The Orchid Pavilion of literary fame (as if there were any other!) belongs to Qushui Garden, which is situated in a southwestern suburb of the city of Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province. The famous pavilion gets its name from the fact that the site in question had been a garden belonging to King Goujian of Yue, whose reign was from BCE 496 to 465, i.e., it overlapped the Spring and Autumn (BCE 770-476) and the Warring States (BCE 475-221) Periods of the Eastern Zhou (BCE 770-221) Dynasty, to which it must be added that King Goujian was particularly fond of orchids. The next memorable owner of the site in question, Wang Xizhi, was an army general, a gentleman, and an accomplished calligrapher who was particularly fond of poetry, and who enjoyed the company of similarly cultivated individuals whom he would invite to his garden, the centerpiece of which was the Orchid Pavilion.
However, it was a special gathering of "poets" (members of the local literati, i.e., writers, poets, painters and calligraphers) at Wang Xizhi's residence that put this Shaoxing private garden - and in particular, the Orchid Pavilion - on the map, as it were, on the 3rd of March in the 9th year of the Yonghe reign (CE 345-356) of Emperor Mu Di of the Eastern Jin (CE 317-420) Dynasty, i.e., in CE 353 (in the late 1960s - early 1970s, this gathering of artists would have been called a "happening", and would probably have been initiated by the avant-garde American poet, Allen Ginsberg).
The assembled artists - a crowd of 42 - who were celebrating the annual Shang Si Jie Festival (note: shang can mean "a wine vessel", "propose a toast", or "a feast"; while si can mean "river bank" or "water's edge"; and jie can mean either "cleanse" or "purify"), were challenged by their host, Wang Xizhi to quickly come up with a poem, "on the cuff", or face the "penalty" of having to quaff as many goblets of wine as were "delivered" by the small stream that meandered through Qushui ("Qushui" being shorthand for qu shui liu shang, or "cups float along a zigzagging stream") Garden, a name given to the garden long after this literary event took place (if the garden had a previous name, it has long since been forgotten).
The Spring Purification Festival - which is more a private ceremony than a festival in the conventional sense - is an ancient Chinese tradition during which one goes for a purifying outing, not just "in nature", but in a very particular type of nature: alongside a lake, a river - or a brook, such as the brook that flowed through the garden of Wang Xizhi. Another part of this purification ceremony involves plucking orchids "for good luck" (or for ridding oneself of bad luck), and the garden of Wang Xizhi had both orchids and a body of water, hence it was an ideal venue for holding the Spring Purification Festival.
The contest was put together like so: the "poets" were ranged along the brook that meandered through Qushui Garden, while Wang's "staff" busied themselves pouring wine into the goblets that would be "sailed" down the brook. The guests were asked to compose an impromptu poem as quickly as possible, and were told that if a goblet of wine reached them before they were finished, they were obliged to drink it (a bit like raffling in a bar today, where each round's loser is required to belt down a beer or whisky, as the case may be).
The poetry that emerged from this contest was apparently not of the highest caliber (perhaps too many goblets of wine got in the way), for the poems composed on that occasion are rarely, if ever, quoted. Instead, the preface, Prologue to the Poems Composed at Orchid Pavilion, written by Wang Xizhi himself, to this forgotten (and perhaps eminently forgettable) anthology of poems - plus of course the "happening" itself - are the only two elements that are remembered from this amusing and pioneering event, which was obviously way, way ahead of its time.
Qushui Garden is of modest size, but is nicely laid out, with elegant touches, and the zigzagging brook that runs through it adds a particular charm to the site. The main feature is of course the Orchid Pavilion, where Wang Xizhi composed the Prologue to the Poems Composed at Orchid Pavilion. The pavilion today contains a number of stelae, some of which commemorate the memorable event of March 3rd, CE 353, including the Qu Shui Liu Shang stele, the Orchid Pavilion Stele and the Goose Pond Stele, the latter because Wang Xizhi was famously fond of the humble goose, occasionally using it as a motif in his works.
Other structures in the garden include Liushang Pavilion with its massively large Imperial Pavilion Stele, the Wang Xizhi Memorial Temple and the modern-era Orchid Pavilion Calligraphy Museum, of which only the memorial temple formed part of the garden complex that existed on March 3rd, CE 353. The following is a brief description of Liushang Pavilion and the Orchid Pavilion Calligraphy Museum as well as a description of the three main stelae that adorn the walls of Orchid Pavilion.
Liushang Pavilion is a special memorial edifice facing the famous meandering brook. It was erected during the Qing Dynasty and houses works of famous calligraphers as well as poems composed by many other artists who followed in the footsteps of Wang Xizhi and his Orchid Pavilion poets. Near the rear, inner wall of Liushang Pavilion is the Imperial Pavilion Stele, an immense, free-standing stele and one of the largest stone stelae in all of China, measuring 6.8 meters in height, 2.6 meters in width, and weighing over 18,000 kilograms. On its face is inscribed, in the calligraphic handwriting of Qing Emperor Kangxi, a copy of Wang Xizhi's Prologue to the Poems Composed at Orchid Pavilion, while on its reverse is inscribed, in the calligraphic handwriting of Qing Emperor Qianglong, a summary, entitled "Events at Orchid Pavilion", of the events that transpired in Qushui Garden on March 3rd, CE 353. Accordingly, this stele is called the "Stele of Grandfather and Grandchild", since Emperor Qianglong is the grandson of Emperor Kangxi.
Orchid Pavilion Calligraphy Museum is a new addition to Qushui Garden. Construction of the Orchid Pavilion Calligraphy Museum began in 1988, and was completed a year later. The museum is a two-storeyed structure with some 800 square meters of floor space. On the lower storey are two exhibition halls while the upper storey houses a further two halls that display paraphernalia related to calligraphy. The museum is a work in progress in the sense that new material is still being collected to form future, themed displays.
Currently, the only permanent exhibit on display at the museum is the Brief History of Chinese Calligraphy exhibition. However, larger and smaller touring exhibitions are displayed at certain times of the year, such as during local festivals, and also in connection with national and international calligraphic conventions and seminars, where all lovers of calligraphy as well as all lovers of poetry expressed in the calligraphic medium are naturally welcome - with or without a set of wine goblets!
The Most Prominent Stelae of Orchid Pavilion
Orchid Pavilion Stele is also called Small Orchid Pavilion, its "Lan Ting" inscription having been made by Emperor Kangxi in 1698 during the 38th year of the emperor's reign (CE 1661-1722). Unfortunately, during the so-called Cultural Revolution (from 1966 until Mao Zedung's death in 1976) a chink was made in the stele between the two words inscribed by Emperor Kangxi. During the 1980s, when the stele was restored, the missing piece could not be found, and rather than repair it artificially, it was decided to let the stele stand, "as is". Since the Cultural Revolution was a grassroots movement of sorts initiated by Chairman Mao, albeit, perhaps an extreme one, the Orchid Pavilion Stele has since been dubbed the "Stele of the Emperor and the People". Curiously, Chinese visitors seem to impulsively touch the chink in the famous stele whose authorship is now shared by "the people".
Qu Shui Liu Shang Stele ("cups float along a zigzagging stream" stele) commemorates the poetic happening. Many cultivated Chinese guests, it is said, commemorate the poetic happening in the sens original, i.e., they set sail filled wine goblets in the same zigzagging brook while reciting poetry, modern as well as ancient.
Goose Pond Stele is a stone stele with the words E ("Goose") Chi ("Pond") carved in the stele's stones. According to legend, Wang Xizhi had just finished writing the word E when a messenger suddenly arrived with an imperial edict for the general, which required the immediate attention of General Wang Xizhi. While the general and calligrapher was attending to this matter, his son, Wang Xianzhi, himself also an accomplished calligrapher, took up the brush and finished the inscription, with the result that the two words, E and Chi, reflect distinctly different styles. Therefore Goose Pond Stele is also referred to as the "Stele of Father and Son". The stele also depicts the actual "goose pond" which Wang Xizhi specifically had constructed in order that he could keep geese, which he loved to watch as they went about the business of foraging for food, taking care of the young, scolding each other, and - when all else fails - running after and pecking at each other.
The Wang Xizhi Memorial Temple, or ancestral temple, also known as the Wang Youjun ("Right Army") Temple, in recognition of the fact that Wang Xizhi was a general in the Youjun, or "Army of the Right" (which distinction has no connection whatsoever to the Left ("Progressive") vs Right ("Conservative") political distinction of today, being instead a directional (think: right flank vs left flank) distinction, where each military garrison typically had a Right (flank) Army and a Left (flank) Army), is also worth a visit.