Shi qi tie (十七帖) (The Seventeenth) is made up of twenty nine letters or short notes written by Wang Xizhi (王羲之) to his friends, mainly to Zhou Fu (周撫), chief of Yizhou prefecture (益州刺史). It was believed that those letters were written over a period of 14 years from the 3rd Year of Yǒng Hé (永和) (347 CE) to the 5th Year of Shēng Píng 升平 (361 CE). The originals were lost long ago. The calligraphy had been inscribed onto stone but only a few ink rubbings survived today and they are highly precious.
Each piece of letter is identified by the first few words or the key words of the text. Shi Qi (十七) were the two characters that begin the first piece. The characters forms are somewhat reminiscent of zhangcao (章草), the older cursive script. Most of the words are not joined. However the brushstrokes are gentle, graceful but vibrant. This style of calligraphy has become the model of latter-day cursive scripts (今草).
I am particularly interested in the 5th piece of Shi qi tie – Jī Xuě Níng Hán Tiē (積雪凝寒帖). It was related to snowfall and sending the author’s best regards to his friend. Scholars believe that the recipient of this letter was Zhou Fu (周撫). It was generally believed that Wang wrote this letter in 351 CE when Wang was 49 years old. Some scholars suspected that this letter was written in 360 CE when Wang was 58 years old, one year before he died.
計與足下別廿六年， 於今雖時書問, 不解闊懷。
Jì yǔ zú xià bié niàn liù nián, yú jīn suī shí shū wèn, bù jiě kuò huái.
Counting back I have not seen you for 26 years. While we write to each other from time to time, I still miss you very much.
Shěng zú xià xiān hòu èr shū, dàn zēng tàn kǎi.
After reading your two recent letters, I feel even more sorrowful.
Qǐng jī xuě níng hán, wǔ shí nián zhōng suǒ wú.
Snow has thickly accumulated. (There had been heavy snowfall.) The weather is extremely cold. It has not been that cold for the last 50 years.
The character ‘頃’ may mean ‘a short period of time 短時間’ or ‘recently’. Some scholars think that ‘頃’ means the location of the author of the letter -Yuè (越中).
想頃如常, 冀來夏秋間, 或復得足下問耳。
Xiǎng qǐng rúcháng, jì lái xiàqiū jiān, huò fù dé zúxià wèn ěr.
I hope you are keeping well. I expect to hear from you sometime next Summer and Autumn.
The character ‘qǐng’ (頃) may mean the location of the recipient of the letter – Shǔ (蜀中), now Sichuan (四川).
Bǐ zhě yōu yōu, rú hé kě yán.
Time flows on steadily. I do not know what to say about my gloomy feelings.
The first three rows of Jī Xuě Níng Hán Tiē (積雪凝寒帖) in Shi qi tie (Ueno version)(上野本) Kyoto National Museum (京都国立博物館)
The last three rows of Jī Xuě Níng Hán Tiē (積雪凝寒帖) in Shi qi tie (Ueno version)(上野本) Kyoto National Museum (京都国立博物館)
Bibliography and further readings :
王羲之十七帖（宋拓本上海图书馆藏）高清 (highly recommended)
王玉池 (2001) 王羲之 二王書藝論稿 文化藝術出版社
蔣勳 (2010) 手帖 南朝嵗月, INK 印刻文學生活雜誌出版有限公司 ISBN 978-986-6377-94-5
祁小春 (2011) 王羲之 十七帖 彙考 上海書畫出版社 ISBN 978-7-5479-0309-0
曹大民 曹之瞻 (2011) 王羲之十七帖解析 上海古籍出版社
Ouyang Z and Wen C.F. (2008) Chinese Calligraphy, Yale University Press, ISBN 978-0-300-12107-0