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Xi-zhi Wang and his style of calligraphy

Preface to the Collection of Poems at the Orchid Gazebo

Wang, Xi-zhi 1 (321-379 CE)
    At the beginning of late Spring in 353, we held the cleaning ceremony to expel evil influences 2 at the Orchid Gazebo in Shan-yin City 3 of Gui-ji County. Many virtuous scholars arrived; the old and young gathered together. There are precipitous mountains, lush woods, as well as slender and tall bamboo plants in this city. There are also clean rapids surrounding the gazebo like a bright belt. An inlet channel winds through the gazebo. We sat beside the channel and let wine cups float on the water. Each of us drank the wine from the cup that stopped in front of him. Although we had no music, drinking a cup of wine or improvising a poem was sufficient to freely express our exquisite feelings.

    It was a fine day. The fresh air and cool breeze were pleasant. Looking up at the heavens, we were amazed at the grandeur of the universe. Looking down, we discovered a great variety in nature. As our vision traveled, we gave free rein to our mind so that we may entertain our eyes and ears to the utmost. It was a great pleasure indeed.

    People who live in this world interact with each other. Some love to tell friends privately about their ambitions. Others live in their own philosophy and do not care about how people look at them. Although people have different interests and dispositions, when they find something they like and are pleased with themselves, they will no longer feel the constraints of time as happiness consumes them. However, as they reach a stage in which they have become tired of their pursuits and their passions have faded with their experiences, they cannot but be affected by painful recollections. 4 That which used to be their pride quickly recedes to the past. In hindsight, they may even wonder whether they would like to repeat their past if they were given another chance. Although a person's life span is dictated by the Creator, everyone must die eventually as one would expect. There is an old Chinese saying: Birth and death mean a great deal. How can we not lament our doomed fate?
    Every time I study the motive of past writers, it seems to come from the same origin. I wonder why I always grieve and sigh when reading their essays. Of course, it is false to identify life with death 5. It is also improper to consider Peng-zu's longevity 6 and short life the same 7. The future generations will see us in the same light as we view past generations. It is tragic. Therefore, I listed the guests of the party and recorded their poems. In the future, although the time and the occasion may be different, the same passion to create will persist. The future readers may also have an emotional response to this essay.


1 Yi-shao was Xi-zhi Wang's alternate first name. He was a native of Lin-yi City in Lang-ye County (in present day Shandong Province) during the Eastern Jin dynasty. He was appointed to several positions in succession: Secretary of the Bureau of Archives, Senior Scribe, Commander of Ning-yuan District, Mayor of Jiu-zhou City, General of the Right Army, and Interior Scribe at Gui-ji County. General Xi-zhi Wang was the Father of Chinese Calligraphy. In order to perfect his writing of the Chinese character 永 alone, he had to practice eight years because the character contains eight different strokes.
    It may seem strange to western readers that many ancient Chinese writers were either generals or mayors. Education in ancient China included civics, music, archery, literature, mathematics, and military studies. Scholars were paid by the government for their services in the military or politics. To acquire these positions one had to pass some exams to show that he had received a good education.

2 In ancient times, on the third day of the third month in the Chinese lunar calendar, Chinese people went to a river to cleanse their belongings to expel evil influences.

3 Shan-yin City was located in present day Shao-xing-xian City in Zhejiang Province. Shao-xing-xian City is famous for producing wine.

4 The translations of the two passages done in calligraphy and shown above in the illustration are in red font in this text. Note that an ancient Chinese essay did not include punctuation.

5 "Treating Everything the Same", written by Zhou Zhuang (ca. 369-286 BCE), says, "How do I know that it is not a mistake to fear death? How do I know if one who fears death is not the one who will die soon and who has not yet had the courage to face it? How do I know if the deceased regret that they prayed for life?"

6 According to Chinese mythology, Peng-zu was an ancient who lived 800 years.

7 "Treating Everything the Same", written by Zhou Zhuang, says, "No one lives longer than those who die at less than twenty years of age. Peng-zu died young."