Chinese Calligraphy Artworks and Masters – Wang Xi Zhi (王羲之/Wang Hsi Chih) the Sage of Calligraphy

A Short Biography of Wang Xi Zhi Wang Xi Zhi (王羲之/Wang Hsi Chih)

The influence of Wang Xi Zhi (303-361 CE) on the Chinese Calligraphy tradition cannot be overstated. While there were certainly famous calligraphers who preceded Wang, not one of them has had the lasting effect of the so-called Sage of Calligraphy (書聖/Shu Sheng).

Born to a wealthy family in Linyi, Shandong, present-day Shaoxing, Zhejiang, Wang’s early life held little evidence that he would come to epitomize the scholarly calligraphy tradition. It was said, when he was young, that his relatively dull mind would not allow him to excel at writing. However, with intent and diligent study, habitually writing characters on his arm with his finger, Wang soon became a masterful and prolific calligrapher. Indeed, much like Zhang Zhi before him, Wang was said to write so much that the pond beside his studio was stained entirely black.

Not only was Wang Xi Zhi an extraordinarily famous calligrapher in his own time, but his son also took up the calligrapher’s mantle. Wang Xian Zhi (王先之/Wang Hsien Chih) and his father together are often called the “Two Wangs”.

Wang Xi Zhi’s (王羲之/Wang Hsi Chih) Preface to the Orchid Pavilion

While Wang was an admitted master of all script styles, he has been perhaps most celebrated for his Running Style: his ability to effortlessly create great variety in brush-work while maintaining clear legibility was unparalleled. His Preface to the Orchid Pavilion (蘭亭序/Lan Ting Xu/ Lan T’ing Hsü), an excellent Running Style work, is the most well known work of Chinese calligraphy. The story of its production is as provocative as is the work itself: it is clear that it was written while Wang was quite drunk!

One day Wang invited a few dozen like-minded literati to a gathering near his ancestral home. At the Orchid Pavilion there, the literati played a drinking game. The assembly lined both sides of a meandering creek, and cups of wine were floated down amongst them. When a cup stopped in front of a man, he would have to write a poem or immediately drink the cup in front of him. As the story goes Wang, quite inebriated, scribbled down his Preface in celebration of the event. Though he tried to reproduce works of the quality of the Preface for weeks afterward, Wang himself claimed that he never wrote its equal.

The Lan Ting Xu is not only the most famous work of Chinese Calligraphy, it is also the most reproduced. Calligraphers in the Tang, under Imperial direction, used it as a copy model. Ever since, calligraphers have attempted to emulate Wang’s style through copying copies of it: the original has long-since been lost.