This page of Lanting Xu (Preface of the Orchid Pavilion)《蘭亭序》by Wang Xizhi (王羲之) consists of :
- Origins of the Preface,
- The occasion – Xiu xi (修禊),
- Appreciation of the calligraphy
- A Painting related to Lanting Xu
- Another famous copy of Lantang Xu called Dìng wǔ běn (定武本)
- Comparative studies of imitation copies of Lanting Xu
- Controversies over the authenticity of Lanting Xu
- A Visit to Zhishan Garden (至善園)
1. Origins of the Preface:
The Lanting Xu (Preface of the Orchid Pavilion)《蘭亭序》or Lanting ji Xu 《蘭亭集序》is a famous work of calligraphy by Wang Xizhi (王羲之) (301 CE to 363 CE), composed in the 353 CE. Written in elegant semi-cursive script and underpinned by deep philosophical thinking, it is among the best known and often copied pieces of calligraphy in Chinese history and also a famous piece of Chinese literature. It is revered as the best running calligraphy (天下第一行書). Wang Xizhi is respected as Shu Sheng (書聖), ‘Sage of Calligraphy’ or ‘Super Master of Calligraphy’.
Lanting Xu contains 28 vertical lines and 324 characters.
According to legend, the original copy was passed down to successive generations in the Wang family in secrecy until the monk Zhi Yong (智永), dying without an heir, left it to the care of a disciple monk, Bian Cai (辯才). Emperor Tai Zong of Tang Dynasty (唐太宗) (599 CE to 649 CE) heard about this masterpiece. He sent messengers on three occasions to retrieve the text, but each time Bian Cai responded that it had been lost. Finally Tai Zong dispatched Xiao Yi (蕭翼) who, disguised as a wandering scholar, gradually gained the confidence of Bian Cai and persuaded him to show him the Preface of the Orchid Pavilion. Thereupon, Xiao Yi seized the work, revealed his identity, and took it back to Tai Zong. Tai Zong loved this masterpiece very much and ordered the top calligraphers such as Yú Shì-nán (虞世南), Chǔ Suì-liáng (褚遂良), Féng Chéng-sù (馮承素), and Ouyáng Xún (歐陽詢) to trace, copy, and engrave into stone for posterity. Tai Zong treasured the work so much that he had the original interred in his tomb, Zhao lin (昭陵), after his death. The authentic Lanting Xu has not been seen since then.
2. The occasion – Xiu xi (修禊):
Xiū xì (修禊) was a purification ritual to ward off the evil spirit and bring good fortune. It took place on the third day of the Third Lunar Month. Wang Xizhi (王羲之) composed and wrote this masterpiece on this day of purification ritual in 353 CE (1662 years ago). This ritual is no longer celebrated widely in China today but the event is still commemorated in Shaoxing (紹興), the original place. Scholars still practise it in Lanting every year. Japanese scholars and elites also commemorate the event on that day, in particular in 60th year anniversaries when the lunar year coincides with the year 癸丑 1913, 1973, 2033. In 1973 there was a great exhibition in Japan of everything related to Lanting, and a good catalogue was published.
In 2015, this day falls on 21 April (Tuesday).
In the ninth year of the Yǒng-hé (353 CE), at the beginning of the third moon, on this late spring day we gathered at the Orchid Pavilion in the Guì-jī, Shanyin (present-day Shaoxing (紹興) of Zhejiang (浙江) province), for the purification ritual.
All the literati have finally arrived. Young and old ones have come together.
Overlooking us are lofty mountains and steep peaks. Around us are dense wood and slender bamboos, as well as limpid swift stream flowing around which reflected the sunlight as it flowed past either side of the pavilion. Taking advantage of this, we sit by the stream drinking from wine cups which float gently on the water.
Despite of the absence of the grandeur of musical accompaniment, drinking wine and chanting poems give us delight and allow us to exchange our deep feelings.
As for this day, the sky is bright, the air is fresh and the breeze is mild and bracing.
Looking up, we admire the beauty of the sky and wonder at the immensity of the universe. Looking around us, we see the myriad variety and wonder at their extraordinary diversity.
Stretching our sights and freeing our minds, we can stretch the pleasures of our senses (of sight and sound) to the limit. This is really delighting!
People gather together, in a blink, life passes by. Some find relief in freeing their thought and hopes and discuss their ambitions in (the quiet atmosphere of) a study or closet.
Some free themselves from the shackles of their body in their search for spiritual refuge.
Despite the interests and moods are widely different, tranquillity and recklessness are not the same, we all share one thing: whatever circumstances we meet, we can get some fleeting happiness, and there for just a moment, in self-satisfaction, making us hardly realize how fast we grow old.
When we become tired of our desires and the circumstances changes, disappointment and grief will come.
As for all that happiness, in a blink of time, it is already a past tantalizing memory. We cannot help but lament and act in accordance with our emotions.
Whether life is long or short is up to destiny, but in the end return to nothingness. The ancients said, ‘Birth and death are big events.’ How could it not be agonizing?
And look at the cause of sentiment of the ancients, it shows the same origin. We can hardly not mourn before their scripts although our feelings cannot be verbalized.
Of one thing I am quite sure: it is foolish to believe that life and death are one, or that long-life can be equated with early death.
The future generations will look upon us just like we look upon the past. How sad!
So we recorded the people here and their works (poems). Even though time and circumstance will change, the cause for their feelings and moods remain the same.
When people look back on us in the future, they will be moved by this prose.
(English translation done after TC Lai, Monica Lai, Liu Yi Ru and a contributor for Wikipedia.)
4. Appreciation of the calligraphy:
When Wang wrote the Preface, he was at high spirit after drinking wine with his good friends. There are traces of crossing out and additions. The first 3 lines of this masterpiece show clear regular script strokes. Then brush movement gradually becomes free flowing. The 8th – 11th line (see extract below) forms a beautiful rhythm. From the 12th lines onwards (see extract below) are the best, with the brush movement significantly turns faster in more casual style and takes natural and flowing style of writing, thereby leading to infinite reverie. The entire piece is free and unconstrained with full flavour, demonstrating Wang’s vigorous, robust and flowing running scripts.
It was said that Wang wanted to improve on the writing the next day and copied this work several times. However, he found the original writing was the best.
Wang’s calligraphy is always fresh and innovative. Each and every stroke of his writing has its own form and postures. Some words appear a number of times in Lanting Xu. The following pictures clearly demonstrate that each word is written differently.
Of the 324 words in Lanting Xu, the word zhi (之) appears 21 times.
The words yǐ 以, suǒ 所, yī 一, and bù 不 each appears 7 times.
The words yú 於, qí 其, and huái 懷 each appears 5 times.
The words yě 也, yì 亦, rén 人, and wèi 為 each appears 4 times.
The words zú 足, yang 仰, shì 視, gǎn 感, xìng 興, shì 事, and yǒu 有 each appears 3 times.
The words fū 夫, dà 大, huò 或, shū 殊, shì 世, liè 列, qíng 情, wén 文, hui 會, jīn 今, liú 流 and qīng 清 each appears 2 times.
Similarly, the words suī 雖, zhī 知, yǐ 矣, xīn 欣, néng 能, shān 山, yóu 由, fǔ 俯, hòu 後, zhì 至, and jiāng 將 and sǐ shēng 死生 each also appears 2 times.
5. A Painting related to Lanting Xu
The above is a painting of the gathering by an anonymous artist in the late Ming Dynasty. It shows guests seated along the banks of a small stream. Servants float wine-cups placed on leaves down the stream. When a cup stopped in front of a person, that person was expected to compose a poem, and if he failed, to drink several cups in forfeit.
6. Another famous copy of Lantang Xu called Dìng wǔ běn 定武本
It is believed that this is a copy version by Ouyáng Xún (歐陽詢). It was then engraved onto a piece of polished smooth stone for posterity. From the stone numerous rubbing copies were made. This is one of the rare and finest copies survived. The red seals are the seals of the collectors who once owned this fine copy. This copy is Wú Bǐng běn (version) (吳炳本) of Dìng wǔ běn and is kept in the Tokyo National Museum.
Besides Ding Wu Wú Bǐng běn (version) (吳炳本), there are other Ding Wu ben such as Wang Yan ben (王沇本). Please click the following link to view a comparative study of three different versions of Ding Wu ben.
7. Comparative studies of 4 imitation copies of Lanting Xu
The first column on the right is Yu Shinan’s copy (虞世南臨本) (蘭亭八柱第一本)
The second column is Chu Suiliang’s copy (褚遂良臨本) (蘭亭八柱第二本)
The third column is Feng Chengsu’s copy (馮承素臨本) (蘭亭八柱第三本)
The fourth column is the Dingwu stone inscription copy (定武石刻本).
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.
For the other 26 pages, please click the following link:
8. Controversies over the authenticity of Lanting Xu
There has been a great controversy about the authorship of Lanting Xu. Some scholars suggested that it was created two to three hundred years after Wang Xizhi passed away. Li Wen-tian (李文田), a scholar of the late Qing dynasty and many other people raised these queries. Some scholars even suggested that Zhi Yong (智永) might be the writer of Lanting Xu and he made up the whole story. The reasons for this speculation are :
First, the calligraphy of Wang Xizhi was fresh, elegant and innovative which is very different to the style of his contemporaries at that period. Two in-tomb epitaphs (墓誌銘) of the Eastern Jin were unearthed around 1964 and 1965. One of them was dedicated to Wang Xingzhi (a cousin of Wang Xizhi) and his wife (王興之夫婦墓志) and the other one was an epitaph to Xiè Sāi (謝鰓墓志). The characters of the epitaphs are square (方筆) in the style of Han clerical scripts (漢隸韻味). It was difficult to believe that Wang had abandoned the remnants of this clerical style and attained an elegant and fluidly (流暢) style. Guo Mo-ruo (郭沫若), a well-known modern historian and scholar, has claimed that the discovery of the two epitaphs confirm Li Wen-tian’s speculations.
The counter-argument is that Lanting Xu was written on paper in a relaxed manner and it should be different from the formal writings engraved onto stone to commemorate deceased persons.
Further, in 1909, wooden slips (木簡) and paper scraps (殘紙) of the calligraphy of the Wei (魏) and Jin (晉) Dynasties were unearthed in the lost city of Loulan (樓蘭) in the eastern edge of the Taklamakan Desert (塔克拉瑪幹沙漠) of Xinjiang (新彊). Among those are the letters of Lǐ Bǎi-wén (李柏文書) dated 307 CE, a few decades earlier than the time Lanting Xu was supposed to have been written. The calligraphy was running scripts in an elegant and fluidly (流暢) style. This indicates that running scripts can be common at the time of Jin.
Secondly, in Shi Shuo Xin Yu (世說新語), compiled and edited by Liu Yi-qing (劉義慶) (403 – 444) there is a passage called Lín Hé Xù (臨河序) and the text was identical to the first part of Lanting Xu with the exception of the last part in brown. The words in brown are not in Lanting Xu.
This passage was shorter and the extra text about philosophical thinking was not present. This led to scholars’ suspicion that Lanting Xu was not authentic because the this extra text could have been faked by people in later years.
Guo Mo-ruo further argued that the sentence 況脩短隨化，終期於盡 (whether life is long or short is up to destiny, but in the end return to nothingness) is a Buddhist way of thinking. Zhi Yong (智永) was a Buddhist monk. Lanting Xu might have been created by him.
The counter-argument is perhaps the shorter version recorded in Shi Shuo Xin Yu is an abridged version of the original Lanting Xu.
No matter who was the writer of Lanting Xu which survived today, it is still revered as the best running calligraphy (天下第一行書). Wang Xizhi is still the Shu Sheng (書聖).
9. A Visit to Zhishan Garden (至善園)
Zhishan Garden (至善園) at the National Palace Museum in Taipei is a recreation of traditional Chinese landscaping, bringing back the scenery that has inspired many of the ancient Chinese poets and scholars. Inside there is a replica of Lanting, Sōng Fēng Gé (松風閣), etc.
I would like to thank Mr KC Wong for his continued support and guidance.
I also like to thank Professor P Lam for his kind advice and guidance.
I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Professor CHAN Yiu Nam (陳耀南教授) for teaching me Chinese Literature. Both of us are now living in Sydney.
Further readings / viewing :
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w1rGoIYx6i4 (殷瑗小聚》中國美術史–蘭亭集序 (蔣勳) ( highly recommended)
http://www.chinaonlinemuseum.com/calligraphy-wang-xizhi-orchid.php (with images of 2 fine paintings depicting the gathering of Lanting by Wen Zhengming (文徵明) and Zeng Jing (曾鲸)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lantingji_Xu (excellent English translation)
http://baike.baidu.com/view/590076.htm (a Chinese webpage on ‘purification ritual’修禊)
胡俊明 (2002) 名家大手筆《蘭亭集》序 商務印書館(香港) 有限公司 ISBN 962 07 4399 7 (highly recommended)
Lai TC & Lai M (1979) Rhapsodic Essays from the Chinese Kelly & Walsh Ltd. Hong Kong
掃葉山房主人 (2014) 再談《蘭亭序》真偽 星島周刊 Sing Tao Weekly (Australian Edition) 第 737 期 13/12/2014
掃葉山房主人 (2014) 王羲之功在變古通今 星島周刊 Sing Tao Weekly (Australian Edition) 第 738 期 20/12/2014
掃葉山房主人 (2014) 說《神龍本》蘭亭 星島周刊 Sing Tao Weekly (Australian Edition) 第 739 期 27/12/2014
陳耀南 (1991) 古文今讀: 初編 (p87 to p99) The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Wang Xinyu (2012) Classics Appreciation of Chinese Visual Arts – Calligraphy, The Yellow River Publishing & Media Group Co. Ltd. ISBN 978-7-227-05114-5/J.348
Ouyang Z and Wen C.F. (2008) Chinese Calligraphy, Yale University Press, ISBN 978-0-300-12107-0