Last update08:15:27 pm

  • Error loading feed data.
Back Masterpiece Wang Xizhi, The Sage of Chinese Calligraphy

Wang Xizhi, The Sage of Chinese Calligraphy

Article Index
Wang Xizhi, The Sage of Chinese Calligraphy
Wang Xizhi's hobby: Rearing Geese
All Pages

Painting of Wang Xizhi by a later Yuan Dynasty artist.

Wang Xizhi (Chinese: 王羲之, 303–361AD) was the most famous Chinese calligrapher, traditionally referred to as the Sage of Calligraphy (書聖, 书圣), who lived during the Eastern Jin Dynasty (265–420). He is considered by many to be one of the most esteemed Chinese calligraphers of all time, especially during and after the Tang Dynasty, and a master of all forms of Chinese calligraphy, especially the running script.

The Emperor Taizong of Tang Dynasty admired his works so much that the original Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion was said to be buried with the emperor in his mausoleum.

Wang Xizhi Born in Linyi (临沂), Shandong (山东) Province, he spent most of his life in the present-day Shaoxing (绍兴), Zhejiang (浙江). He learned the art of calligraphy from Wei Shuo, commonly addressed as Lady Wei (衛夫人). He excelled in every script but particularly in the semi-cursive script (行书). Unfortunately, none of his original works remains today. All of his masterpieces which you see were copied or traced by others. However, these works are still considered extremely valuable, due to his achievement in Chinese calligraphy.

Learning calligraphy at a very early age, he was said to have dyed black a small brook with his constant practice of calligraphy. Through diligent and perseverant practicing, Wang Xizhi introduced the writing of Chinese characters from its practical usage into a realm of art and interest. His calligraphy features fine strokes of brush, variable character structures, and perfectly beautiful handwriting.

His most famous work is the Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion (兰亭集序), the preface of a collection of poems written by a number of poets when gathering at Lanting near the town of Shaoxing for the Spring Purification Festival. The original is lost, but there are a number of fine tracing copies and rubbings in existence..

Wang Xizhi had seven children, all of whom were notable calligraphers. The most distinguished one was his youngest son, Wang Xianzhi (王献之). They are commonly referred to as the “Two Wangs.”

In order to practice calligraphy, wherever he went, he would try to find out the styles of previous dynasties and copy them, accumulating large amounts of calligraphic materials. There were writing brushes, ink sticks, papers and ink stones in his study, courtyard, gate way and even outside the toilet. Whenever he hit upon a good- structured character, he would write it down immediately.

Some people have described his calligraphy as "the dragon jumping over the heavenly gate and the tiger lying in the watchtower of the phoenix." Wang's calligraphy has a quiet beauty. Compared with Zhong Yao's handwriting, Wang's calligraphy is less influenced by lishu. He wrote with more fluidity and grandeur.

Though his style has survived to this day, original examples of Wang Xizhi's handwriting are rarely seen today. Most of the works we can see now are rubbed copies of his works by others. Wang Xizhi was good at many types of calligraphy but the xingshu-style Lan Ting Xu (Preface to the Literary Gathering at the Orchid Pavilion) is the most representative of his works.

There is a story behind this work. In 353, Wang Xizhi invited 41 guests to join him at the Orchid Pavilion by a small, meandering stream for the purification rites of spring. Each guest was asked to compose a poem. The poems were collected, and Wang himself wrote the Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Collection in his trademark calligraphic style -- xingshu, a 324-character text in 28 lines, recording the happy gathering of intellectuals.

Wang's calligraphy ability was brought into full play during the gathering. The Song Dynasty scholar Mi Fu called the Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Collection the world's best work in xingshu style. It is said that Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) treasured the work and had it buried in his tomb. Therefore, what we see now are only copies by others of this magnificent work.

In 648, Tang Tai Zong wrote an article about Xuan Zang's west journey. He want to carve the article onto stone. He loved Wang Xizhi's calligraphy. However, Wang Xizhi had died hundreds years ago at that time. So he ordered Huai Ren to collect characters from existing Wang Xizhi's calligraphy works. At that time, there's still no computer. It's a huge project to collect all characters and put them together since they are not in same size. It took Huai Ren 25 years to finish this project. It's called Sheng Jiao Xu. Because Huai Ren is a good calligrapher himself, the collected art work is just like Wang Xizhi's originals.

Wang Xizhi is good at Cursive Script, Running Script and Regular Script. He had many calligraphy works. But within about 1700 years, all of his original works was destroyed in wars. Some hand copies of his calligraphy works include Lan Tin Xu, Sheng Jiao Xu, Shi Qi Tie, Sang Luan Tie. It's said that he was also good at every scripts. But we can not see his calligraphy of other scripts any more.

Wang Xizhi Versed in regular script, running script, and cursive script, he had left behind calligraphy works, such as Leyi Dissertation and Huangting Classics in regular script, Seventeen Copies of Model Handwriting in cursive style, andAunt's Copies of Model HandwritingKuaixue Shiqing Tie (Clear up after Snow) and Sangluan Tie in running script. The most representative is his Preface to the Orchid Pavilion in running style. On the third day of the third lunar month in 353, Wang Xizhi invited over thirty friends and his sons to a party at the Orchid Pavilion beneath the Kuaiji Hill, where they drank and improvised poems. Amid the gather-together, 26 men made poems on the spot. With the slight effect of liquor, Wang Xizhi flourished his brush and completed at a breath a preface to their poems. In terms of the content, it is a mixture of scenery description and emotional expression, conveying the writer's inner conflicts and feelings. Viewed in the perspective of calligraphy, the characters resemble flying dragons and dancing phoenixes, emitting a vigorous and unrestrained spirit. In the work, the art of calligraphy had reached the peak of development at its time. 324 characters of the preface are all legible. The 20 Chinese characters "之(zhi)" are different from each other in style. Preface to the Orchid Pavilion has been revered by generations of calligraphers as "No. 1 Running Script in the World".

Wang Xizhi's hobby: Rearing Geese


Wang Xizhi is particularly remembered for one of his hobbies – rearing geese. Legend has it that he learned the key of how to turn his wrist while writing by observing how the geese move their necks. 


There is a very pretty small porcelain cup depicting Wang Xizhi "walking geese" in the China Gallery of the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore. The other side of the cup depicts a scholar "taking a zither to a friend".

"Watching Geese from the Orchid Pavilion" by Qian Xuan (錢選, 1235-1305):

Related news items:
Newer news items:
Older news items:

Last Updated on Wednesday, 04 May 2011 16:50