To be exact, 1668 years on April 14, 2021, which is the third day of the third month in Chinese lunar calendar. It was the same day in 353CE that the poet and the great calligrapher Wang Xizhi (王羲之) composed and wrote a poem in the semi-cursive script, Preface to the Poems Collected from the Orchid Pavilion,《蘭亭集序》. It is perhaps the most well known masterpiece of calligraphy in Chinese history, and it is this masterpiece that appears on the covers of all Chinese Reading and Writing books.
The third day of the third month was a special occasion. 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 wrote the Preface on the spot.
The Preface tells the occasion of the gathering and describes the beauty of the surroundings. Gradually, it touches on lives and deaths, and emotions which are shared by all of us.
Wang Xizhi is revered as the sage of calligraphy. The really interesting thing about this masterpiece is that he wrote it after heavy drinking. Perhaps he meant it to be a draft. That is why a few places were being modified or crossed out. Story tells 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. I think that alone changes the perception of viewing calligraphy art. Which will we value more, that each and every character is written well or that the whole piece is coherently written well despite a few modifications?
Perhaps the same question can be applied to learning Chinese. Which is better, that pronouncing the tones correctly for each character or speaking coherently well despite a few tonal errors? Or, that recognising each Chinese character/word or that understanding an entire story despite a few uncertain places?
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.
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.
Well, scholars will probably continue to argue about it, while the calligraphy lovers will continue to copy and study the art, and the Chinese Reading and Writing series will continue to have it on the front covers.
To appreciate it as a masterpiece of the calligraphy art, this is 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. The entire piece is free and unconstrained with full flavour, demonstrating Wang’s vigorous, robust and flowing running scripts.”
I don’t practice calligraphy, and I will never be able to come up with some wonderful comment like that. I just think it looks very nice.
Perhaps we don’t have to practice calligraphy to appreciate Wang Xizhi’s masterpiece. Besides, in many ways, learning how to write Chinese, stroke by stroke, looking at characters emerge one by one, and comprehending the meanings conveyed by a few hundreds of characters being put together are also a form of art. I am happy to be part of this process. 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.
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