Zhengqing rose rapidly through the bureaucratic ladder: he was appointed vice-magistrate of Liquan District , then later Investigating Censor and Palace Censor . His uprightness and outspoken style were hailed by the common people, but angered Grand Councilor Yang Guozhong; as a result, in 753, he was sent out of the capital as the governor of Pingyuan.
By the time Yan Zhenqing took up the post of governor of Pingyuan, the An Shi Rebellion was imminent. With his political sensitivity, Yan Zhenqing immediately started preparing for war by fortifying the city wall and stocking up provisions. He also sent emergency memorial to , but was ignored.
In December 755, An Lushan and Shi Siming rebelled under the name of removing Yang Guozhong. The ill-prepared Tang government troops retreated with little resistance from all the prefectures in Heshuo area ; only Yan Zhenqing’s Pingyuan sustained through. He then combined force with his cousin, Yan Gaoqing , who was the governor of , fighting the rebels at their rear. The government in its desperation, promoted Yan Zhenqing to Deputy Minister of Finance , and conferred him great military power to assist General Li Guangbi in the crackdown of the rebellion.
Thereafter Yans’ force won several major battles over the rebels, which include successfully cutting off their provision line and regaining control over seventeen commands in Heshuo area. In 756, ascended the throne and promoted Yan Zhenqing to Minister of Works . Due to poor military deployment by the Tang government, An Lushan managed to attack Hebei by surprise, and Yan Zhenqing reluctantly abandoned his command, returning to the court in 757. He was then appointed Minister of Law , but his outspokenness against corruptive higher-ranking officials resulted himself being constantly demoted and re-promoted.
In 764, conferred the title of Duke of Lu on Yan Zhenqing in recognition of his firm loyalty to the government and bravery during An Lushan Rebellion. However, his unbendable character was resented by the incumbent Grand Councilor, Lu Qi , and cost him his life.
In 784, the military commissioner of Huaixi , Li Xilie , rebelled. Lu Qi had held a grudge against Yan Zhenqing for a long time, so he sent Yan Zhenqing to negotiate with Li Xilie in the hope that Yan Zhenqing will be killed. As expected, Li Xilie tried all means to coax or threaten Yan Zhenqing to surrender, but Yan Zhenqing was never wavered. According to the legend, Li Xilie set up a fire in the courtyard and told Yan Zhengqing he would be burnt to death if not surrendering. Yet Yan Zhenqing did not show the slightest fear and walked towards the fire determinately. Li Xilie could not help but to show respect to him, and in 785, Yan Zhenqing was secretly strangled in Longxing Temple in Caizhou, Henan.
Upon hearing his death, Emperor Daizong closed the assembly for five days and conferred the posthumous title ''Wenzhong'' on Yan Zhenqing. He was also widely mourned by the army and the people, and a temple was constructed to commemorate him. In Song Dynasty, the temple was moved to Shandong and henceforward became a key tourist attraction.
Yan Zhenqing is popularly held as the only calligrapher who parallelled Wang Xizhi, the "Calligraphy Sage". He specialized in '''' Script and ''Cao'' Script, though he also mastered other writings well. His ''Yan'' style of ''Kai'' Script, which brought Chinese calligraphy to a new realm, emphasized on strength, boldness and grandness. Like most of the master calligraphers, Yan Zhenqing learnt his skill from various calligraphers, and the development of his personal style can be basically divided into three stages.
Most calligraphers agree Yan Zhenqing’s early stage lasted until his 50s. During these years, Yan Zhenqing tried out different techniques and started to develop his personal genre. When he was young, he studied calligraphy under the famous calligraphers and Chu Suiliang. Zhang Xu was skilled in ''Cao'' Script, which emphasizes the overall composition and flow; Chu Suiliang, on the other hand, was renowned for his graceful and refined ''Kai'' Script. Yan Zhenqing also drew inspiration from ''Wei Bei'' Style, which originated from Northern nomad minorities and focused on strength and simplicity.
In 752, he wrote one of his best-known pieces, ''Duobao Pagoda Stele'' . http://www.chinapage.com/calligraphy/yanzhenqing/duobao.html The stele has 34 lines, each containing 66 characters, and it was written for Emperor Xuanzong who was extremely pious to Buddhism at the moment. The style of the writing was close to that of the early Tang calligraphers, who emphasized elegance and "fancifulness"; yet it also pursues composure and firmness in the stroke of the brush, structuring characters on powerful frames with tender management on brushline.
This period ranges from Yan Zhenqing’s fifties to sixty-five. During these years, he wrote some famous pieces like ''Guojia Miao Stele'' and ''Magu Shan Xiantan Ji'' . Having experienced An Lushan Rebellion and frequent vicissitudes in his civil career, Yan Zhenqing’s style was maturing. He increased the waist force while wielding the brush, and blended the techniques from '''' and '''' Scripts into his own style, making the start and ending of his brushline gentler. For individual stroke, he adopted the rule of “thin horizontal and thick vertical strokes”; strokes’ widths were varied to show the curvature and flow, and the dots and oblique strokes were finished with sharp edges. For character structure, Yan style displays squared shape and modest arrangement, with spacious center portion and tight outer strokes; this structure resembles more to the more dated ''Zhuan'' and ''Li'' Scripts. And for the allocation of the blank, characters are compact vertically, leaving relatively more space in between lines. Hence, the emerging ''Yan'' style had abandoned the sumptuous trend of early Tang calligraphers: it is rather upright, muscular, fitting, rich and controlled; than sloped, feminine, pretty, slim and capricious.
In the ten years’ before his death, Yan Zhenqing’s calligraphy accomplishment peaked. With established style, he continuously improved on each of his works, and completed his Magnum Opus, ''Yan Qingli Stele'' . At this stage, he was able to fully exhibit his style at his will even through a single stroke, and under his modest and stately style bubbles the liveness and passion.
Yan Zhenqing’s style assimilated the essence of the past five hundred years, and almost all the calligraphers after him were more or less influenced by him. In his contemporary period, another great master calligrapher, Liu Gongquan, studied under him, and the much-respected Five-Dynasty Period calligrapher, Yang Ningshi thoroughly inherited Yan Zhenqing’s style and made it bolder.
The trend of imitating Yan Zhenqing peaked during Song Dynasty. The "Four Grand Masters of Song Dynasty" – Su Shi, Huang Tingjian , Mi Fu , Cai Xiang – all studied ''Yan'' Style; Su Shi even claimed Yan Zhenqing’s calligraphy "peerless" throughout the history.
After Song, the popularity of Yan Zhenqing declined slightly, as calligraphers tended to try out more abstract way of expression. However, it still took a very important status, and many renowned calligraphers, such as Zhao Mengfu and Dong Qichang are said to be inspired by Yan Zhenqing.
In contemporary China, the leading calligraphers like Sha Menghai and Shen Yinmo conducted extended research on ''Yan'' style, and since then it regained its popularity. Nowadays almost every Chinese calligraphy learner imitates ''Yan'' style when he first picks up the brush, and Yan Zhenqing’s influence has also spread across oceans to Korea, Japan and South-east Asia.