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Wang Xizhi – China’s Greatest Calligrapher

    Many consider calligraphy to be China’s supreme art.

    And its recognised master is Wang Xizhi (pronounced ‘wang she-jrrr’).

    He is to Chinese calligraphy what Shakespeare is to poetry and Da Vinci is to painting.

    Let’s take a closer look at his life and work.

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

    Family background and early life

    Wang Xizhi (王羲之 [Wáng Xīzhī]) (303 – 361 AD), courtesy name Yishao (逸少 [Yì Shǎo]), was born in Langya (today’s Linyi, Shandong Province) during the Western Jin dynasty (266 AD – 316 AD).

    He came from an elite family of officials and army generals connected (by marriage) to the royal family. His paternal grandfather, Wang Zheng, had served in the role of Xiangshu lang – a type of high imperial official. 

    And his politican father, Wang Kuang, had suggested the location for the Eastern Jin’s (317 – 420 AD) capital (Jiankang – modern day Nanjing) once the Western Jin state had collapsed.

    Wang Kuang also had a reputation as an excellent calligrapher, particularly of the clerical and running scripts.

    But perhaps the most well-known family members were Wang Xizhi’s paternal uncles Wang Dao and Wang Dun. These powerful politicians controlled a lot of political and military administration throughout three Eastern Jin emperors’ reigns.

    Wang Xizhi is said to have been a quiet and unassuming child who displayed no outward signs of his later strengths. Some sources even claim that he was an inarticulate child.

    4 Anecdotes about Wang Xizhi’s youth

    There are many apocryphal stories and anecdotes about historical figures in Chinese history. 

    They aren’t always meant be taken too literally, though some likely do have at least elements of truth in them. Readers often remember them for the moral lesson (or idiom) they deliver.

    1. Beginning calligraphy

    It’s said that by the time he was a seven-year-old, Wang Xizhi he could already write well. However, he hadn’t yet formally begun training in calligraphy. 

    When he was twelve, he began sneaking into his father’s empty bedroom. His father discovered this and questioned him on it. 

    He soon found out that his son had discovered an article on calligraphy there. He told the young Wang Xizhi that he could have the article and study calligraphy properly one day, but at the moment he was too young to fully grasp it.

    Wang then pleaded with his father to start sooner, saying he was worried he would stifle his talent otherwise. His father accepted, and the boy began studying.

    Interestingly, despite this alleged young passion for calligraphy, Wang did not develop into a great calligrapher until relatively late in his life.

    2. Eating a calf’s heart

    One story has it that when Wang XIzhi was thirteen, he met the famous scholar Zhou Jin at a large banquet. 

    When he was offered a prestigious delicacy – a roasted calf’s heart. He ate it calmly as the guests watched on in silence. His composure impressed everyone in attendance.

    The fact that he was offered the delicacy is significant. Zhou must have sensed something special about the young man. And Wang’s smooth handling of the task suggests the composure and focus he would utilise for calligraphy.

    3. A good son-in-law

    As he grew older, Wang Xizhi was said to become an upright, eloquent and cool-headed young man.

    One story has is that an imperial minister, Xi Jian, came to visit Wang’s uncle, Wang Dao, in order to select a son-in-law from his younger relatives. 

    After the young Wang boys had been gathered and told of what was happening, nearly all of them suddenly looked solemn and focused.

    However, Wang Xizhi simply stayed where he was on an eastern-facing couch, bare-chested and eating snacks. The minister, impressed with this sign of composure, independence, and authenticity, so he chose Wang Xizhi to be his son-in-law.

    Today, the Chinese has an idiom that word-for-word translates as ‘Eastern bed quick son-in-law’ (东床快婿 [dōngchuāng kuài xù]; often shortened to just 东床[dōngchuāng]), which essential means ‘good son-in-law’.

    4. The stained desk

    One story has it that Emperor Cheng of the Jin (r. 321 – 342 AD) was needed to write some characters on wooden boards at a temple. 

    Wang Xizhi had previously written on the same boards, so a carpenter was asked to sand them down. 

    The carpenter eventually had to use a knife to remove the ink. Wang had written his characters with such energy and power that the ink had deeply stained the wood.

    Detail of The Seventeenth by Wang Xizhi
    Detail of The Seventeenth (fourth century) by Wang Xizhi. This is a traced copy of the work. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Taught by the best: Wei Shuo

    Wang Xizhi was fortunate to be taught by the great calligrapher Wei Shuo (272 AD – 349 AD) and his uncle Wang Yi. Some historians believe Wei may have actually been his aunt. 

    It’s said that he developed quickly and within months of instruction. One story has it that he received a compliment from the Minister of Ceremonies, Wang Ce, who said the boy would one day surpass him in calligraphic ability.

    Wang’s later career and life

    wang xizhi admiring geese by ren yi
    Wang Xizhi Admiring Geese (1878) by Ren Yi, hanging scroll, ink and colour on paper, 133.4 × 65.9 cm. Shanghai Museum. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Like so many others in his family, Wang enjoyed a successful and high-ranking career.

    Despite his military titles (below), Wang was a non-military official. However, this didn’t stop him from making decisions on military matters.

    One example was his call to defend the Yangzte region rather than go on expeditions in the North.

    His positions included:

    • Assistant to the Palace Library.
    • Guardian General of the Army
    • Interior Minister of Kuaiji (today’s Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province)
    • General of the Right Army his highest position

    Retirement and death

    He appears to have become disenchanted with his career at about the age of 55. His family’s wealth and political power was also declining.

    It was around this time he swore by his parents’ grave that he would resign and wrote his short Statement of Pledge:

    常依陆贾、班嗣、杨王孙之处世,甚欲希风数子,老夫志愿尽与此也。
    I have often acted in accordance to the teachings of Lu Jia, Ban Si, and Yang Wangsun. I have always wanted to model myself on them. This is my life’s aspiration.

    – Wang Xizhi, Statement of Pledge

    (Lu Jia (240 – 170 BC) was a philosopher and politician who introduced Confucianism to the Han dynasty’s founding emperor. Ban Si (dates unknown) was a Han dynasty philosopher who abandoned Confucianism asked discovering Daoism. And Yang Wangsun (dates unknown) was an atheist philosopher famous for wanting to be buried naked after his death).

    Wang spent the rest of his life living in rural areas near Shaoxing, where he enjoyed hunting, fishing, gathering herbs and travelling around the region.

    He is said to have been a devout Daoist and keen taker of unusual medicines. One of these was a mineral extraction that he believed would make his face glow and lengthen his lifespan.

    In fact, some believe it may have actually contributed to his death aged 58.

    The Two Wangs

    Wang Xizhi’s seventh son, Wang Xianzhi (344 – 386 AD), was one of the greatest calligraphers in Chinese history. Together, they are often collectively referred to as The ‘Two Wangs’ (二王 [èr Wáng]).

    In fact, for a couple of centuries after their lifetimes, the younger Wang was considered the better of the two.

    However, by the time of the Tang dynasty (618 – 906 AD), the most prestigious era of calligraphy, Wang Xizhi’s reputation reached new heights. This was helped a lot by Wang Xizhi’s most famous fan: the Tang emperor Taizong (r. 646 – 649 AD).

    Taizong also explicitly did not like Wang Xianzhi’s work, which he said was ‘‘too lean and lacked luxuriance’.

    Calligraphy during Wang’s era

    Calligraphy was both a necessity and hobby for the elite. In their daily lives many of them, especially officials, would regularly need to write. 

    And in their free time, many of them liked to explore the artistic side of writing by composing poems and other memorials. There was even a competitive aspect to this, as brilliant calligraphy could add prestige to someone’s reputation.

    Like most practitioners of his day, Wang was greatly influenced by the calligraphy of Wei dynasty calligrapher Zhong You (151 – 230 AD) and the master of the earliest version of cursive script, Zhang Zhi (? – 192 AD).

    Wang’s calligraphic style and philosophy

    In the Tang dynasty masterpiece on calligraphyTreatise on Calligraphy (637) Sun Guoting introduces Wang’s calligraphy as follows:

    Wang Xizhi’s calligraphy has been extensively praised and studied by every generation. It can serve as a model to help students find their own way, for it not only integrates the best of the past and present but also shows deep feeling and harmony… His works alone have stood the test of time. Does this not show their power?

    – Sun Guoting, Treatise on Calligraphy

    Wang’s style is known for being both very elegant and strong at the same time. It’s clear, natural, and he was was excellent at writing in all calligraphy styles. 

    He was particularly excellent in regular script, which is the most popular form of official Chinese characters today. But his running script (sometimes called ‘semi-cursive’) is also highly esteemed, as his clerical (or ‘official’) style.

    He didn’t like characters without character, so to speak. There are many examples in his work (or the copies and rubbings we have left of them), where multiple variations of the same character can be found in the same work.

    This is easiest to see with common characters like  (yǐ) (zhī),  (rén)etc.

    Calligraphy is like war…

    Wang is alleged to have written comments to his teacher Wei Shuo’s calligraphy work, Battle Formation of the Brush (笔阵 [Bǐzhèn]).

    In his – if they are indeed authentic – comments, he revealed a lot about his philosophy and style of calligraphy. Many of his points were repeated in writings he left to his son, Wang Xianzhi.

    He said that calligraphy was like being a general for a battle: 

    • Brushes are like a spears
    • Ink is like armour
    • Inkstone and water are like city walls and moats
    • Calligraphers’ hearts are like generals
    • Characters’ structure, shape and positions are like strategic details
    • Brushstrokes are like orders
    • Mistakes are like massacres

    Etc.

    These comparisons give an idea of how deeply and seriously he took his art.

    Do any original copies of Wang Xizhi’s work survive today?

    A few hundred works by Wang – both verified and unverified – exist today. Each are copies of originals which have been passed down.

    The Tang dynasty Taizong Emporer (r. 626 – 649 AD), an enthusiastic promoter of calligraphy in general and of Wang in particular, ordered many copies of Wang’s work made.

    It’s rumoured that the original version of the Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Collection (below) is buried with Taizong. And others have also speculated that the Empress Wu Zetian (r. 690 – 705 AD) somehow obtained it during her lifetime.

    Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Collection

    Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Collection (兰亭集序 [Lántíng jí xù]) (sometimes translated as Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Gathering) is Wang Xizhi’s most famous piece of calligraphy.

    The original version’s whereabouts (or existence) is unknown. The most popular version we have today is a Tang dynasty copy than hangs in the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City, Beijing.

    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 (allegedly by Feng Chengsu), 24.5 x 69.9cm. Palace Museum, Beijing. (Image source: Alamy)

    The piece is an essay describing a gathering of scholars at the Orchard Pavilion in the year 353 AD during a festival.

    It was a joyful occasion that involved 41 scholars meeting and drinking. Wang’s piece commemorates the moment in 28 vertical lines and 324 characters of text.

    The calligraphy and poetic nature of this piece has been praised for centuries. One of its most famous lines reads:

    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。

    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.

    – from Preface to the Orchid Pavilion by Wang Xizhi

    Chinese artists throughout the years have given their depictions of the scene this text was set from.

    A Wen Zhengming's painting of the orchard pavilion
    Detail from Waiting for the Floating Cup by a Winding Stream at the Orchid Pavilion (1542) by Wen Zhengming, handscroll, ink and color on golden-flecked paper, 24.2 × 60.1cm. Palace Museum, Beijing. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Conclusion

    • Wang Xizhi (王羲之 [Wáng Xīzhī]) was born in 303 AD in Langya near the end of the Western Jin dynasty
    • He came from an elite family of politicians and army generals
    • Wang Xizhi is known for his elegant and strong calligraphy style and he excelled at all major scripts of Calligraphy
    • Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Collection (兰亭集序 [Lántíng jí xù]) is his most well-known calligraphy piece
    • He is often referred to collectively with his son Wang Xianzhi as the ‘Two Wangs’. Wang Xianzhi is also one of the most famous calligraphers in Chinese history.