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Wang Xianzhi

    The sons of great men often suffer harsh critical judgement. This is especially true if they follow their parents’ career path.

    Wang Xianzhi (pronounced ‘wang see’en-jrrr’) was the seventh and last son of the great calligrapher and politician Wang Xizhi – who today is widely considered to be the greatest calligrapher in Chinese history.

    But for centuries after his death, the younger Wang was considered a greater calligrapher than his father. Then this status was reversed. 

    Why is this? And is it fair?

    Let’s look at Wang Xianzhi’s life, work, and legacy to find out.

    Mid-Autumn, imitation of Wang Xianzhi's Twelfth Lunar Month, attributed to Mi Fu (Song dynasty)
    Mid-Autumn, imitation of Wang Xianzhi’s Twelfth Lunar Month, attributed to Mi Fu (Song dynasty), ink on paper, in running cursive script, 27 x 11.9 cm. Palace Museum, Beijing. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Life and family background

    Wang Xianzhi (王献之 [Wáng Xiànzhī]) (344 – 386 AD), courtesy name Zijing (子敬), was born in Kuaiji (today’s Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province) during the Eastern Jin dynasty (317 – 420 AD).

    His father, Wang Xizhi (王羲之 [Wáng Xīzhī]) (303 – 361 AD)  is said to have taught his son calligraphy from the age of six onwards. His talent appears to have been clear from the start.

    The Wang family were a part of the small elites that had helped found and rule the dynasty they lived under, which covered most of today’s southern half of China. 

    By Wang Xianzhi’s lifetime, the Wang family weren’t as powerful as they had been at the beginning of the dynasty. However, they were still relatively important figures. 

    Wang Xianzhi himself reached the position of head of the secretariat (中书令). This was an important position that placed him in palace helping the emperor with policies.

    He died relatively young, at age 43. And his daughter, Wang Shen’ai (王神爱[Wáng Shén’ài]) (384 – 412 AD), became the Empress Anxi the several years later, when she married the Emperor An in 397 AD.

    Apocryphal anecdotes about the two Wangs

    Father and son are often referred to as the ‘Two Wangs’ (二王 [èr Wáng]). Besides direct comparisons between their styles, apocryphal anecdotes about their interactions have circulated through the centuries. 

    These anecdotes generally illustrate a moral point about the importance patience and humility. However, some, such as the first, reflect the early promise of Wang Xianzhi (and wise judgement of his father).

    1. Gripping the writing brush

    One of the fundamentals of calligraphy is how one holds the brush. Fingers should grasp it tightly whilst the wrist remains loose.

    The elder Wang would sometimes test Wang Xianzhi was abiding by this principle. He (the father) would stealthily walk up behind his son whilst the latter was practicing calligraphy and try and snatch the brush from him.

    The father was pleasantly surprised to find that he failed to snatch the brush from his son. He believed this was a good sign that Wang Xianzhi had great potential as a calligrapher.

    2. 18 jugs of water

    When Wang Xianzhi was twelve years old, he already felt self-assured about his future greatness as a calligrapher. 

    He told his mother that his level he no longer needed to practice at calligraphy as diligently as other youth. But he was curious how much more practice it would take exactly to reach his father’s level. He asked his mother about this.

    His mother simply told him that there was no way to measure exactly how much practice was needed. All that was certain, she said, was that it was a very large amount. Wang Xianzhi continued to question her on what this amount was.

    Wang Xizhi overheard this conversation between his son and wife. He stepped in and led his son into the garden. 

    Pointing at 18 large earthen jars full of water, he told his son: you will need to practice enough to use up all the water in these jars from mixing ink (only a tiny amount of water is needed to produce ink the traditional way).

    3. Drunken writing on the wall

    A few years after the jug episode above, Wang Xianzhi had practiced enough to have emptied three of the eighteen jugs. He was becoming highly confident in his calligraphic ability. 

    One day around this time, his father was due to travel to the capital of the Eastern Jin dynasty – Jiankang (today’s Nanjing). Before he left, he got tipsy on wine and wrote on a wall of the Wang household.

    Whilst his father was away, Wang Xianzhi decided to wash away his fathers’ inscription on the wall and replace it with his own calligraphy. 

    He thought this would impress his father, but when his father returned and saw it, he exclaimed words to the effect: ‘Damn, I must have been drunk when I wrote this terrible calligraphy.‘ Wang Xianzhi head this and felt extremely disappointed.

    4. Giving father advice

    This anecdote comes from the tang dynasty calligraphic theorist Zhang Huaiguan (exact dates of birth and death unknown) in his book, Calligraphy Judgement (书断).

    In about 359 or 360 AD, Wang Xianzhi was about fifteen or sixteen years old and his father was about 56 or 57 years old.

    Around this time, the younger Wang said to his father:

    The ancient draft cursive script fails to attain a great level of freedom. In our modern writing, we must distinguish truth from man-made rules, simplify brush strokes, and aim for the best possible flow in cursive script. You should change your writing style.

    His father did not say anything, only smiled – and as he only lived a couple more years, he didn’t get around to following his son’s advice. 

    However, Wang Xianzhi himself did get the chance to implement his idea in the coming years.

    Wang Xianzhi’s calligraphy

    Chunhua Original Model Books by Wang Xianzhi
    Detail from Chunhua Original Model Books by Wang Xianzhi, cursive script, Song dynasty ink rubbing. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    Fewer than 100 of Wang Xianzhi’s calligraphic pieces survive. Seventy-six of them are from the Song dynasty calligraphic collection. 

    As with all of his father’s works, most of what we have by Wang Xianzhi’s are copies (and copies of copies) made in various ways over the centuries. It is difficult for paper to remain preserved for so many centuries.

    Wang Xianzhi was a highly innovative calligrapher. He experimented and made breakthroughs with different styles of script during his lifetime.

    One example of this was his cursive script, a style which essentially looks like a modern doctor’s handwriting. Until Wang’s lifetime, Zhang Zhi (? – 192 AD) was known as the inventor and ‘sage’ of cursive script. Wang’s father had developed the style, too.

    The Twelfth Lunar Month (Eastern Jin) by Wang Xianzhi
    The Twelfth Lunar Month (Eastern Jin) by Wang Xianzhi, tracing of ink imprint, running-cursive script. Location unknown. (Image source: Alamy)

    However, it wasn’t until Wang began to boldly experiment with it that it really had a developmental breakthrough as a script and artform.

    The famous Song dynasty artist and calligrapher Mi Fu (1051 – 1107 AD), an admirer of Wang Xianzhi’s work, wrote:

    [Wang Xianzhi’s] brush seems to move in a careless way without a beginning or end, like a poker stirring about in the ashes. It is the first one-stroke calligraphy.

    – Mi Fu

    He is also famous for his standard script (and small-standard script variation) and running script (this is a semi-cursive script that often looks like a more flamboyant version of standard script).

    Describing the excellence and variety of Wang Xianzhi’s calligraphy is difficult. However, the following words are very apt:

    • Powerful
    • Elegant
    • Vigorous
    • Distinguished

    Wang Xianzhi’s legacy

    For a couple of centuries after his death, Wang Xianzhi was generally considered a superior calligrapher to his father. However, this status seems to have reversed by the sixth century. 

    The Tang dynasty emperor Taizong (598 – 649 AD) famously promoted calligraphy and used it as tool of political influence. He was critical of Wang Xianzhi’s work – he said it was ‘too lean and lacked luxuriance’.  

    This in turn discouraged many calligraphers – in what was essentially China’s golden age of calligraphy – from advocating for or imitating Wang Xianzhi’s style too strongly.

    However, this doesn’t mean he was not praised by others. Sun Guoting (b. c.646 – c. 691 AD) was the author of the magnificent Treatise on Calligraphy (678). Today this work is famous, but during his lifetime Sun was a relatively unknown figure.

    He lists Wang Xianzhi as one of:

    彼之四贤,古今特绝;而今不逮古,古质而今妍
    the four unsurpassed masters [of calligraphy], unsurpassed in ancient or modern times

    – Sun Guoting, Treatise on Calligraphy

    (The other three are Zhong You, Zhang Zhi and Wang Xizhi. Today they are often referred to as the ‘Four Worthies of Calligraphy’ [书中四贤]).

    However, he does mention 

    安尝问子敬:“卿书何如右军?”答云:“故当胜。”安云:“物论殊不尔。”子敬又答:“时人那得知!”…. 况乃假托神仙,耻崇家范,以斯成学,熟愈面墙!后羲之往都,临行题壁。
    Xie An once asked Wang Xianzhi: ‘How would you compare your calligraphy against your father’s?’ 
    Wang replied: ‘Mine is certainly better.’ 
    Xie An then said: ‘But the critics don’t see it this way.’
    Wang Xianzhi answered: ‘Nowadays, how much do people understand anyway?’….
    Wang Xianzhi was ashamed to admit that he gained his knowledge through family tradition, so he falsely claimed to have received it from immortals. Isn’t such a concept on worse than turning to face the wall?
    [a reference to the Book of History: ‘he who does not study is like a man who faces the wall’]

    – Sun Guoting, Treatise on Calligraphy

    Song dynasty (960 – 1127 AD) calligrapher Mi Fu was a big fan of Wang Xianzhi and modelled his own style on him:

    子敬天真超逸,岂父可比也
    Zijing
    [Wang Xianzhi’s courtesy name] was free and unrestrained – even more so than his father.

    – Mi Fu

    And Song dynasty calligraphy theorist Jiang Kui (c. 1155 – c. 1221) had high praise for his style and approach to calligraphy:

    或云:欲其萧散,则自不尘俗,此又有王子敬之风,岂足以尽书法之美哉!
    Some say that writing should be relaxed in order to naturally not be vulgar. This is Wang Xianzhi’s style. This principle enables an inexhaustible beauty in calligraphy!

    Sequel to the ‘Treatise on Calligraphy’ (1208)

    And Wang has long been praised for his small-standard script. Qing dynasty critic Yang Bin (1650—1720) wrote of it:

    In elegance, smoothness, and vigour, no work in small-standard script model books [books for practicing calligraphy] can surpass [Wang Xianzhi’s version]

    – Yang Bin

    There are three important points to mention when discussing Wang: 

    • At his time – over 1,637 years ago – it was all also ground-breaking
    • Since then, almost no other calligrapher has surpassed him…
    • He died at age 43, so had around 15 years less time to develop than his father had

    Conclusion

    Wang Xianzhi’s brief life and career were shaped by his family’s prestigious and cultured background and his own brilliant talent and creativity. 

    His breakthroughs in cursive script, standard script, and running script would have ensured his legacy even without his family name.

    Wang was considered superior to his father during the centuries immediately after his lifetime. But this perception eventually shifted, particularly during the Tang dynasty when Emperor Taizong criticized his work. 

    Despite this, his influence has endured, with later calligraphers like Mi Fu and Jiang Kui praising his style and approach. And after all, being seen as second best to the greatest of all time is not a bad legacy…