Getting to know 王羲之 and 蘭亭集序

The most famous running script is that of 王羲之 and in his work 蘭亭集序, sometimes also referred to as 蘭亭序. The work is generally known as an impressive piece of calligraphy, and the ideal for running script. I wanted to find out more about the calligrapher and the importance of his work, so I (naturally) turned to the internet.

The China History Podcast did an episode on 王羲之. It also includes a lot of historical background. I really like this episode, because it covers the importance of calligraphy in Chinese society, and also discusses a lot of aspects of Chinese calligraphy. It’s a good episode to learn about Chinese calligraphy!

I did not know that it was during the time of 王羲之 that paper became more commonplace. This was also the first time I learned about 衛鑠 (衛夫人; Lady Wei). She is the first female historical calligrapher I had heard about. All the masters we learn from are all male, since they were the scholars of the time. It was nice to hear that her work 筆陣圖 (The Picture of Ink Brush) was the precursor to 永字八法 (Eight Principles of Yong).

This CCTV episode of 文明之旅 (Journey of Civilization) discusses 蘭亭集序. The video has English subtitles.

I always take anything from CCTV with a grain of salt because it is the state television of China. I’m a bit confused by the work they reference in the beginning of the video. I thought the original was gone. I do appreciate that the content of the work is explained. It is not until towards the end of the video that we find out that the original is indeed gone, and the one we have been looking at was the one copied by 馮承素.

This short video was the first that I watched. It specifically discusses the story of 蘭亭集序.

The video is part of a series of interstitials developed by a Taiwanese television studio that are broadcast between shows. It is quick and to the point. It’s a little bite of culture to peak the viewer’s interest.

The next two videos feature Taiwanese art critic 蔣勳. The first video is about 王羲之, while the second is specifically about 蘭亭集序.

I like that this video goes into works other than 蘭亭集序 to explain the work of 王羲之. It’s interesting to look at the letters 王羲之 wrote just to friends and reflecting on life things and the society of the time. I especially appreciate putting his calligraphy and words in context of the wars and feuding states. At one point, 蔣勳 explains that 王羲之 writes that he feels uneasy when looking at the political news. I feel the same reading American political news these days. I remember shortly after the election, there were a lot of articles about how now is the time for artists to go to work. In his time, 王羲之 was able to produce magnificent calligraphy. What will artists produce during the next four years?

This part goes into the text of 蘭亭集序. I really like the interpretation that 蔣勳 has about the works about 王羲之. I did not realize the many contrasts of 王羲之 and his calligraphy. 王羲之 was writing in such a free style, about good or bad things, in the midst of political chaos. That it was due to the beauty of his free style, that people spent energy fighting over his works to the point that his works no longer exist for people to see or enjoy. I like that 蔣勳 says to truly enjoy the works of 王羲之 is to take heart the words from 蘭亭集序. The translation is mine.

是日也
On this day
天朗氣清
It is sunny, clear, with fresh air
惠風和暢
It is pleasantly warm, without a worry
仰觀宇宙之大
Looking up, admiring the vastness of the heavens
俯察品類之盛
Looking down, observing the extensive of things
所以遊目騁懷
That is why, happily gazing about as one pleases
足以極視聽之娛
Is sufficient to provide extreme amusement in sight and sound

I also found some references to 王羲之 and in popular culture.

周杰倫 (Jay Chou) had a song titled 蘭亭序 in his 2008 album 魔傑座. The lyrics were written by 方文山 (Vincent Fang), who is well known for writing song lyrics inspired by traditional Chinese culture and history. The melody is nice, and the lyrics are interesting. But I’m not sure either is reflected in the music video.

I want to point out a few lines in that are directly about calligraphy. The translations and interpretations are mine.

A few lines from the first verse:

蘭亭臨帖 行書如行雲流水
Copying the Orchid Pavilion model; the running script is like moving clouds and flowing water (行雲流水 is an idiom for a natural and flowing style of calligraphy)
忙不迭 千年碑易拓卻難拓妳的美
Extremely hurried; a rubbing of a thousand year stele can be easily made, but it is difficult to replicate your beauty (calligraphy was once carved into stone slabs or stele, the only way to copy the calligraphy on the stele was to create rubbings)
真跡絕 真心能給誰
The real marks (stele) are gone; to whom can I give my real heart?

From the second verse:

摹本易寫 而墨香不退與妳同留餘味
The copy books are easily written; the fragrance of the ink does not disappear, and with you leaves a lingering scent
一行硃砂 到底圈了誰
A line of cinnabar (red) ink; who’s name does it circle? (cinnabar ink is only used by the teacher to indicate corrections on practice works; typically the best character on the page is circled)

From the refrain:

懸筆一絕 那岸邊浪千疊
The suspended brush is cut short; the waves at the coast pile up in a thousand layers (懸筆 is the way to hold the brush; the brush is suspended mid-air, and the arm does not touch the table)
情字何解 怎落筆都不對
It is difficult to understand the character for love; each time the brush is placed on paper (to start writing), it does not feel right (落筆 is the act of putting the brush to the paper, to start a calligraphy stroke)

I like how specific calligraphy terms are scattered about the lyrics. The terms in the beginning describe the materials of calligraphy. The terms 懸筆 and 落筆 are terms that describe physical movements in calligraphy.

In 2016, Shen Yun Performing Arts included a story dance based on the Orchid Pavilion in their show. An original orchestral score was composed for the dance. I have not seen clips of the dance or music.

There’s also a Chinese drama called 書聖王羲之 (Sage of Calligraphy Wang Xi Zhi) that started filming in 2014, and included Korean actress Kim Tae-Hee portraying the wife of 王羲之. At the time, the drama was scheduled to be broadcast in 2015. There are some rumors that the drama may be one of many that have been restricted from broadcast in China.

王羲之 is considered the best calligrapher in history. It is really interesting to see that his story has stood the test of time. Even though his works no longer exist in their original form, the idea of his works has also inspired modern culture. It will be exciting to see what comes about in the future. Who will be the next artist inspired by 王羲之 and 蘭亭集序?

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2 thoughts on “Getting to know 王羲之 and 蘭亭集序

  1. You rock, I’ve been wanting to learn more about this as my teacher has been making me practice it for a while now. I’ve been able to make out that it was some famous person in China’s work a long time ago and was about the period when things were moving into cursive script, but that’s about it. I guess I was too lazy to look into it (hey, I’m busy practicing ; ) ) but now you’ve given me a good chance to learn. Thanks!’

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