"Lan Ting" Prologue - An Appreciation of Chinese Calligraphy
By Siu-Leung Lee, PhD

The original Lan Ting Prologue, allegedly written by Wang Xi Zhi at the prime of his calligraphy career (51 year old, 353 A.D.), is universally recognized as the most important piece in the history of Chinese calligraphy. The elegant Wang style, as fully represented by the original piece, has profound influence on Asian calligraphy in China, Japan and Korea. Even to date, Japan holds a bi-annual meeting commemorating the event of the literati gathering at Lan Ting (original site in Zhejiang, China). The emperor Tang Taizong loved Wang's calligraphy so much that he collected as many of Wang's original scrolls as he could and ordered them buried with himself. Thus, the existing calligraphy of Wang Xi Zhi including the Lan Ting Prologue are only preserved on stone engravings or as replica copies by other calligraphy masters of the Tang dynasty,

The ethical beauty of Chinese calligraphy, like music and dance, transgresses language barriers. One may appreciate the visual impact of the composition in its entirety, or feel the continuous flow of "Qi" of the strokes in a balanced contrast of rhythmic movements. Nevertheless, knowing the language may offer a better understanding. The following is a translation of the Lan Ting Prologue :

" It is the 9th year of Yong He, in the beginning of late spring. We, all the literati old and young, are gathering at Lan Ting (Orchid Pavilion) on the northern slope of the Kuai Ji Hill. Amidst the gorgeous mountains and hills, dense woods and slender bamboos, the sparkling winding stream is flowing by. Seated in the midst of this scenery, short of the company of good music, we regale every single toast and poem that put us in the mood of a free and subtle dialogue.

" It is a fine day with lovely breezes. Behold the magnificent universe with abundance of myriad beings. Stretch your sights and relax your minds. It is the supreme bliss the eyes and ears can achieve. How enjoyable!

" While experiencing the ups and downs in our lives, we may be wakened by thoughts while meditating in a small chamber. Or, we may let go of ourselves in the open Nature. Choices plenty, tranquility or activity as one prefers. I am contented with whatever happiness is brought forth, however short the moment is. I am satisfied, not knowing that I am aging nor where I am heading, I am tired.

" Things do change, only our feelings linger. What we used to be fond of will become the past instantaneously. We can't help but to cheer ourselves by recollection. Life, long or short, always come to an end. An old saying has it that : 'Life and death are the ultimate things.' What a pain! Every time I read about the writings of people from the past, I always sense their feeling reflects my own. I can only lament but not know how to verbalize. Life and death may be merely an illusion. Yet it is ridiculous to equalize longevity with short-lived. The future generations will look upon us just like we do our past. So, I document the lives of the contemporaries and their works. Time has changed, yet the desire to express the feeling is the same. Those in the future shall get what I mean when they read this article. "

I would like to thank Mr. Ed Lau, who painted the orchid which is a piece of art by its own merit. I am also grateful to Dr. Hao Chang (Ohio State University) for his valuable comments on the translation. [A minor mistake was made in my calligraphy of the last paragraph. The order of a couple of sentences were reversed.]
Copyright reserved by the translator and calligraphy artist. 1995. Siu-Leung Lee


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