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Calligraphy Masterpiece Orchid Pavilion Preface by Wang Xizhi

The Lantingji Xu (simplified Chiense: 兰亭集序; traditional Chinese: 蘭亭集序; pinyin: Lántíngjí Xù; literally: 'Preface to the Poems Collected from the Orchid Pavilion') or Lanting Xu, is a piece of Chinese calligraphy work generally considered to be written by the well-known calligrapher Wang Xizhi (303 – 361) from the East Jin Dynasty (317 – 420).

The first part of Orchid Pavilion Preface

The Second part of Orchid Pavilion Preface

The third part of Orchid Pavilion Preface

In the ninth year of the Emperor Yonghe (353 CE), a Spring Purification Ceremony was held at Lanting, Kuaiji Prefecture (today’s Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province) where Wang was appointed as the governor at the time. During the event, forty-two literati gathered along the banks of a coursing stream and engaged in a drinking contest - cups of wine were drifting down from the upstream, and whenever a cup stopped in front of a guest, he had to compose a poem or otherwise drink the wine. At the end of the day, twenty-six literati composed thirty-seven poems in total and the Lantingji Xu, as a preface to the collection was produced by Wang on the spot. The original preface was long lost, but multiple copies with ink on papers or stone inscriptions remain until today.

The Lantingji Xu was written in the Running (or Semi-Cursive) Style on a cocoon paper with a weasel-whisker brush. It consists of three-hundred and twenty-four characters in twenty-eight columns. The script of the Lantingji Xu was often celebrated as the high point of the Running Style in the history of Chinese calligraphy. The improvisational work demonstrated Wang’s extraordinary calligraphy skill with the elegant and fluent strokes in a coherent spirit throughout the entire preface. The character Zhi (“之”) also appeared twenty times but was never repeated to be the same.

Not only the aesthetic form of the manuscript is highly appreciated but also the transcendent sentiments expressed in the preface about life and death is a timeless classic. The preface starts off with a delightful description of the pleasant surroundings and the joyful Ceremony, but carries on to reveal melancholy feelings towards how the transient delights brought by the vast universe would soon turn into retrospection. Wang reckoned the same emotion would be shared by the ancestors and his future generations even though the world and circumstances would be different. The scholars, who study Wang, refer to his ideology expressed in the preface as a fusion of the Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. 

The original Chinese version is as follows: 

永和九年,岁在癸丑,暮春之初,会于会稽山阴之兰亭,修稧(禊)事也。群贤毕至,少长咸集。此地有崇山峻领(岭),茂林修竹;又有清流激湍,映带左右,引以为流觞曲水,列坐其次。虽无丝竹管弦之盛,一觞一咏,亦足以畅叙幽情。

是日也,天朗气清,惠风和畅。仰观宇宙之大,俯察品类之盛。所以游目骋怀,足以极视听之娱,信可乐也。

夫人之相与,俯仰一世,或取诸怀抱,悟言一室之内;或因寄所托,放浪形骸之外。虽趣(取/趋)舍万殊,静躁不同,当其欣于所遇,暂得于己,怏然自足,不知老之将至;及其所之既倦,情随事迁,感慨系之矣。向之所欣,俯仰之间,已为陈迹,犹不能不以之兴怀;况修短随化,终期于尽。古人云:“死生亦大矣。”岂不痛哉!

每揽(览)昔人兴感之由,若合一契,未尝不临文嗟悼,不能喻之于怀。固知一死生为虚诞,齐彭殇为妄作。后之视今,亦由(犹)今之视昔,悲夫!故列叙时人,录其所述,虽世殊事异,所以兴怀,其致一也。后之揽(览)者,亦将有感于斯文。

The English translation: 

     On this late spring day, the ninth year of Yonghe (AD 353), we gathered at the Orchid Pavilion in Shaoxing to observe the Spring Purification Festival. All of the prominent people were there, from old to young. High mountains and luxuriant bamboo groves lie in the back; a limpid, swift stream gurgles around, which reflected the sunlight as it flowed past either side of the pavilion. We sat by the water, sharing wine from a floating goblet while chanting poems, which gave us delight in spite of the absence of musical accompaniment. This is a sunny day with a gentle valley breeze. Spreading before the eye is the beauty of nature, and hanging high is the immeasurable universe. This is perfect for an aspired mind. What a joy.

       Though born with different personalities—some give vent to their sentiment in a quiet chat while others repose their aspiration in Bohemianism—people find pleasure in what they pursue and never feel tired of it. Sometimes they pause to recall the days lapsed away. Realizing that what fascinated yesterday is a mere memory today, not to mention that everyone will return to nothingness, an unsuppressible sorrow would well up. Isn’t it sad to think of it?

       I am often moved by ancients’ sentimental lines which lamented the swiftness and uncertainty of life. When future generations look back to my time, it will probably be similar to how I now think of the past. What a shame! Therefore, when I list out the people that were here, and record their musings, even though times and circumstances will change, as for the things that we regret, they are the same. For the people who read this in future generations, perhaps you will likewise be moved by my words.


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