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Wang Xizhi’s Preface to the Orchid Pavilion

    In the 7th century AD, Wang Xizhi (303 – 361 AD), the greatest calligrapher in Chinese history, had already been dead for hundreds of years.

    But original copies of his calligraphy were still highly sought after.

    It was in this context, a stranger is said to have arrived in a village…

    He befriended a local monk, and they began to drink together late at night.

    Naturally, their conversation veered onto calligraphy, Wang Xizhi and his masterpiece: the Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Collection.

    At this point, both the stranger and the monk were hiding a secret from one another…

    Let’s find out what these secrets were. But first, let’s look closer at the crown jewel of Chinese calligraphy they were discussing.

    Who was Wang Xizhi?

    Detail from Wang Xizhi Watching Geese by Qian Xuan
    Detail from Wang Xizhi Watching Geese (Yuan dynasty) by Qian Xuan (23.2 x 92.7cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Wang Xizhi (王羲之 [Wáng Xīzhī ]), was born in his family’s ancestral home of Langya, Shandong Province, during the Jin dynasty (266 AD – 420 AD).

    He came from an elite family of government official and army officers. And he grew up to be a high-ranking official, serving variously as Assistant to the Palace Library, Interior Minister of Kuaiji and other positions.

    In turn, one of his sons, Wang Xianzhi (344 – 386 AD), went on to become a government official and well-known calligrapher.

    He retired aged just 55 and appears to have dedicated himself to Daoism before dying just three years later.

    The popularity of Wang Xizhi’s calligraphy

    Wang was distinguished during and after his lifetime for his excellent calligraphy.

    He mastered all of the major calligraphy styles number of different styles. He particularly excelled in:

    His style is generally seen as being strong and elegant.

    He is now seen as the third generation of major calligraphers and the first to synthesis the styles that came before him.

    He often wrote the same character slightly different even in the same piece.

    This was by design because – like many calligraphers – he believed in a natural and spontaneous form of calligraphy rather than a meticulous, pre-planned one.

    Wang Xizhi’s Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Collection

    Preface to the Orchid Pavilion (sometimes translated as Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Gathering or Preface to the Lanting Gathering) (兰亭集序 [Lántíng Jí Xù]) was written in 358 AD.

    It consists of 324 characters written on paper in the xíngshū (行书) (semi-cursive or running script) style.

    Its popularity stems from both its aesthetic beauty and the quality of the content itself.

    (It is not uncommon just the appearance of calligraphy pieces to be the primary reason for their popularity – see the popular but illegible grass script style, for example).

    Background to Wang’s Preface

    The Preface was likely to have been written – or shortly after – an informal gathering of 41 (some sources say 26) literati.

    This took place beside a stream near Mount Kuaiji (today’s Mount Xianglu in Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province).

    They had gathered to mark the spring celebration of the semiannual ‘ceremony of purification’ (修禊).

    Gatherings like this were popular with literati throughout Chinese history. They often involved music, poetry, calligraphy and – of course – drinking.

    The drinking game played at this particular gathering involved Wang and his friends floating wine cups in the stream beside them and creating poems.

    Wang himself is said to have been slightly drunk when he penned his famous work on the spot. Some later sources claim that he tried – and failed – to replicate it sober afterwards.

    Pavilions and gardens

    Pavilions and gardens have a long tradition of as popular meeting places for Chinese officials and literati.

    Wang was said to be particularly interested in gardens:

    When Wang Xizhi passed on his way from Wu to Guiji, he heard that Gu Bijiang had a celebrated garden there. Although he had no previous acquantance with the owner, he went straight to his home. At the time, Gu was entertaining guests at a drinking banquet in the garden, but Wang wandered freely about, pointing out what he liked or disliked, acting as if no one else was around.

    -Quoted in China between Empires: The Northern and Southern Dynasties by Mark Edward Lewis (Harvard University Press, 2011), p. 98 -99

    The Tang emperor Taizong’s love for Wang Xizhi’s work

    Detail of The Imperial Sedan Chair attributed to Yan Liban
    Detail of The Imperial Sedan Chair attributed to Yan Liban (600 – 673 AD), handscroll, ink and colour on silk, possibly a Song dynasty copy, 38.5 x 129.6 cm. Palace Museum, Beijing. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    The Tang dynasty Taizong Emperor (598 – 649 AD) lived nearly two centuries after Wang.

    He heavily promoted Wang’s work and style and ordered students at the imperial Academy of Calligraphy to make numerous copies of Wang’s work.

    Taizong collected art and calligraphy. There were useful political reasons for this too, as he had to promote an image of his cultural authority across a large empire.

    However, seems to have also been genuinely passionate about the arts, too.

    He played a direct role in calligraphy’s flourishing, particularly at the height of the Tang dynasty.

    The monk, the undercover agent, and Wang Xizhi’s scroll

    There is a likely apocryphal story about the Taizong Emperor’s quest to get the original version of the Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Collection.

    It was rumoured that a monk named Bian Cai had the original in his possession. He was a student of the great calligrapher and Buddhist monk Zhiyong, who was one of Wang Xizhi’s descendants.

    The Emporer Taizong sent an official named Xiao Yi to investigate the matter. Xiao Yi passed through the monk Bian Cai’s village, pretending to be a poor scholar.

    Xiao Yi befriended Bian Cai, and prolonged his visit the to village by feigning illness.

    During his extra time in the village, he stayed at Bian Cai’s temple, where the two played chess, drank, ate and conversed.

    Over these few days, the discussion turned to calligraphy.

    Xiao Yi showed Bian Cai some manuscripts of Wang Xizhi’s work and declared them to be some of the finest available.

    Eventually, Bian Cai climbed into the temple and pulled out his copy of Preface to the Orchard Pavilion.

    Xiao Yi remained poker-faced and declared Bian Cai’s document a fake. The two debated until midnight. Afterwards, Bian Cai went to bed, leaving his copy of the Preface out.

    There and then, Xiao Yi picked up the masterpiece and headed at speed back to the palace…

    The emperor rewarded him and is said to have even sent enough grain back to Bian Cai to build a new temple with.

    Taizong then ordered that the original Preface be buried with him in the Zhao Mausoleum, Shaanxi Province, when he died.

    This order was carried out when he passed away in 649 AD.

    Questions over Wang Xizhi’s authorship of the Preface

    Li Wentian (1834–1895 AD) was a calligrapher, scholar and official of the late Qing dynasty (1644 – 1911 AD).

    He argued that the Preface and a few other of Wang Xizhi’s works could have been done by a different calligrapher.

    His theory has a few main points, covering style and content.

    One point is that inscriptions from the Jin dynasty (266 – 420) Wang lived under matched styles seen in the preceding or contemporary dynasties: the Han dynasty (202 – 220 BC) and the Wei dynasty (386 – 525 AD).

    But the Preface‘s characters are more similar to styles that came later in the Liang (555 – 587 AD) and Chen (557 – 589 AD) dynasties.

    The Preface‘s characters seem to have shed all trace of the clerical script still popular across during the Eastern Jin.

    In 1965, two tomb epitaphs were uncovered near Nanjing (the former Eastern Jin capital).

    One was dedicated to Wang Xizhi’s cousin, Wang Xingzhi, and his wife, and another to their son Wang Minzhi.

    They were written from around the same time the Preface was written. But their style – which was square and clumsy – was totally different to it…

    Guo Moruo (1892 – 1978) a famous historian and archeologist claimed that these tomb inscriptions prove Li Wentian’s theory is correct. Others disagreed.

    The debate over the issue has never been resolved.

    Famous copies of Preface in existence today

    There are no known existing versions of the Preface or any of Wang’s other work.

    However, hundreds of excellent copies exist. So, the beauty and force of his style has been preserved.

    Today, the two most well-known copies of the Preface to the Orchid Pavilion are the following…

    The Shenlong version of Preface to Orchid Pavilion

    Preface to the Orchid Pavilion by Wang Xizhi
    Preface to the Orchid Pavilion (535) by Wang Xizhi, ink on paper, Tang dynasty imitation in running script (by Feng Chengsu), 24.5 x 69.9cm. Palace Museum, Beijing. (Image source: Alamy)

    It is the Shenlong version (神龙本) of the Preface hangs in the Palace Museum in Beijing’s Forbidden City (the former residence of the Ming and Qing emperors).

    It’s name is due to the stamp on it by the Zhongzong Emperor of Tang (r. 705 – 710 AD), which bears the characters of Shenlong – the name of his 705 – 707 reign period.

    (Chinese emperors often divided up their reigns into shorter periods. The opening words of the Preface, like many other works, reference such a reign period).

    It was created by the Tang dynasty calligrapher Feng Chengsu (617 – 672 AD) using a skilful outlining copying technique for each individual character.

    The Dingwu version of Preface to Orchid Pavilion

    Detail from ink rubbing of Dingwu version of Preface to the Orchid Pavilion
    Detail from ink rubbing of Dingwu version of Preface to the Orchid Pavilion (535) by Wang Xizhi, rubbing. This copy was made by Zhao Mengfu (Yuan dynasty). National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    The Dingwu version (定武本) of the Preface was discovered during the Song dynasty (960 – 1127 AD) in Dingwu, Hebei Province. It is a rubbing of a Tang dynasty stele (stone relief) of Wang’s work.

    Chinese and English text version of Preface to the Orchid Pavilion

    永和九年,岁在癸丑,暮春之初,会于会稽山阴之兰亭,修禊事也。群贤毕至,少长咸集。此地有崇山峻岭,茂林修竹,又有清流激湍,映带左右。引以为流觞曲水,列坐其次。虽无丝竹管弦之盛,一觞一咏,亦足以畅叙幽情。

    In the 9th year of the Yonghe era [353 AD], in the year of Gui Chou, late spring, we have gathered at the Orchid Pavilion in Shanyin City, Kuaiji commandary, to hold ceremony of purification.

    A distinguished crowd has all gathered here, old and young included. Where this orchid is located, there is a tall mountain, flourishing woods, and tall bamboo.

    The radiance of a clear babbling stream surrounds the pavilion, we sit beside it as we float our cups in the stream [for a game].

    This isn’t a grand occasion with a band playing music, but we drink, write poems, and freely express our deep feelings.

    是日也,天朗气清,惠风和畅。仰观宇宙之大,俯察品类之盛,所以游目骋怀,足以极视听之娱,信可乐也。

    On this day, the weather is clear, the air is fresh, the breeze is warm.

    Looking up at the immensity of the cosmos, looking down at the multitude of the world, the gaze flies, the heart expands, the joy of the senses reaches its zenith, this is true happiness. 

    夫人之相与,俯仰一世。或取诸怀抱,悟言一室之内;或因寄所托,放浪形骸之外。虽趣舍万殊,静躁不同,当其欣于所遇,暂得于己, 快(怏)然自足,(曾 )不知老之将至。及其所之既倦,情随事迁,感慨系之矣。向之所欣,俯仰之间,已为陈迹,犹不能不以之兴怀。况修短随化,终期于尽。古人云:“死生亦大矣!”岂不痛哉!

    As we interacted, a lifetime seemed passed in a moment.

    Some, inside rooms, freely talk about their hearts’ aspirations; others pour their love into things and live wild lives.

    Despite different passions, and a range of quiet to restless ways, whenever the each come into contact with what they love, they are all contented.

    When one is happy and content, aging is unexpectedly forgotten. But when weary of something one loves, feelings ceaselessly change like any other matter, and sighs emerge.

    Everything one cherished in the past becomes a faint trace in an instant. Or rather, not only that, all feelings, like all life, eventually meets its fate in destruction.

    The ancients said, “Life and death are weighty matters.” How can we help but feel sorrow about this? 

    每览昔人兴感之由,若合一契,未尝不临文嗟悼,不能喻之于怀。固知一死生为虚诞,齐彭殇为妄作。后之视今,亦犹今之视昔,悲夫!故列叙时人,录其所述。虽世殊事异,所以兴怀,其致一也。后之览者,亦将有感于斯文。

    Whenever we see what moved people from the past, it’s like a harmonious contract. It’s hard not to read their words and sigh with sadness, and not understand.

    We originally understood that equating life and death, long and short lifespans, is false and absurd. People in the future will look on us as sadly we look people in the past.

    So, one by one, the people who attended this meeting left their short note. Even if the times have changes, the issues at hand are different, people’s feelings, thoughts and joys remain the same.

    Readers from the future will also sigh at reading the poems that came from this meeting.

    Traditional Chinese Characters for Preface to Orchid Pavilion

    Printed Chinese characters besides picture of Preface to Orchid Pavilion by Wang Xizhi
    Preface to the Orchid Pavilion with traditional Chinese characters