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).
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:
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.