Spring Lustration 脩禊 — a pavilion, a calligrapher and eternity

The day was fine, the air clear, and a gentle breeze regaled us, so that on looking up we responded to the vastness of the universe, and on bending down were struck by the manifold riches of the earth. And as our eyes wandered from object to object, so our hearts, too, rambled with them. Indeed, for the eye as well as the ear, it was pure delight! What perfect bliss! 是日也,天朗氣清,惠風和暢,仰觀宇宙之大,俯察品類之盛,所以游目騁懷,足以極視聽之娛,信可樂也。

These words were written on the Third Day of the Third Month of the Ninth Year of the Yonghe reign of the Emperor Mu of the Eastern Jin dynasty 晉穆帝永和九年癸丑三月初三. It was a spring day in the year 353 of the Western Calendar. A group of friends had gathered by a flowing stream to celebrate the season, and to perform the ancient ritual of the Spring Lustration 脩禊 xiūxì, or cleansing, by the waters edge. It was believed that the malign influences of the past could be washed away in the flow of rivers and streams as the good fortune of the new was welcomed at a time when spring gradually gave way to summer.

That spring day, or 上已 (the first yi day at the start of the month), 1,664 years ago at the Orchid Pavilion 蘭亭, not far from present day Shaoxing in Zhejiang province, where those men of society, politics and letters met at a ‘refined gathering’ 雅集 to compose poems by the stream while drinking wine from floating cups 流觴賦詩 and banter in a manner celebrated as ‘pure talk’ 清談 is recorded in one of the most famous pieces of Chinese prose. In ‘Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Poems’ 蘭亭集序, an essay renowned as much for its sentiments as its calligraphy (H.C. Chang 張心滄 calls it ‘a magnificent document in the history of the Chinese sensibility’), Wang Xizhi 王羲之 (309-c.365) wrote the immortal lines:

永和九年,歲在癸丑,暮春之初,會於會稽山陰之蘭亭,修禊事也。In the Ninth Year of the Yonghe reign, which was a guichou year, early in the final month of spring, we gathered at Orchid Pavilion in Shanyin in Guiji for the ceremony of purification.

群賢畢至,少長咸集。Young and old congregated, and there was a throng of men of distinction.

translated by H.C. Chang. (For the full text and translation, see below.)

A commemorative stele at the Orchid Pavilion with 蘭亭 in the imperial hand. The calligraphy was done in 1695 by Emperor Ren 仁皇帝 or Elhe Taifin hūwangdi in Manchu (Aišin Gioro hala i Hiowan Yei 愛新覺羅玄曄), who ruled under the reign title Kangxi 康熙 during the Qing dynasty. Photograph by Geremie R. Barmé

Eternal Human Moments

The past was a past of words, not of stones… . Chinese civilization seems not to have regarded its history as violated or abused when the historic monuments collapsed or burned, as long as those could be replaced or restored, and their functions regained… . The only truly enduring embodiments of the eternal human moments are the literary ones.

Frederick Mote, ‘A Millennium of Chinese Urban History:
Form, Time, and Space Concepts in Soochow’,
Rice University Studies, 59.4 (1973): 51.

Literary monuments themselves are often connected to specific occasions, or in the case of this particular commemoration, days of festivity and celebration.

The festival of Third Day of the Third Month. Source: 2017 Palace Museum Calendar 故宮日曆.

As we noted earlier, the Festival of the Third Day of the Third Month 上已節 (known in ancient times as 脩禊 or 祓禊), marks the Spring Lustration, or ritual purification.

The tradition continues in various parts of the Sinitic world, but here we mark one particular cleansing ceremony for its legacy has resonated through the centuries in word, image and imagination. Although the ‘elegant delights’ 雅興 of the original festivity have been replaced by crude commercialism, hackneyed celebrations and party-ordained ‘China Story Traditions’, in China Heritage we mark this day by recalling that gathering at the Orchid Pavilion, its antecedents and Wang Xizhi from the Hong Kong writer Xi Xi’s The Teddy Bear Chronicles.

The influence of Wang Xizhi’s calligraphic introduction to the Orchid Pavilion poems continues to this day. Scattered throughout China are pavilions with meandering streams, called 流杯亭, created in imitation of that scene at the Orchid Pavilion, and for generations students, scholars and writers have studied copies of Wang Xizhi’s ‘Preface’ for inspiration and guidance when pursuing the sublime art of calligraphy.

The influence of the ‘Preface’ was so profound that it would seem that China’s twentieth-century iconoclast, and his cultural henchmen, tried to invalidate it. Over fifty years ago, in the guise of disinterested scholarship, Mao’s favoured progressive scholar Guo Moruo 郭沫若 (a literary titan dwarfed by ambition) launched an attack on the authenticity and value of the calligraphic tradition. The assault occurred just as China was moving towards the complete self-abnegation of the Cultural Revolution. In his efforts, Guo was aided and abetted by Kang Sheng 康生, the head of the Party’s security apparatus (who also happened to have a fine calligraphic hand). The resulting Controversy Surrounding the Authenticity of the ‘Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Poems’  《蘭亭序》真偽論辯 appears to have been an oblique attempt by sycophants hoping to curry favour with the Chairman. As Mao Zedong Thought dominated China could they have hoped to establish the Great Helmsman’s unruly calligraphic hand (influenced by the wild grass script of the Tang-dynasty Buddhist monk Huaisu 懷素) as the ne plus ultra of the Chinese brush? The controversy was soon eclipsed by events.

Men of a Later Age

As the Cultural Holocaust drew to a close in the late 1970s, I was fortunate enough to be introduced to the remnant world of ‘pure talk and refined gatherings’ 清談雅集 in Peking by the famed translators Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang. They were part of a group of writer and artist friends who had first met in the wartime capital of Chungking. They were known as The Layabouts Lodge 二流堂, and through their friendship, the exchange of poems, drinking, idle chatter and art works, I was given an insight into (and some participation in) a tradition that stretches back long before even that gathering at the Orchid Pavilion in 353CE and what David Hawkes called The Age of Exuberance.

Communist Party leaders with latter-day imperial pretensions would do well to recall that even the mighty Qianlong Emperor of the Qing was awed by Wang Xizhi’s ‘Preface’. He visited the site of the Orchid Pavilion in 1751. Back in Beijing:

Pavilion for Appreciating the Spring Lustration 禊賞亭, Palace of Tranquil Longevity 寧壽宮, The Forbidden City. Photograph by Geremie R. Barmé.

Into the raised stone floor of the replicated belvedere in the Forbidden City, the emperor’s masons were instructed to carve a meandering, but slightly inclined, channel. At imperial literati gatherings, cups of wine were floated down this channel. Whenever a cup steadied before one of the scholars he had to drink and compose a poem to match the rhymes created by the previous player, exactly in the manner described in Wang Xizhi’s ancient essay.

from my The Forbidden City, 2008, p.88.

They might also heed Wang’s words:

For men of a later age will look upon our time as we look upon earlier ages — a chastening reflection. 後之視今,亦猶今之視昔。悲夫!

In marking the Third Day of the Third Month we observe the heritage of an ancient festival, and we also invite our readers to appreciate Wang Xizhi’s meditation on transience, life, death and eternity. His ‘Preface’ is as beautifully moving today as in the past, and it brings to mind an observation Pierre Teilhard de Chardin made in a letter dated 15 April 1923, shortly after he set sail for China:

The secret of the world lies wherever we can discern the transparency of the universe.

The Frog’s Viewpoint

You can’t discuss the ocean with a well frog — he’s limited by the space he lives in.
井蛙不可以語於海者,拘於虛也。

— 莊子《秋水》Zhuangzi, ‘Autumn Floods’, trans. Burton Watson

The People’s Republic of China is a country run by a party-state bloated on commercial wealth and autocratic practice. Under Xi Jinping it continues the Party’s dogged endeavours to corral the marvellously diverse traditions of Chinese culture and thought.

In October 2014, at a symposium held to commemorate the 2565th anniversary of the birth of Confucius, Party supremo Xi Jinping declared to the assembled host that they:

must work hard for they had a shared responsibility as cultural leaders to fulfil the task of the age which was to enable the creative transformation of traditional Chinese culture, to contribute to its innovative development, as well as to ensure that it enjoys a symbiotic relationship with modern culture 努力实现传统文化的创造性转化、创新性发展,使之与现实文化相融相通,共同服务以文化人的时代任务.

This thicket of verbiage appears innocent enough to global arts bureaucrats and academics, but it reflects’The China Story’ 中國的故事, a state-sponsored cultural and propaganda strategy to craft an acceptable version of China, its culture and ‘Chineseness’.

The gimlet eye of Party secretaries and functionaries is trained steadily on academia and the creative arts. Sixty years ago, my old friend Wu Zuguang 吳祖光, a leading member of The Layabouts Lodge, first paid for his outspokenness in the wake of the Hundred Flowers Campaign, a nationwide political movement during which Mao Zedong and the Communist Party encouraged people to ‘help the Party’ rectify its errors. Like tens of thousands of others Zuguang took up the call and, among other things, observed that Party leadership was not the key to a flourishing Chinese cultural scene. After all, he asked, did the famous Tang poets Li Bo 李白 and Du Fu 杜甫 have commissars looking over their shoulders? ‘What’s the need for cultural workers to be under a “leadership”? 對於文藝工作者的‘領導’又有什麼必要呢?’, he asked:

Who among you can tell me: in the past who ‘led’ Qu Yuan? Who oversaw Li Bo, Du Fu, Guan Hanqing, Cao Xueqin, Lu Xun? Who were the leaders in charge of Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Beethoven or Molière? 誰能告訴我,過去是誰領導屈原的?誰領導李白、杜甫、關漢卿、曹雪芹、魯迅?誰領導莎士比亞、托爾斯泰、貝多芬和莫里哀的?

As the hundred flowers wilted Zuguang was silenced and, in 1957, he was sent, like so many others, to the Great Northern Wilderness to undergo a period of labour reform.

Today, China’s Party Secretary extraordinaire strains to look over everyone’s shoulder and thereby vouchsafe the Grand Renaissance of the Chinese Nation. Despite this, valuable scholarship is still being pursued and artistic work produced.

Sub specie aeternitatis

Our advocacy of New Sinology predates these latest moves by the Party and its Chairman of Everything by nearly a decade, just as The China Story Project launched in 2012 preempted the advocacy of a new official narrative. Both New Sinology and The China Story were developed to foster a scholastic and more broad-based understanding of official China while advocating a resistance to its blandishments and to help those engaged with or interested in the Chinese world to focus their awareness on the deadening effects of Party discourse on thought, creativity and inspiration. We decline to be modern-day ‘cultural fellow travellers’, collaborators in the political pilgrimage to the cashed-up, Communist controlled party-state.

China Heritage draws inspiration from wellsprings untainted by the formulations of the Party’s in-house academics and popularisers. We encourage our readers rather to pay heed to figures like Wang Xizhi and the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove. Just as their art and words resonate today, they will continue to do so far beyond the tenure of the new autocrats, be they political, cultural or academic.

Marking Time

In 2017, the Third Day of the Third Month of the Lunar Year falls on the 30th February. China Heritage marks this day by recalling the world of letters and ideas related to the tradition. In doing so, we continue our own practice of commemorating ancient festive days in 2017, as we did when observing Chinese New Year (see The Year of the Rooster, On Reading, 15 January, The Year of the Rooster, On Seeing, on 19 January and The Year of the Rooster, On Eating, Injecting, Imbibing & Speaking on 25 January), The Fifteenth Day of the First Month (The End of the Beginning 元宵, 11 February) and The Second Day of the Second Month (The Dragon Raises its Head, 27 February 2017).

— Geremie R. Barmé, Editor, China Heritage
Third Day of the Third Month of the
Dingyou Year of the Rooster 2017
丁酉雞年三月初三上已節


Wang Xizhi, ‘Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Poems’ 王羲之《蘭亭集序》

For a high-definition image of the Feng Chengsu’s Shenlong Version 馮承素神龍本 of Wang Xizhi’s ‘Preface’, click on the image below (to be read/ scrolled from right to left):

This is the most ren0wnded, and widely reproduced, copy of Wang’s original. It dates from the Tang dynasty and was in the former imperial collection, now the Palace Museum, in Beijing. (This copy of the ‘Preface’ is called the Shenlong Version because it carries a seal with the reign title Shenlong on it. The Shenlong 神龍 reign was from 705 to 707CE.)

Acknowledgements 

As ever, I am grateful to John Minford, co-founder of The Wairarapa Academy for New Sinology, whose Classical Chinese Literature is a constant inspiration, and a source of material for China Heritage, to Duncan Campbell for his earlier work on the Orchid Pavilion, which I had the pleasure of publishing in China Heritage Quarterly, and to Christina Sanderson for another Xi Xi Teddy Bear. Callum Smith, designer of the Heritage sites, helped with the high-resolution digital version of the Feng Chengsu Shenlong Version of Wang Xizhi’s ‘Preface’ (see above).

Further Reading


The year 316 saw the collapse of the Jin dynasty in the north, when the capital Chang’an fell to the invading Xiongnu tribesmen. An exodus to the south began, and Nanjing became the capital of a restored dynasty, the Eastern Jin. Shattered by the fateful turn of events, the exiles from the north would forgather in some pavilion overlooking the Yangtze, seemingly their only bulwark against the invaders, to brood on the past and be pleasantly surprised by the beauty of the scenery. For northern eyes, accustomed to plains and plateaus and mountain ranges, the entire region that is now southern Jiangsu and the whole of Zhejiang, abounding in lakes and hills, rivers and watercourses, was nothing short of a revelation. …

The lofty sentiments, at once jubilant and mournful, expressed in the thirty-seven poems written at the Orchid Pavilion gathering in 353 reflect the state of mind, once troubled and serene, of a select and influential group.

— H.C. Chang in John Minford and S.M. Lau, eds, Classical Chinese Literature:
An Anthology of Translations
, vol.I, 2000, pp.479-482.


The Golden Valley

The inspiration for the gathering at the Orchid Pavilion, and Wang Xizhi’s preface to a collection of poems written by those present, is to be found far north at the Golden Valley Creek near the former capital of Luoyang 洛陽. It was there that Shi Chong 石崇, a man of immense wealth and talent, both political and cultural, created his Golden Valley Garden 金谷園. A contemporary of the Sages of Bamboo Grove, Shi Chong enjoyed all the the earthly rewards showered upon a man of his genius. Here he entertained friends and in the preface to his own Golden Valley Poems 金谷園詩序 written in 296CE he said:

‘The Golden Valley’ 金谷園圖 by Qiu Ying 仇英 (d.1552). Long thought to be a depiction of Shi Chong’s luxurious garden, this is now contested.

Day and night we roamed about and feasted each time moving to a different place, sometimes climbing to a height and looking down, sometimes sitting by the water’s edge. 晝夜遊宴,屢遷其坐,或登高臨下,或列坐水濱。

… [E]ach one composed a poem to express the sentiments in his heart. Whenever anyone could not do so, he had to pay a forfeit by drinking three dipperful of wine. Moved by the impermanence of our lives, and dreading the unappointed hour of falling leaves, I have duly recorded below they office names, and ages of those who were present. In addition, I have copied their poems and appended them after the names, in hopes some curiosity-seeker of later times may read them. 遂各賦詩以敘中懷,或不能者,罰酒三斗。感性命之不永,懼凋落之無期,故具列時人官號、姓名、年紀,又寫詩著後。後之好事者,其覽之哉!

— translated by Richard Mather

Shi Chong’s ostentation and bravado gave his enemies at court who coveted his wealth and influence due reason to plot against him. His fall from grace was dramatic and bloody. Green Pearl 綠珠, his favourite concubine, committed suicide by throwing herself from a tower in the garden and he, along with fifteen members of his family, was put to death in the market place. ‘Five centuries later’, as John Minford notes, ‘the poet of the late Tang, Du Mu 杜牧, wrote a quatrain entitled Shi Chong’s Golden Valley Garden’ 金谷園, a poem famous to this day:

Scattered pomp has falled to the scented dust.
The streaming waters know no care, the weeds
claim spring for their own.
In the East wind at sunset the plaintive birds cry:
Petals on the ground are her likeness still
beneath the tower where she fell
— A.C. Graham

繁華事散逐香塵,
流水無情草自春。
日暮東風怨啼鳥,
落花猶似墜樓人。

Minford and Lau, Classical Chinese Literature, pp.474-478.

To this day the words ‘Golden Valley Garden’ signify worldly success, hubris, as well as disaster.


The Orchid Pavilion

Floating Wine Cups on the Serpentine Stream 曲水流觴. A reconstructed site at the Orchid Pavilion. Photograph by Geremie R. Barmé.

The site of Orchid Pavilion 蘭亭 is some eleven kilometers south-west of Guiji 會稽 (present-day Shaoxing 紹興; Guiji is now pronounced Huiji, although another reading is Kuaiji) in Zhejiang province. It is here, in 353 that Wang Xizhi 王羲之 (309-c.365), the greatest of Chinese calligraphers, wrote his ‘Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Poems’ 蘭亭集序. Wang had gathered forty-one of his friends and relatives (including his son, Wang Xianzhi (王獻之, 344-388) in order to undertake the Spring Lustration Ceremony, one whereby the evil vapours of the winter past were washed away in the eastward flowing waters. Twenty-six of the men named as being present produced between them a total of thirty-seven poems, and towards the end of the day, we are told, Wang Xizhi, formerly employed in the Imperial Library but then serving in Guiji as the General of the Army on the Right 右軍, wrote his immortal preface to this collection, on ‘cocoon paper’ with a ‘weasel-whisker brush’, in 324 characters and 28 columns.

Duncan M. Campbell, Orchid Pavilion

Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Poems

蘭亭集序

Translated by H.C. Chang

In the ninth year [353] of the Yonghe [Everlasting Harmony] reign, which was a guichou year, early in the final month of spring, we gathered at Orchid Pavilion in Shanyin in Guiji for the ceremony of purification. Young and old congregated, and there was a throng of men of distinction. 永和九年,歲在癸醜,暮春之初,會於會稽山陰之蘭亭,修禊事也。群賢畢至,少長咸集。

Surrounding the pavilion were high hills with lofty peaks, luxuriant woods and tall bamboos. There was, moreover, a swirling, splashing stream, wonderfully clear, which curved round it like a ribbon, so that we seated ourselves along it in a drinking game, in which cups of wine were set afloat and drifted to those who sat downstream. 此地有崇山峻嶺,茂林修竹;又有清流激湍,映帶左右,引以為流觴曲水,列坐其次。

The occasion was not heightened by the presence of musicians. Nevertheless, what with drinking and the composing of verses, we conversed in whole-hearted freedom, entering fully into one another’s feelings. 雖無絲竹管弦之盛,一觴一詠,亦足以暢敘幽情。

The day was fine, the air clear, and a gentle breeze regaled us, so that on looking up we responded to the vastness of the universe, and on bending down were struck by the manifold riches of the earth. And as our eyes wandered from object to object, so out hearts, too, rambled with them. Indeed, for the eye as well as the ear, it was pure delight! What perfect bliss! 是日也,天朗氣清,惠風和暢,仰觀宇宙之大,俯察品類之盛,所以游目騁懷,足以極視聽之娛,信可樂也。

For in men’s associations with one another in their journey through life, some draw upon their inner resources and find satisfaction in a closeted conversation with a friend, but others, led by their inclinations, abandon themselves without constraint to diverse interests and pursuits, oblivious of their physical existence. 夫人之相與,俯仰一世,或取諸懷抱,悟言一室之內;或因寄所托,放浪形骸之外。

Their choice may be infinitely varied even as their temperament will range from the serene to the irascible. Yet, when absorbed by what they are engaged in, they are for the moment pleased with themselves and, in their self-satisfaction, forget that old age is at hand. But when eventually they tire of what had so engrossed them, their feelings will have altered with their circumstances; and, of a sudden, complacency gives way to regret. What previously had gratified them is now a thing of the past, which itself is cause for lament. Besides, although the span of men’s lives may be longer or shorter, all must end in death. 雖趣捨萬殊,靜躁不同,當其欣於所遇,暫得於己,快然自足,不知老之將至。及其所之既倦,情隨事遷,感慨系之矣。向之所欣,俯仰之間,已為陳跡,猶不能不以之興懷。況修短隨化,終期於盡。

And, as has been said by the ancients, birth and death are momentous events. What an agonizing thought! 古人雲:「死生亦大矣。」豈不痛哉!

In reading the compositions of earlier men, I have tried to trace the causes of their melancholy, which too often are the same as those that affect myself. And I have then confronted the book with a deep sigh, without, however, being able to reconcile myself to it all. But this much I do know: it is idle to pretend that life and death are equal states, and foolish to claim that a youth cut off in his prime has led the protracted life of a centenarian. 每覽昔人興感之由,若合一契,未嘗不臨文嗟悼,不能喻之於懷。固知一死生為虛誕,齊彭殤為妄作。

For men of a later age will look upon our time as we look upon earlier ages—a chastening reflection. And so I have listed those present on this occasion and transcribed their verses. Even when circumstances have changed and men inhabit a different world, it will still be the same causes that induce the mood of melancholy attendant on poetical composition. 後之視今,亦猶今之視昔。悲夫!故列敘時人,錄其所述,雖世殊事異,所以興懷,其致一也。

Perhaps some reader of the future will be moved by the sentiments expressed in this preface. 後之覽者,亦將有感於斯文。

The Feng Chengsu Shenlong Version 馮承素神龍本 of Wang Xizhi’s ‘Preface’ dating from the Tang era on a billboard at the Orchid Pavilion near Shaoxing, Zhejiang. The scroll, prized by the Gao Emperor Abkai Wehiyehe hūwangdi (Aišin Gioro hala i Hung Li 愛新覺羅弘曆) who reigned as Qianlong 乾隆 in the Qing dynasty, carries the burden of imperial favour in the form of a title, 晉唐心印 (meaning ‘the artistic hearts of the calligrapher Wang Xizhi of the Jin dynasty and the Tang copyist Feng Chengsu are as one’), and numerous seals. Photograph by Geremie R. Barmé.

Wang Xizhi
of the Eastern Jin

Xi Xi

Translated by Christina Sanderson

Wang Xizhi is regarded as the greatest master of Chinese calligraphy. His most famous piece is his ‘Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Poems’. Although the original disappeared over a millennium ago, traced copies continue to influence and inspire students of the brush.

Wang is said to have had a particular fondness for geese and it is believed that he studied the movement of their necks to perfect his calligraphic hand.

See also

***

The Grand Commandant Xi Jian once sent an envoy to the home of the Prime Minister, Wang Dao, to choose a son-in-law for him. Wang guided the envoy out to the Eastern Wing of the mansion to make the selection. 郗鑒太尉派人到王導丞相家來求選女婿,王對使者說,到東廂房選一個好了。

As soon as word got out that someone from the Xi family was coming to choose a son-in-law, the young men in the Eastern Wing quickly assumed very reserved and dignified airs. All except for one, who stayed just as he was, stretched out on a couch with his belly exposed. He was very relaxed, munching away on something, as though the news hadn’t reached him. The Xi family ended up choosing this young man, who was Wang Xizhi. 東房的王家少年郎,知道郗家來選婿,都表現得端莊矜持,獨是其中一個仍然我行我素,坦腹卧坐床榻上吃東西,好像並沒有聽聞選婿的事。結果,郗認為他最好,原來這個人就是王羲之。

This story is the origin of the saying ‘an excellent son-in-law upon the Eastern couch’ 東床快婿. The incident is outlined in ‘On Elegance’, a chapter in Liu Yiqing’s New Account of Tales of the World. Why was Wang Xizhi lying on the Eastern couch with his belly exposed, anyway? 這是「東床快婿」的由來,事見《世說》的記載,收到「雅量」一輯內,文字很簡潔。王羲之何以坦腹東床呢?

Wang Xizhi by Xi Xi. Photograph by Chan Kum-lok 陳錦樂 and Lum Kwok-wai 林國威.

The general explanation of his behaviour is that he had probably been taking Five Mineral Powder 五石散 and was just feeling its effects in the form of a full body fever. The reason people in the Wei-Jin period loved wearing loose, roomy clothes and exposing themselves in a state of undress is more or less because they were tripping on such psychedelic Taoist drugs. Five Mineral Powder was extremely toxic, which could be why Wang Xizhi’s letters are often preoccupied with bodily ailments. 通行的解釋是,他大概是服了五石散,藥力發作時,全身發熱。魏晉人愛穿寬闊的衣裳,又愛坦露肌膚,多少因服食藥物之故。五石散對身體有害,所以王羲之的書簡,常常訴苦病患纏身。

Why did Grand Commandant Xi choose him? As a matter of fact, his choice reflects the prevailing attitude of the time. Yes, they were particular about family background, but they placed the ability to be oneself above the pretence of good manners. They also considered the ability to tolerate eccentricity to be a sign of good taste and elegance. 郗太尉何以會選上他?這其實反映了魏晉人的品味,除了講究門户,還以為率性高於矜莊,以為接受任真適意是一種「雅量」。

Such people would have preferred the running style of calligraphy to the more formal kind of written script. (In those days, wild-grass cursive script hadn’t evolved.) As for clothing, they liked things to be loose and free-fitting rather than tight. The fewer things they had to wear, the better. 這種人寫字會喜歡寫筆劃牽連的行書(他們還沒有發展出狂草),多於規行舉步的楷書﹔穿衣,會挑鬆身的多於緊身的,穿得越少越妙。

Another individualist of the Wei-Jin period was Liu Ling, who came before Wang Xizhi. For him, heaven and earth were his abode, and his house was his trousers. If Grand Commandant Xi had encountered Liu Ling before he met Wang Xizhi, which of the two do you think he would have chosen? 魏晉名士,之前更有一位索性以天地為楝宇,以屋室為褌衣的劉伶,如果郗太尉提早遇上了,會怎樣選?

The Wang Xizhi, Xi Kang and Ruan Xian teddies are all made from pure white South American alpaca wool. It’s bright, beautiful and stretchy; normally only suitable for polar bears. Wang, Xi and Ruan can all sit or stand. I designed a special pattern for them: their arms had to be bent, and Wang’s belly had to be lengthened so as to have enough to ‘expose’. Their outfits are all similar. 我縫的王羲之、嵇康和阮咸都用純白的南美羊駝阿帕加毛,這種毛非常亮麗,富有彈性,一般只用來縫北極熊。王、嵇、阮三熊或坐或臥,紙樣經特別設計,手臂需彎曲,王熊的腹部加長,才可坦露多些。三熊穿的衣物相同。

A lady carrying a ‘hidden bag’, Northern Qi Scholars Collating Classic Texts (detail). Source: Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

There is a large goose behind Wang Xizhi which was a present from my teacher. His pillow was called a ‘hidden bag’ 隱囊, the equivalent of our modern back cushions. In the Wei-Jin period, people still didn’t use chairs. They would simply sit or kneel around a small table. When sitting with their legs out in front, they would use these hidden bags for support. The famous scroll painting referred to earlier, Northern Qi Scholars Collating Classic Texts, features one such bolster being carried by a maid. It looks just like a large cylindrical cushion. 王羲之身邊有一大鵝,是老師相贈,至於所枕之物,名為「隱囊」,等於現代的靠枕、椅枕。魏晉還沒有椅子,席地而坐,跪坐時前有隱几。箕坐時,兩腳前伸,背後就用隱囊憑靠。《北齊校書圖》中有隱囊圖,由一女侍抱持,狀如大枕頭。

Goose Pond stele at Lanting. The calligraphy is supposedly in Wang Xizhi’s hand. Photograph by Geremie R. Barmé.

4-22-15:

O: ‘The most we can do is to write — intelligently, creatively, critically, evocatively — about what it is like living in the world at this time.’

Bill Hayes quoting Oliver Sacks in
Insomniac City — New York, Oliver, and Me,
Bloomsbury, 2017, p.254.