Notes on Blocks

On The Many Copies of the Orchid Pavilion Preface

by William Pan

This is the second in a new series of pieces that take a look at a channel and its broader threads, themes, and ideas through a few of its blocks. Last week we published Clemens Jahn "On Tables," and this week William Pan takes us through his channel “Orchid Pavilion Preface,” which he explores more fully in an essay in our forthcoming Are.na Annual (December 2020).

On the third day of the third lunar month of the year 353, forty-two literati gathered at the Orchid Pavilion on Mount Kuaiji in modern Zhejiang Province to celebrate the Spring Purification Festival. At the event, 26 literati wrote a total of 37 poems, and the calligrapher Wang Xizhi 王羲之 (303–361) drafted a preface for them on the spot. The Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Poems (Lantingji xu 蘭亭集序) would become perhaps the most famous piece of Chinese calligraphy in history and one of the most highly regarded Chinese artworks in any medium, appreciated for both its literary and artistic merits. 

Though the original has been lost—according to the traditional account, it was buried with Emperor Taizong of Tang 唐太宗 (598–649)—its disappearance didn’t diminish its fame. Several copies were made from the original when Emperor Taizong acquired it, centuries after Wang Xizhi first put brush to silk, to preserve and honor the piece—and a strong tradition of copying and recopying grew around those first editions. These reproductions serve as a visual record of past appreciation, of a centuries-old obsession with a single artwork made in a single moment.


For instance, the Shenlong 神龍 copy, widely regarded as the most faithful to the original and attributed to the Tang calligrapher Feng Chengsu 馮承素 (617–672), reveals an impressive attention to detail. The copy was traced meticulously, likely by adhering a piece of wax paper over the original, tracing onto the wax paper, then tracing again onto silk. It thus preserves certain mistakes and imperfections, which are regarded as a valuable imprint of Wang’s internal state, to a degree not seen in other editions. The Shenlong copy is one of only a few that survive from the Tang.


Another is a silk copy attributed to another court calligrapher, Chu Suiliang 褚遂良 (596–658). It has a highly noticeable deviation from other copies; namely, a component has been added above the character 領 in the fourth line to form 嶺 (both characters, in this context, mean “mountain ridge”). The exact origins of such differences remain unexplained and have become the focus of scholarly interest.


These earlier copies then served as models for other copies: a Tang copy attributed to Ouyang Xun, for instance, was chosen to be carved in stone because of its fidelity to the original. This stone was later lost, then rediscovered during the Qingli 慶曆 Era (1041–1048) of the Song Dynasty in Dingzhou 定州, a city in modern Hebei, which at the time was under the Dingwu military regional commandery (定武軍節度使). The many rubbings made from this Dingwu stone, such as this one, are now among the most treasured. They stand in striking contrast to the traced copies because the characters are in negative, pale against the black ground of the rubbing ink, with edges that blur.


A couple centuries later, one of these Dingwu rubbings was copied freehand by Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322), the Yuan calligrapher who wrote an annotation to the Shenlong copy, while traveling in a boat to Khanbaliq, today’s Beijing. This copy of a rubbing of a stone carving of a copy was severely damaged in a fire in the Qing Dynasty—born in water, destroyed in flame.


Another Yuan Dynasty copy by Lu Jishan 陸繼善 (fl. 14th century), meanwhile, has a very different feel: it is traced meticulously, and with the sole exception of the Shenlong copy, it most faithfully preserves the characteristics of the original. These two copies are a good illustration of the diversity of this tradition. A millennium after Wang Xizhi drafted the original, Zhao Mengfu was making spontaneous freehand copies, while Lu Jishan was carefully tracing the characters one by one, each from different calligraphic pieces that were themselves copies.

William Pan is a software engineer. He lives and works in Santa Barbara.