The greatest work of Chinese calligraphy written in the semi-cursive style is the “Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion”, also known as “Lanting Xu” or “Lantingji Xu”.
On the third day of the third Chinese calendar month in the year A.D. 353 during the Eastern Jin Dynasty, 41 literati gathered at the Orchid Pavilion (Lanting) on Mount Kuaiji (present-day Shaoxing in Zhejiang Province) for the Spring Purification Festival*. Among the literati were Wang Xizhi, Xie An, and Sun Chuo.
They drank and composed poems to be compiled into a book, and Wang wrote a preface on the spot. That is how the famous calligraphy work came about.
Written in 28 lines and consisting of 324 characters, the “Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion” describes the gathering of the literati.
Wang (A.D. 303–361) was born in Linyi, Shandong Province, but moved to Mount Kuaiji later in life. As his highest position was Right General, he was commonly known as Right General Wang (Wang Youjun).
He started learning calligraphy at the age of seven from a female calligrapher named Wei Shuo. When he was older, he also picked up different styles from calligraphers who had lived before his time, such as Zhong Yao, one of the Four Talented Calligraphers** in Chinese history; Sage of Cursive Script Zhang Zhi; Li Si; and Cai Yong, the father of famous Han Dynasty talented woman Cai Yan.
Wang picked up the strengths of other calligraphers and developed his own style by transforming the Clerical Script (Goose Tail), which was popular during the Han and Wei Dynasties, into a circular and flowing style, the semi-cursive style of the Regular Script. As such, he is revered as the Sage of Calligraphy.
His calligraphy was carefree and nonchalant, which was a manifestation of the mentality of the literati during that time. It is most appropriate to pay tribute to it by saying that Wang welcomed the breeze and the moon. In Chinese culture, a person who cherishes the breeze and the moon is one who does not bother about fame.
Wang wrote “Lanting Xu” in one go when he had been drinking. It is said that he rewrote “Lanting Xu” a few times after he sobered up, but none could compare to the original. He lamented: “This is divine work. Nothing to do with my accomplishment.”
Emperor Taizong of Tang liked “Lanting Xu”. He commented that Wang was a “man of bone”, meaning he was upright and high-principled, and that his script was the acme of calligraphy. Emperor Taizong wrote an article calling for everybody to learn Wang’s style of script. He even ordered officials to reproduce Wang’s works.
The original copy of “Lanting Xu” has been lost. According to historical records, there were seven officials who reproduced “Lanting Xu”. Among them, reproductions by royal calligrapher Ouyang Xun, royal librarian Yu Shinan, Chancellor Chu Suiliang, and royal copyist Feng Chengsu have been preserved to this day.
The most prominent facsimiles are the Shenlong (divine dragon) version and the Dingwu version.
The Shenlong version is done by Feng Chengsu. It is named Shenlong because half of a seal reading “shenlong” can be seen at the beginning of the reproduction. Shenlong was also the era name of Emperor Zhongzong of Tang during his second reign. It shows that the emperor also loved the calligraphy work. The Shenlong version is revered as the reproduction closest to the original and is regarded as a treasure.
The Dingwu version is by Ouyang Xun. It is named Dingwu because it was found in Dingwu, Hebei Province. Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322), a distinguished painter during the Yuan Dynasty, thought that this version was the best, as it manifested the style and spirit of “Lanting Xu”.
“Lanting Xu” is not just an essay with stellar quality, but also an exceptional piece of calligraphy. Of the 324 characters, the character “zhi” (it) is repeated 19 times, and the character “bu” (no) is repeated 7 times, but no two words look identical. Dong Qichang (1555–1636), a famous painter and calligrapher of the Ming Dynasty, commented that the literary style and structure of “Lanting Xu” were unparalleled, and it was complemented by the calligraphy.
The Regular Script, including the semi-cursive style, was at its zenith during the Tang Dynasty thanks to Emperor Taizong’s approval and support.
*Spring Purification Festival—During the festival, people would go for an outing by the water and have a picnic. It was also a day for invoking cleansing rituals to prevent disease and get rid of bad luck.
**Four Talented Calligraphers—Zhong Yao, Zhang Zhi, Wang Xizhi, and Wang Xianzhi (Wang Xizhi’s youngest son).