2000 years of history imbedded in the Chinese Reading and Writing series
April 22, 2023, is the third day of the third month in Chinese lunar calendar. 1670 years ago, on the same day, i.e. the third day of the third month in 353CE, a great calligrapher, and also a great poet, composed and wrote a poem in the semi-cursive script.
This writing eventually became the most well known masterpiece of brush calligraphy in Chinese history. And it is this masterpiece that appears on the covers of all Chinese Reading and Writing series.
This calligrapher was Wang Xizhi (王羲之 303 - 361CE), who was revered as the sage of calligraphy. The poem he wrote was the Preface to the Poems Collected from the Orchid Pavilion,《蘭亭集序》. Let’s use this occasion to learn a little about this masterpiece.
Firstly, the background.
In Chinese tradition, the third day of the third month was a special occasion. People participated in various special events on that day to ward off evil spirits and to welcome the arrival of the summer.
On that special day in 353CE, Wang Xizhi and his friends had a purification ritual. They drank heavily, wrote poems and had fun. At the end of the day, thirty-seven poems were written, and Wang Xizhi, after drinking so much, wrote the Preface on the spot.
Then the really interesting thing started.
Story told us that, on the next day, after Wang Xizhi got sober, he rewrote his work several times, trying to improve it, but he found the original one was still the best. After his death, this work of art was sought after by many.
According to legend, the original artwork was, after many turns, eventually obtained by the Emperor Tai Zong (599CE to 649CE) of Tang Dynasty, who loved it so much and ordered top calligraphers to trace and engrave it into the stone. When the Emperor Tai Zong died, he had this masterpiece buried with him. Nobody has seen it ever since.
Today, this Wang Xizhi’s masterpiece often seen in books and magazines is from the stone rubbings.
Given this background, it is not surprising that many scholars suggested that this masterpiece was written by someone else after the death of Wang Xizhi. The whole story was made up.
Secondly, the poem.
In the poem, Wang Xizhi told us the occasion of the gathering and described the beauty of the surroundings. Gradually, he touched on lives and deaths, and emotions which were shared by all. At the end, he wrote, “Even though time and circumstance will change, the cause for their feelings and moods remain the same”.
A translation of the poem can be read here.
Thirdly, the art of calligraphy.
While Wang Xizhi was writing the poem, he had been drinking all day. It was possible that he meant it to be a draft. That explained why a few places were being modified or crossed out.
Despite these modifications, the artwork as a whole displayed a flow of unconstrained vigour and mastery.
Here’s what the expert says:
“The first 3 lines of this masterpiece show clear regular script strokes. Then brush movement gradually becomes free flowing. The 8th – 11th line forms a beautiful rhythm. From the 12th lines onwards 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.”
Finally, implications for learning Chinese.
Up to today, Wang Xizhi’s masterpiece of the Preface to the Poems Collected from the Orchid Pavilion has been revered for nearly 2000 years, despite its being modified and crossed out in serval places.
This gets us thinking about the art of calligraphy: what do we value more, that each and every character is written well or that the whole piece is coherently written well despite a few less satisfying places?
It seems to me that the answer is the latter. The quality of the entire work as a whole outweighs each individual character.
We can extend this logic to learning Chinese.
Which way is better, that pronouncing the tones correctly for each character or speaking coherently well despite a few tonal errors?
What is the preferred outcome, that recognising each Chinese character or that understanding an entire story despite a few uncertain places?
I believe that answers ought to be the latter as well.
This is an important lesson we learn from Wang Xizhi, who recognised that the overall big picture was more important. We don’t have to practice calligraphy to appreciate Wang Xizhi’s masterpiece or his thinking.
Let’s ignore all the scholars who will continue to argue about who wrote what, as calligraphy lovers will continue to copy and study Wang Xizhi’s art, and the Chinese Reading and Writing series will continue to have his masterpiece on the front covers.
Besides, in many ways, learning how to write Chinese, stroke by stroke, looking at characters emerge one by one, and comprehending the meanings are also a form of art.
For non-Chinese speaking students who enjoy learning reading and writing Chinese, the pleasure they have experienced is probably no less than appreciating the greatest masterpiece done by Wang Xizhi.