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Wang Xizhi
Portrait of Wang Xizhi

Lanting Xu, in English literally translated to be Preface to the Orchid Pavilion, is the masterpiece of Wang Xizhi(王羲之, 303-361), the Sage of China Calligraphy lived in Jin Dynasty. Also widely called Lantingyanji Xu(兰亭宴集序, the preface to the orchid pavilion banquet), Linhe Xu(临河序, the preface to the riverside gathering), Xi Xu(禊序, Xi was an ancient rite to avoid or eliminate the evil and inauspiciousness) and Xi Tie(禊帖). Lanting Xu is the most famous representative of Chinese calligraphic masterpieces. To a most degree, Lanting Xu equates Chinese calligraphy in the aspect of status and influence. The text and the handwriting of Lanting Xu are both highly valuable. In history of China calligraphy, it is the No.1 and ranked the top three greatest calligraphic masterpieces of semi-cursive script in history together with Jizhi Jiming Wengao(祭侄季明文稿, The Manuscript to Mourn for Nephew Jiming), a letter-type calligraphic work created by Yan Zhenqing(颜真卿, 709-784) of Tang Dynasty and Hanshi Tie of Su Dongpo(苏东坡, 1037-1101) in Song Dynasty.

The Background of this Calligraphy Masterpiece

On March 3 in lunar calendar, 353, Wang Xizhi together with other 41 people like Xie An(谢安, 320-385) and Sun Chuo(孙绰, 314-371) held the rite of Xi, a ritual to eliminate and avoid the evil, in Shaoxing(anciently called Shanyin), Zhejiang province. They created prose and poems respectively and collected them together as Lantingji, or The Collection of the Orchid Pavilion. Wang Xizhi created a preface to this collection, and this great prose was named The Preface to the Orchid Pavilion. The text recorded the beauty of mountains and water surrounding the Orchid Pavilion as well as the pleasure of gathering, meanwhile, the writer also released a kind of melancholy to the uncertainty of living and dying as well as the impermanence of the perfect scenes. It was said that Wang Xizhi just rapidly completed this whole prose in a short time when he was drunk, and after he sobered up, he re-appreciated his handwriting, but he was not satisfied with his work at all, besides, he tried to rewrite the prose, however, none of the recreated calligraphic works was better than the original one.

wang xizhi
Wang Xizhi creating calligraphy

Lanting Xu was created with pod-made paper(蚕茧纸) and mouse- mustache brush(鼠须笔). The whole calligraphic work has 28 columns and 324 Chinese characters. Moreover, the different character shows the different style of calligraphy, especially, the character”之”, which roughly means “of” in English, appeared in work for more than 20 times, but each show is totally different. This is the release of Wang Xizhi’s greatness in calligraphic study and practice. And surely the layout, calligraphic style and the calligraphy arrangement are all quite perfect as well. Many people said this work was his most satisfied masterpiece at the age of 50. The calligraphic commentators of different dynasties, especially Mi Fu(米芾, 1051-1107) who was one of the greatest calligraphers of Song Dynasty, thought of this great work as the No.1 Semi-Cursive Script of Calligraphy in the World(天下第一行书). Unfortunately, the original version of Lanting Xu was said to be buried with Emperor Taizong of Tang Dynasty. Today, we can see the version of Lanting Xu are all the duplicated, but the most famous and influential one is the duplicated version created by Feng Chengsu(冯承素, 617-672 ), a famous calligrapher lived in the period of Emperor Taizong of Tang Dynasty, and his version was honored to be Shenlongben(神龙本), or Divine Dragon Version. This version is widely considered to be the best copy one in all aspects compared to the original one. There is also the stone- carved Lanting Xu, but the style of calligraphy is different from the script of Wang Xizhi. Lanting Xu, as the calligraphic masterpiece of Wang Xizhi, embodies the top philosophical and spirituality thinking of Wang Xizhi in the aspect of calligraphic art. The ancient people commented the masterpiece as The Clear Winder out of Sleeve and the Bright Moon into Bosom(清风出袖, 明月入怀). The most influential comment was from Cao Zhi(曹植, 192-232, a son of Cao Cao who was the first king of Wei Kingdom of Three Kingdoms Period),exactly a sentence from his literary masterpiece named Luoshenfu(Ode to Goddess of Luo River, 洛神赋),dancing as the frightened swan, softening as the swimming dragon(翩若惊鸿, 婉若游龙) to show the elegance and beauty of Wang Xizhi’s calligraphy.

The painting themed with the gathering of Wang Xizhi and other people in Lanting for ancient Xi rites

The Text of Lanting Xu in Chinese >>>

The Text of Lanting Xu in English (Originated from online pages)>>>

Orchid Pavilion
The Goose Pool Calligraphy

In the ninth year of the reign Yunghe[A.D. 353] in the beginning of late spring we met at the Orchid Pavilion in Shanyin of Kweich'i for the Water Festival, to wash away the evil spirits. Here are gathered all the illustrious persons and assembled both the old and the young. Here are tall mountains and majestic peaks, trees with thick foliage and tall bamboos. Here are also clear streams and gurgling rapids, catching one's eye from the right and left. We group ourselves in order, sitting by the waterside, and drinking in succession from a cup floating down the curving stream; and although there is no music from string and wood-wind instruments, yet with alternate singing and drinking, we are well disposed to thoroughly enjoy a quiet intimate conversation. Today the sky is clear, the air is fresh and the kind breeze is mild. Truly enjoyable it is sit to watch the immense universe above and the myriad things below, traveling over the entire landscape with our eyes and allowing our sentiments to roam about at will, thus exhausting the pleasures of the eye and the ear. Now when people gather together to surmise life itself, some sit and talk and unburden their thoughts in the intimacy of a room, and some, overcome by a sentiment, soar forth into a world beyond bodily realities. Although we select our pleasures according to our inclinations—some noisy and rowdy, and others quiet and sedate—yet when we have found that which pleases us, we are all happy and contented, to the extent of forgetting that we are growing old. And then, when satiety follows satisfaction, and with the change of circumstances, changes also our whims and desires, there then arises a feeling of poignant regret. In the twinkling of an eye, the objects of our former pleasures have become things of the past, still compelling in us moods of regretful memory. Furthermore, although our lives may be long or short, eventually we all end in nothingness. "Great indeed are life and death", said the ancients. Ah! What sadness!

The Culture of Lanting Xu

Today, in Lanting(兰亭, a triangle-style pavilion and exactly no one knows the real site of Lanting in history, and today’s lanting was the reconstructed one in accordance with some authoritative inference and study), or The Orchid Pavilion, Shaoxing, Zhejiang province. there is a huge stone stele with two large cursive characters, Goose Pool (鹅池). It was said that Wang Xizhi quite liked the goose, and he also raised a group of gooses at home. Today, the gooses are also available in the Goose Pool, and also, there are the architecture of Qushuiliushang Pavilion and Youjun Memorial Hall and Ink Pool. They are all connected closely with Wang Xizhi and his calligraphic life.

The original of Lanting Xu was remained as most valuable treasure of Wang family for generations. But to the seventh generation of Wang family, Emperor Taizong of Tang Dynasty cheated the original version of Lanting Xu out of Wang family. After getting the original, Emperor Taizong summoned other famous calligraphist like Zhao Mo(赵模, 627-649, a famous calligraphist in Tang Dynasty), Feng Chengsu(冯承素, mentioned above), Yu Shinan(虞世南, 558—638, the poet and calligraphist of Tang Dynasty as well as one of top 24 greatest contributors of founding Tang Dynasty, whose portraits were all hung in Lingyange, or Lingyan Pavilion in the Imperial Palace of Tang Dynasty) and Chu Suiliang(褚遂良, 596-658, a famous calligraphist and politician of Tang Dynasty) to copy the original one and presented these copies to his relatives and closed officials. But the copies were all inferior to the original. And later, the original of Lanting Xu was buried with Emperor Taizong.

Lanting Xu crowned to be the No.1 semi-cursive script of Chinese calligraphy

As for how Emperor Taizong got the original of Lanting Xu, there was a quite interesting story. The inheritor of Lanting Xu of the seventh generation of Wang family was named Zhi Yong(智永),a Buddhist monk living in the period of Sui Dynasty and early Tang Dyansty. Zhi Yong also loved calligraphy very much. Before his death, he passed the original of Lanting Xu down to his student called Monk Biancai(辨才), who was also specialized in studying calligraphy. Monk Biancai valued the Lanting Xu very much, and especially hid this treasure in a hole which he carved on the beam of his bedroom.

Xiao Yi Defrauded Lanting Xu
The painting themed with Xiao Yi
defrauded Lanting Xu

According to the Record of Lanting(兰亭记) written by He Yanzhi(何延之), Emperor Taizong named Li Shimin(李世民) also indulged himself into the calligraphy, especially liked the calligraphy of Wang Xizhi. On hearing of the Lanting Xu was collected by Monk Bianci, he sent many people to get for many times, but Monk Bianci still said that he did not know where it was. Emperor Taizong knew it was permanently impossible to get the treasure in this direct way, and he changed policy. He ordered Xiao Yi(萧翼), the Supervision Governor of the Central Government of Tang Dynasty during the reign of Emperor Taizong, to disguised himself as a learner to get close to Monk Biancai. Xiao Yi also was expert in studying calligraphy. He made a quite good relationship with Biancai. For tempting Monk Biancai to show the original of Lanting Xu, Xiao Yi deliberately showed him some other original masterpieces of calligraphy of Wang Xizhi and talked with him about the calligraphy. After Bianchi browsed the masterpieces, he said: “These masterpieces are all the original but not so good as mine”. And Xiao Yi asked him what the original it was, and Monk Biancai said it was the original of Lanting Xu. But Xiao Yi faked to insist that the original of Langting Xu had been lost, and then to show the original, Monk Biancai got the original from the beam hole to show him. Via the careful check, Xiao Yi got known that it was the real one. And rapidly he put the original into his sleeve, meanwhile showed the rescript of Emperor Taizong. Monk Biancai knew he swallowed the bait. Since then Monk Bianci was quite sad and gloomy, and later died of melancholy.

According to some historical records, Li Shiming, the Emperor Taizong of Tang Dyansty, said in his will that he wanted to pillow on Lanting Xu. If this record is accurate, the original of Lanting Xu must be in Zhao Mausoleum(昭陵), but his mausoleum was excavated by Wen Tao(温韬), the local governor of Yaozhou in Five Dynasties period, and in the list of the unearthed treasure, there was no Lanting Xu. So many people say that Lanting Xu must be hid in Qian Mausoleum(乾陵, the joint mausoleum of Emperor Gaozong and Empress Wuzetiann), because in terms of the hearsay nearby Qian Mausoleum, the Lanting Xu was buried with Empress Wuzetian.

Five Top Copy Versions of Lanting Xu

No.1. The Stone Inscription of Lanting Xu collected in Ningbo Tianyige Museum, Feng Chengsu’s version of Lanting Xu, currently collected in Beijing Palace Museum, is traditionally the best copy of the original Lanting Xu. But some experts also said that the stele inscription of Lanting Xu collected in Ningbo Tainyige Museum is the real version of Feng Chengsu when he was ordered by Emperor Taizong to copy the original Lanting Xu. Currently, this version has been the national treasure of China. This version was passed down to Song Dynasty from Tang Dynasty, and Emperor Lizong of Song Dynasty presented it to his son-in-law Yang Zhen(杨镇). In Yuan Dynasty, Yuan family sold it to Guo Tianci(郭天锡, 1227-1302). In Ming Dynasty, the version was collected in Wanjuan Tower, but unfortunately, it was burnt down with the whole tower in a fire in 1562. Today, the stone inscription is well preserved in Tianyige, and became the most important collection in museum.

No.2. The Version from Yu Shinan. This Version is collected in Beijing Palace Museum and copied by Yu Shinan, who was also a great calligraphist of Tang Dynasty. due to the version was collected in Royal Mansion of Tianli(天历) Region period(1328-1330) in Yuan Dynasty. So this version was also widely known as Tianli Version. Yu Shinan learnt calligraphy from Monk Zhiyong, and his calligraphy featured the calligraphic charm and elegance of Wei and Jin Period, hence in some way, his copy is similar to the original created by Wang Xizhi.

No.3. The Version from Chu Suiliang. This Version was created by Chu Suiliang of Tang Dynasty and collected in Beijing Palace Museum. Due to the rear part of the scroll remained the additional poem-themed handwriting of Mi Fu, so in the world, it is also called The Version with Mi Fu’s Poem-Themed Handwriting.

No.4. The Version from Feng Chengsu. This version was created by Feng Chengsu D and collected in Beijing Palace Museum. Due to the head of the scroll has the left-half seal themed, Shenlong(神龙), or Divine Dragon, so it was also widely called Shenlong Version. It is the best one among the copies.

Lantingxu of Tianyige Lanting Xu of Yu Shinan Lanting Xu of Chu Suiliang
No.1 Lanting Xu of Tianyige Version No.2 Lanting Xu Version by Yu Shinan No.3 Lanting Xu Version by Chu Suiliang
Lanting Xu of Feng Chengsu Lanting Xu discovered in Dingwu
No.4 Lanting Xu Version by Feng Chengsu No.5 Lanting Xu Version Discovered in Dingwu

No.5. The Version from Ouyang Xun. This version was created by Ouyang Xun(欧阳询,557 - 641), who was one of the greatest calligraphists of Tang Dynasty for his regular script calligraphy. This version was carved on the stone during the region of Emperor Huizong of Northern Song Dynasty. due to this version was discovered in Wuding, Hebei province in Qingli Period(1041-1048) of Northern Song Dynasty, and it is widely called Wuding Version(定武本), and currently it is collected in Taipei National Palace Museum. This version is directly copied from the original stone, and then it is also the most valuable one among many other Dingwu Stone Inscription Copies.

Lantingxu Lantingxu
Part of Lanting Xu with many seals of different dynasties Part of Lanting Xu, the Quintessential Show of China Calligraphy Culture
Lantingxu Lantingxu
Part of Lanting Xu, No.1 Semi-Cursive Script of Calligraphy Part of Lanting Xu, the Favorite of Emperor Taizong of Tang Dynasty