Who was Master Wang Xizhi?

Calligraphy (书法 Shūfǎ) is now considered an art form, but perhaps you didn’t know that traditionally it was much more – a way to cultivate personal character. It was considered essential for any cultured person to be skilled in calligraphy, as well as the related skill, painting.  Find out more about calligraphy in our introduction to Chinese calligraphy (link).

Who could possibly be so famous that a reproduction of their work would sell for $48 million? The greatest Chinese calligrapher, Wang Xizhi!

An official from Shandong Province, Wang Xizhi (王羲之), is regarded as one of the greatest calligraphers in Chinese history. He lived in the Eastern Jin dynasty, a time of considerable political turmoil when people increasingly turned to both early Buddhism and Taoism as solace from it. He spent most of his life in Shaoxing in Zhejiang, eventually becoming the city’s governor. He was a good man who lowered taxes and fought corruption, and loved raising geese. He would happily exchange calligraphy for a goose!

He started learning calligraphy from his father and aunt around the age of 7. His aunt was Wei Shuo. She was a famous calligrapher who established the rules of 楷书 Kǎishū, one of the most common styles of Chinese calligraphy. Wang Xizhi himself, whilst excellent at Kaishu and all the scripts, was most renowned, even in his own lifetime, for 行书 Xíngshū. His skill is said to have come from observing how his geese turned their necks, which helped him perfect his wrist movements.

Xingshu, or semi-cursive script, also known as running script, developed out of everyday handwriting

Wang Xizhi was laid back and informal. In fact, his father-in-law chose him as the right husband for his daughter because of this attitude! It is said that when visiting one of his students, he noticed a freshly polished table top – and couldn’t resist writing on it! (The story continues: the student accompanied Wang back home, and then returned to find his father had had the table re-polished to clean off the writing, not realising it had been written by the famous master! But when the student angrily wiped away the dust, he was astonished to see the brushwork was still there, penetrated into the wood! To this day the phrase “three millimetres into the wood” 入木三分 rù mù sān fēn, means something powerful and profound, as well as forceful calligraphy.)

Though historical sources tell us Wang produced around 1000 calligraphic masterpieces, none of his original calligraphy survives. Due to the traditional methods of learning and reproducing calligraphy – directly copying and even tracing over the work of masters – we are still able to appreciate his work today.

The character for goose 鵞 É written in one stroke, attributed to Wáng Xīzhī. It is said that Wáng Xīzhī was the first calligrapher who wrote one-stroke 鵞, and that many other calligraphers were inspired by this character when creating one-stroke cursive forms.

His most famous work is the Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion. It is so beloved that Emperor Taizong was said to have been buried with the original, and Emperor Wu of Liang said the calligraphy was “as powerful as dragon jumping through the Heavenly Gate, and a tiger crouching in the Phoenix Tower”.

Wang Xizhi, along with 41 other scholars, gathered in the Orchid Pavilion in Shaoxing after a ritual, and composed poems which were then collected together. According to the preface, they were playing a drinking game – cups made of leaves full of wine were floated on the stream in front of the pavilion and if the cup stopped in front of a scholar they had to spontaneously compose a poem or else drink! It is said that Wang wrote it whilst drunk and then attempted to replicate it the next day, but was unable to write anything as good as the original – perhaps because the circumstances under which he wrote it could not be replicated! It is clear from the spacing of the characters, the mistakes and corrections, that he was quite emotional when writing it!

This copy of the Preface was made in the year 639 by royal copyist Feng Chengsu at the behest of Emperor Taizong by holding up the original to a window and tracing over it. It can be seen in the Palace Museum (in the Forbidden City).

The contents of the Preface are often seen as a reflection of Wang’s Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist influences. The lines speak directly to us from 1700 years ago:

Future generations will look upon us,
just like we look upon our past.
How sad!
Hence, we record the people presented here today and their works;
Even though time and circumstances will be different,
the feelings expressed will remain unchanged.
Future readers shall also empathize with the same by reading this poetry collection.

Whether it’s reflecting upon the stunning work of masters such as Wang Xizhi, or creating your own first piece, calligraphy is a fascinating subject. If you’d like to try it for yourself, Cultural Keys offers a variety of ways to study, from monthly public workshops, to VIP classes for you, your friends, family or colleagues!

Feel free to drop us a PM on WeChat at AJDonnelly, or via email at [email protected] for more information. We’d love to help you experience this quintessential Chinese art for yourself!


What more would you like to know about Chinese calligraphy? Let us know in the comments on Facebook or Twitter. We are always happy to hear from you!




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