The Lantingji Xu (simplified Chinese: 兰亭集序; traditional Chinese: 蘭亭集序; pinyin: Lántíngjí Xù; lit.: '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 of the Lantingji Xu was told to be completed by Wang in the state of insobriety. Wang tried to rewrite the preface but failed to create the same sublime beauty as the first time. When it came to the reign of the second Emperor from the Tang dynasty (618 – 907), Emperor Taizong (598? – 649) was an admirer of Wang’s calligraphy and he had collected approximately two-thousand pieces of Wang’s works. His tracking of the original Lantingji Xu became a widely circulated anecdote – the Emperor’s senior court official Xiao Yi was tasked to acquire the original from Bian Cai, a monk who inherited Wang’s Lantingji Xu from the friar Zhi Yong, the seventh grandson of Wang. Xiao managed to gain the trust from the monk and successfully spirited away the original work (Figure 1). The overjoyed Emperor shortly requested several court officials and calligraphers to copy the Lantingji Xu and upon Taizong’s death, the original was said to have been buried together in his mausoleum in Shaanxi Province.
Today, among the existing copies of the preface, a few outstanding imitations were attributed to Feng Chengsu (617 – 672), Ouyang Xun (557 – 641), Yu Shinan (558 – 638) and Chu Suiliang (596 – 659) from the Tang dynasty. Feng’s version, also called the Shenlong version (Figure 2), was regarded as the closest resemblance to the original. Feng, as the royal copyist, mastered the calligraphy tracing technique which was named Xiang Tuo. The method requires the copyist to stay in a dark room and stick the artwork against a window where the sunlight can shine through the paper to expose every detail of the characters; Another empty paper is then attached to the original piece to trace the outline of each stroke meticulously before filling in with ink. The Shenlong version is currently preserved at the Palace Museum in Beijing.
Given there is not a single piece of original work of Wang survived in our time, the authenticity of the Lantingji Xu has been a subject of controversy particularly from the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1912) onwards. In the 1960s, the debate was intensified along with discoveries of more calligraphy rubbings and antique documentations.
The voice of forgery, with a key representative Guo Moruo (1892 – 1978), the first President of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, claims the Running Style only matured after the Tang dynasty as the artworks and records around the Han to Jin Dynasty imply a heavy dependence of using the Clerical script (evolved around 300 BCE) instead of the Running style, such examples include the stone inscriptions demonstrated in Figure 3 and 4. Moreover, the earliest anecdotes collection in China Shishuo Xinyu (“A New Account of Tales of the World”), annotated by writer Liu Xiaobiao (463 – 521), asserted that the preface written by Wang was actually named Linhe Xu (“The Preface to the Riverside Gathering”). The content of the Linhe Xu recorded in the Shishuo Xinyu, comparing with the Lantingji Xu manuscript, was shortened by a hundred and sixty-seven characters in the middle paragraph but added on forty more characters at the end. Guo also stated that the emotions manifested in the preface was overly pessimistic for an aristocrat so that it was not a true reflection of Wang’s temperament. As a result, by the early 1970s, the conclusion was almost reached that the Lantingji Xu scroll was a work forged by Wang’s descendant.
The discussions revived from the 1980s, supporters of Wang’s Langtingji Xu countered the above arguments with rubbing examples such as Figure 5 and 6, suggesting the formation of the Running Style was already completed before Wang’s time. In addition, since the preface was named by the later ages of Wang, it is not surprising that more than one name may exist pointing to the same work. In fact, before Liu Xiaobiao’s annotations, the earlier version of the Shishuo Xinyu compiled by the first editor Liu Yiqing (403 – 444) was already referring to the preface by Wang as Lantingji Xu. The revision of the content may also be understandable as a common practice applied in the historical annotated books like the Shishuo Xinyu. When it comes to Wang’s ideology, by the time the preface was created, Wang was in his early fifties who had experienced chaos of the wars and disintegration of his nation. Hence, some scholars proposed that rather than pessimism, the content should be explained as a reflection of Wang’s Confucius, Buddhist and Taoist influences instead. These arguments, as a result, led to a broader recognition nowadays that the Lantingji Xu was originally produced by Wang.
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|永和九年，歲在癸丑，暮春之初，||In the ninth year of Yonghe, at the beginning of the late spring,|
|會于會稽山陰之蘭亭，修禊事也。||we have gathered at the Orchid Pavilion in the North of Kuaiji Mountain for the purification ritual.|
|群賢畢至，少長咸集。||All the literati, the young and the old, have congregated.|
|此地有崇山峻嶺，茂林修竹；||There are high mountains and steep hills, dense wood and slender bamboos,|
|又有清流激湍，映帶左右。||as well as a limpid flowing stream reflecting the surrounding.|
|引以為流觴曲水，列坐其次；||We sit by a redirected stream with floating wine goblets.|
|雖無絲竹管絃之盛，||Although short of the company of music,|
|一觴一詠，亦足以暢敘幽情。||the wine and poems are sufficient for us to exchange our feelings.|
|是日也，天朗氣清，惠風和暢。||As for this day, the sky is clear and the air is fresh; the mild breeze greets us.|
|仰觀宇宙之大，||I look up at the immense universe.|
|俯察品類之盛；||I look down at myriad works [of poetry].|
|所以遊目騁懷，足以極視聽之娛，信可樂也。||As our eyes wander, so do our minds too. Indeed, it is a pure delight for all our senses.|
|夫人之相與，俯仰一世，||Acquaintance will quickly span a lifetime.|
|或取諸懷抱，晤言一室之內；||Some would share their ambitions in a chamber;|
|或因寄所託，放浪形骸之外。||others may indulge into diverse interests and pursuits.|
|雖趣舍萬殊，靜躁不同；||The choices are plenty and our temperaments vary.|
|當其欣於所遇，暫得於己，怏然自足，||We enjoy the momentary satisfactions when pleasures regale us,|
|不知老之將至。||but we hardly realize how fast we will grow old.|
|及其所之既倦，情隨事遷，感慨係之矣。||When we become tired of our desires and the circumstances change, grief will arise.|
|向之所欣，俛仰之間，已為陳跡，||What previously gratified us will be in the past,|
|猶不能不以之興懷；||we cannot help but to mourn.|
|況修短隨化，終期於盡。||Whether life is long or short, there is always an end.|
|古人云：||As the ancients said,|
|「死生亦大矣。」||"Birth and death are two ultimate events."|
|每覽昔人興感之由，若合一契；||Reading the past compositions, I can recognize the same melancholy from the ancients.|
|未嘗不臨文嗟悼，不能喻之於懷。||I can only lament without being able to verbalize my feelings.|
|固知一死生為虛誕，||It is absurd to equate life and death,|
|齊彭殤為妄作。||and it is equally foolish to think that longevity is the same as the short-lived.|
|後之視今，||The future generations will look upon us,|
|亦猶今之視昔，||just like we look upon our past.|
|故列敘時人，錄其所述；||Hence, we record the people presented here today and their works;|
|雖世殊事異，||Even though time and circumstances will be different,|
|所以興懷，其致一也。||the feelings expressed will remain unchanged.|
|後之覽者，亦將有感於斯文。||The future readers shall also empathize the same by reading this poems collection.|
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