Fatima WU

Calligraphy by Wang Xizhi, father and first teacher of master calligrapher Wang Xianzhi. Father and son were called the “two Wangs” of this revered Chinese art form.

Wang Xizhi ???, referred to as the “Saint of Calligraphy” in China, was the author of the famous Lantingjixu ???? or Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Gathering. A rare talent who was adept to almost all calligraphic styles, Wang was an inspiration to past and present calligraphers and connoisseurs.

Wang Xizhi (also known as “Wang Shaoyi”) was born during the politically chaotic Jin dynasty, (265–420 CE) part of the North and South dynasties period (220–589 CE). During this unsettled period members of the Wang family of calligraphers and literati moved from their native area in Shandong Province and relocated to Zhejiang Province in the south. Wang’s father, who came from a line of respected calligraphers, was a minor court official and the first calligraphy teacher of his son.

As Wang grew he proved to be a man of character. One anecdote tells of how he was chosen to be the son-in-law of Commander Shi. The latter announced that an interview would be conducted in the prime minister’s residence to select the right man for his daughter. Young men of letters flocked to the palace dressed in their best clothes. Wang, not anxious to please, arrived late in casual clothing. He managed to find a seat near a bed. Because of the heat, he untied his belt and bared his abdomen. Such behavior marked him as different from the rest, and he left an impression of spontaneity on those who were present. When Shi heard this report, he decided to give Wang his daughter’s hand.

Following the Confucian tradition, Wang received a military position at court as general of the right. However, his real interest lay in art, especially the calligraphy by which he was known. When young, he had practiced calligraphy with a female master named Madam Wei (272–349 CE). Later he perfected nearly all calligraphic styles, such as standard (kai), running (xing), and cursive (cao), and became known as the “the saint of calligraphy.” His most famous work was the “Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Gathering” (Lantingji Xu), done on the third day of the third month in 353 CE when he and about forty scholar friends met together in the Orchid Pavilion in Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province, to celebrate the Spring Festival. After most of his friends wrote poems for the occasion, Wang, intoxicated by alcohol, added a preface written in the running script. The calligraphy he did that day was outstanding, and the brushstrokes were often described as “longwo hutiao” or “Leaning Dragon and Leaping Tiger.” Wang tried to copy it afterward, but he could never achieve that ease and style again. This particular work was such a treasure to connoisseurs that the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) emperor, Li Shimin (Taizong, reigned 626–649 CE), who obtained the original after much difficulty, ordered it to be buried with him at death.

Other famous pieces by Wang include “Essay on Yue I,” dated 348 CE in standard script, and “Three Passages of Calligraphy: Pingan, Heru and Fengju” and “Short Note of a Sunny Day after a Pleasant Snow,” both in running script. Out of the thousands of Wang’s calligraphic pieces, only a small fraction survived, thanks to the traced copies, stone engravings, ink rubbings, and hand copies by later calligraphy masters. For more than a thousand years Wang’s calligraphy has been used as the example for all who practice this art. He and his son, Wang Xianzhi (344–388 CE), are called the “two Wangs” in Chinese calligraphy.

Wang, disillusioned by the political upheaval of his era, retired early at the age of forty-nine and switched to neo-Daoism to pursue a life of simplicity and peace. Three stories of his death are told. The first is that he died of an illness at age fifty-nine. Another claims that Wang was executed by the emperor when he refused to come to court. The last one, which most critics feel is valid, tells of Wang’s pursuit of immortality by way of alchemy and his subsequent death by poison.

Further Reading

Ecke, T. Y. (1971). Chinese calligraphy. Boston: David R. Godine Publishers.

Harrist, R. E., Jr., & Fong, Wen C. (1999). The embodied image: Chinese calligraphy from the John B. Elliot collection. Princeton, NJ: Art Museum, Princeton University.

Hsu, K.-Y. (Trans.). (n.d.). A reproduction of the Lan-T’ing calligraphy scroll by Wang Hsi-chih (321-379). Taipei, Taiwan: China Color Printing.

Ou Shaoyou. (Ed.). (1990). The biography of Wang Xizhi. Taipei, Taiwan: Kezu Publishers.

Zhao Lengyue. (Ed.). (1993). Ten calligraphers. Taipei, Taiwan: World Cultures Publishers.

Source: Wu, Fatima. (2009). WANG Xizhi. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2409–2410. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

WANG Xizhi (Wang Xizh? ???)|Wang Xizh? ??? (WANG Xizhi)

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