Though he was born in the city of Linyi in Shandong Province during the period of the Western (265-316) and Eastern (317-420) Jin Dynasties, Wang Xizhi (303-361), known as the Sage of Calligraphy, spent most of his life in the city of Shaoxing in Zhejiang Province. The famous calligrapher's former residence is located in the present-day Jishan Historic Block of Shaoxing's Yuecheng District.
Wang Xizhi lived at the Yuecheng District residence while in charge of humanistic studies for the then Kuaiji Jun, or Kuaiji State, which was the name given to the former Yue State that had been conquered by the first ruler to unify China, and whose dynasty name reflects his own, Emperor Qin Shi Huang of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC).
The art of calligraphy had been known in China some 2,000 years before Wang Xizhi took up the art. Calligraphy was already established both as a means of communication and writing, as well as a means of abstract artistic expression. That is, the calligraphic script became an art form independent of the content, or meaning, of the characters or words themselves. Form transcended content in this case.
Historical records indicate that "handwriting artists" (calligraphers) from China's ancient past earned a living—or at least supplemented their income—by adorning the interior walls of buildings such as teahouses with their early calligraphic scripts, of which there were many variants. People would pay to watch these artists write their special calligraphic scripts. Not surprisingly, none of these early calligraphic works have survived.
The historical records do not tell us whether visitors to the establishment in question paid the artist directly, or whether (the more likely scenario), the owner of the establishment himself paid the calligraphers, in much the same way that travelling dancers, jugglers, puppeteers, and other artists would earn a few "coppers" here and there by drawing crowds to popular establishments, in a strictly quid pro quo arrangement. We do know that early Chinese theater troupes which performed for the royal court and which lacked a stage on which to practice would often do rehearsals of their royal repertoires at large teahouses and other suitable venues.
In fact, it is believed that it was in this way that Chinese theater eventually transitioned from being a strictly royal event to being popular entertainment for the masses. We know that Chinese theater troupes would weave elements of commoners’ lives into their royal performances, to the delight of the royals, who perhaps therefore willingly turned a blind eye to the fact that performances intended for “royal eyes only” were being enjoyed by the masses. In time, the actors would inevitably be tempted to weave comical elements of royal life –staying within acceptable, but eroding, boundaries of course–into their teahouse performances, to the extreme delight of ordinary folk.
Since the time of the Qin Dynasty–which made a point to standardize the many different calligraphic hand scripts that were current at the time, many of which were particular to specific geographic locations –there have existed 5 different "authorized" calligraphic styles, or scripts: Zhuanshu, or seal, script (and also the oldest of the 5 scripts); Lishu, or scribe, script; Kaishu, or block, script; Xingshu, or running (semi-cursive), script; and Caoshu, or cursive, script. All of these "authorized" calligraphic scripts are still in use today.
The master Wang Xizhi learned calligraphy from a number of older artists, absorbing many different techniques and styles which would eventually form the basis of the artist's own calligraphic repertoire, the 2 most famous of which were the cursive script and the running script, the latter a variant on the standard script but with strokes that connect the individual characters which, in turn, are somewhat abbreviated. He was especially famous for his running script, which is less "handwritten-like" than cursive script, making it a sort of amalgam of the standard and the cursive scripts.
Visitors today can see that behind the Former Residence of Wang Xizhi stands a temple, originally called Chang An Temple, but whose name, according to official records, was later changed to Jiezhu Temple. Jiezhu Temple is the renowned venue where many later scholars would gather to study and to share their knowledge, including the great philosopher and Confucian scholar, Zhu Xi (1130-1200), who gave lessons here. The entire area comprising the Former Residence of Wang Xizhi as well as Jiezhu Temple and the grounds surrounding both of these sites have, in recent times, not only been restored to their former glory, but new structures have also been added.
In front of Jiezhu Temple are the Chinese Ink Pond (so called partly because it resembles the ink pond of the inkstone used by a calligrapher or an ink-wash painter, and partly because Wang Xizhi actually used it to clean his brushes), Goose Pond (Wang Xizhi was fond of geese), the Book Platform, Xi Pavilion, and Ji Shan Bridge. To the north of Jiezhu Temple lies Tan Hua Mansion, which contains famous wall paintings belonging to the much later Taiping Rebellion and the Taiping Tian Guo (Taiping Heavenly Kingdom) which it spawned, and whose capital was Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, about 300 kilometers due south of the city of Linyi.
The new structures that have been added to the Former Residence of Wang Xizhi include the Calligraphic Exhibition Room–which displays historical material relating to the art of calligraphy as well as the tools of the trade of the calligrapher–and a 100-meter-long Calligraphic Corridor, where one can admire the beauty and grace of the calligraphic works of Wang Xizhi (albeit, only copies). Some are in the form of canvases while others are stone engravings and which include the artist's most famous work, Preface to the Poems Composed at Orchid Pavilion.
It was written by the artist in commemoration of an impromptu verse "happening" at the famous Orchid Pavilion located at the foot of Mount Lanzhu in the village of Lanting, near Shaoxing, where a small river, or creek, flows. Lanting is today a suburb to Shaoxing, situated some 10 kilometers southwest of the center of Yuecheng District, the site of the Former Residence of Wang Xizhi. Contributions from more recent calligraphic masters are also on display in the Calligraphic Corridor.
There are different accounts of just how this social happening is supposed to have transpired, but it started with a party, or get-together of sorts, of artists at the Orchid Pavilion, some of whom were poets. Wang devised a literary game in which the artists would be spread out along the bank of the adjacent creek, each tasked with writing an impromptu poem, and where small cups of wine, to be eventually consumed by the artists, would be floated down the creek as part of the game. There are 2 versions of how the game was supposed to have proceeded:
According to the first version, as the cups of wine eventually got moored along the bank of the creek—which most of them eventually would—the artist closest had to immediately produce an impromtu poem or drink the cup of wine without further ado However, since Wang had devised the game without forewarning, no one could have prepared a poem in advance.
The other version has it that the artists, as soon as they were in position along the bank of the creek, were told to begin composing an impromptu poem while Wang "set sail" the cups of wine with the understanding that if a cup reached an artist who had not yet completed his or her poem, the artist would be required to snag the cup of wine and drink it on the spot. This setup would of course disadavantage the closest artists, or, at a minimum, would inspire them to compose a short poem.
In any case, 37 poems were composed that day, which would be collected into an anthology by the famous calligrapher. As a preface to the anthology-to-be, Wang, on the spot, composed a calligraphic introduction to the poems in his already famous semi-cursive, or running script, style. Wang Xizhi's "Preface" would overshadow the 37 poems, some of which may have been composed under the influence both of the libation consumed and of the general merriment produced by the impromptu event. No one seems to have kept track of how many bottles of wine were expended in producing the 37 poems, but since the "Preface" came to overshadow the poems themselves, one is tempted to conclude that a good number of bottles may indeed have been uncorked on that auspicious occasion.
The officially accepted burial place of Wang Xizhi is the village of Huatang, in Jinting Town, near Mount Kuaiji, just south of the city of Shaoxing. In this small village live some 5,000 present-day descendants of the Wang family, descendants of the famous calligrapher. In front of what is officially recognized as the grave of Wang Xizhi stands a small cherry tree orchard that was presented to the village of Huatang by a Japanese association of calligraphers in honor of their famous Chinese colleague, whose influence was clearly not limited to China. Nearby stands a high, bluish sandstone stele on which is carved the text of Wang Xizhi's celebrated Preface to the Poems Composed at Orchid Pavilion, also presented by Japanese admirers of Wang Xizhi. Age-old, quintessentially Chinese cypress trees also adorn the burial grounds of the famous artist.
The architecture of the village of Huatang is kept in the style and decor of the nearby historical city of Shengzhou, whose architecture reflects the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties especially. Huatang houses the Great Ancestral Temple of the Wang Family, built during the Ming Dynasty and which consists of a small tower gate (an archway suspended between 2 small towers in the typical Chinese fashion), pond, arched stone bridge, and the Hall of the Dutiful Son, all of which enjoy historical and cultural protection under the provincial government.
Recent research has, however, challenged the notion that Wang Xizhi was buried with his relatives in the village of Huatang in Jinting Town. A paper presented by a German researcher from the University of Münster, Annette Kieser, at the annual meeting of the Association of Asian Studies in March 2009 suggests that there is reason to believe that the famous calligrapher was buried near a different set of relatives who lived on the outskirts of the ancient Eastern Jin capital, Jiankang, or present-day Nanjing. These Wang relatives, a minor branch of the Wang clan known as the Langye Wang clan, were contemporaries of the famous calligrapher. Most of them were buried in tombs befitting of their elevated social status, which, in the view of the researcher, seems to strengthen the notion that Wang Xizhi may have chosen to be buried here.
Many of Wang Xizhi's most famous original works are believed to be buried with a later admirer who in fact helped to solidify Wang Xizhi's legacy, namely, Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty(618-907). Perhaps future researchers into the life and works of Wang Xizhi will one day be given permission to open the grave of Emperor Taizong to determine whether any of the artist's famous works have survived the experience. Or perhaps we are best served not knowing the actual truth, because even if a myth, the tale of Emperor Taizong's having requested that the cherished works of Wang Xizhi accompany him to his final resting place did indeed help to anchor Wang Xizhi's well-deserved reputation as the Sage of Calligraphy.