According to the legend, Wang Xizhi’s Lanting Xu (王羲之蘭亭序)(written in 353 CE) was handed down by the Wang family from generation to generation. Wang Xizhi’s seventh-generation descendant Zhiyong (智永) was a monk and also a famous calligrapher and his Qian Zi Wen in cursive and regular scripts (真草千字文) has been widely studied by calligraphers throughout centuries. Later Lanting Xu was passed onto a monk named Biancai (辨才和尚). Emperor Taizong (唐太宗)(598-649 CE) was very fond of Wang Xizhi’s calligraphy. He was keen to get the authentic Lanting Xu, and sent an officer named Xiao Yi (蕭翼) to befriend Biancai. Xiao Yi was determined to get Lanting Xu for the Emperor by hook or by crook and he succeeded. Biancai was devastated with the loss of the masterpiece. Emperor Taizong treasured this masterpiece and repeatedly ordered top calligraphers like Yu Shinan (虞世南), Ouyang Xun (歐陽詢), Chu Suiliang (褚遂良) and the court imitator Fung Chengsu (馮承素) to copy and to make stone inscriptions. This enabled the making of fine ink rubbing copies so that the masterpiece could be handed down for ever. Taizong was so obsessed about Lanting Xu that he ordered on his death bed that Lanting Xu was to be buried with him. The authentic Lanting Xu has not been seen ever since.
Short biographies of the Calligraphers
Yu Shinan (虞世南)(558-638CE), courtesy name Boshi (伯施), born in present day Yuyao, Zhejiang province (浙江余姚) was a famous Chinese calligrapher and politician who lived in the early Tang Dynasty. He rose to prominence during the reign of Emperor Taizong (唐太宗). His most famous masterpiece is Kongzi Miaotang Bei (孔子廟堂碑 Stele Dedicated to Confucius Temple).
Chu Suiliang (褚遂良)(596-658 CE), courtesy name Denghan (登善) was a native of Hangzhou, Zhejiang province (浙江杭州). Also known as the Duke of Henan (河南郡公) or Chu Henan (褚河南), Chu was a famous Chinese calligrapher, historian and politician. He served as a chancellor during the reigns of the emperors Taizong (唐太宗) and Gaozong (唐高宗) in the Tang Dynasty. His most famous masterpiece is Yanta Shengjiao Xu (雁塔聖教序 Preface to the Sacred Teaching at Wild Goose Pagoda).
Feng Chengsu (馮承素)(617-672 CE), courtesy name Wan Shou (萬壽), born in present-day Jizhou (衡水市) was a highly skilled calligrapher and imitator in early Tang Dynasty. Emperor Taizong (唐太宗) ordered him to make copies of Lanting Xu (蘭亭序) and other Wang Xizhi’s works. His imitation of Lanting Xu is known as the most lively and elegant. This imitation copy is known as Shen-long version. It derived its name from the stamp of a small seal on the beginning of the copy bearing the two characters ‘Shen-long (神龍)’, the title of the 705-707 CE reign of Tang Emperor Zhongzong (唐中宗).
Dingwu version (定武本) is based on a Tang stone inscription of Lanting Xu discovered during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) at Dingwu in Hebei province (河北定武). Scholars suggested that the Dingwu version might be an imitation copy made by Ouyang Xun (歐陽詢)(557-641 CE) as the use of the brush is quite similar to his most famous masterpiece Jiu Chenggong Liquan Ming (九成宮醴泉銘 Inscription on Sweet-Water Spring at Jiucheng Palace).
Comparative study of the four imitation copies of Lanting Xu
The whole piece contains 28 (vertical) lines. The photocopies of the four copies were cut and put together onto 28 pages. Each page shows only one line of the piece.
The first column on the right is Yu Shinan’s ink copy (虞世南臨本) (蘭亭八柱第一本).
The second column is Chu Suiliang’s ink copy (褚遂良臨本) (蘭亭八柱第二本).
The third column is Feng Chengsu’s ink copy (馮承素臨本) (蘭亭八柱第三本).
The fourth column is the ink-rubbing of the Dingwu stone inscription (定武石刻本).
(The ink copies are now kept in The Palace Museum, Beijing 故宫博物院.)