A model of Lanting Xu (背臨 "蘭亭序")
35 X 116cm in Seimicursive Script (行書)
The original masterpiece written by Wang Xizhi (王羲之) in 353 AD is considered to be the most beautiful
piece of calligraphy ever created in Chinese history. It is so admired that Emperor Taizong of Tang Dynasty
(唐太宗, 626-649 AD) was rumoured to go to great lengths to obtain the original from a monk, ordered it to
be traced and copied, and then ultimately decided to bury it into his own tomb (1)(2). Today, the original can
no longer be found but copies of it by different renowned calligraphers can be found in museums in different
parts of China and Taiwan (3). One of the best editions of the copies is known as the Shennong edition "神龍本"
written by Feng Chengsu (馮承素) in the Tang Dynasty era and is now stored in the Palace Museum in Beijing.
Note that the text content along with the aesthetics written by Wang are equally appreciated in this masterpiece.
Wang was in a meeting of 42 renowned literati celebrating the Shangsi Festival (or Spring Purification Festival) in
the ninth year of Yonghe (353 AD) at a place call Lanting (蘭亭, aka Orchid Pavilion). During this gathering, the
literati drank wine and composed poems: "the gentlemen engaged in a drinking contest; wine cups were floated
down a small winding creek as the men sat along its banks; whenever a cup stopped, the man closest to the cup
was required to empty it and write a poem. In the end, twenty-six of the participants composed thirty-seven poems"
(4) The calligraphy acted as a preamble to the 37 poems and started by describing the time, place and
weather of the gathering, and ended with an emotional and sad exclamation on the frustrations in life (see below for
full text translation). It is rumored that the original piece was written by Wang in a drunken state, and when Wang
attempted to reproduce his masterpiece the next morning when he was sober, he failed.
In the ninth year of Yonghe (353 AD), beginning of late spring,
|會于會稽山陰之蘭亭，修禊事也。 ||we gathered at Lanting (Orchid Pavilion) in Kuaiji Mountain to celebrate |
the Shangsi Festival.
|群賢畢至，少長咸集。||Many wise and talented ones, both old and young, all assembled together |
in one place.
|此地有崇山峻嶺，茂林修竹， ||This place was accompanied by high mountains and steep hills, dense |
woods and tall bamboos,
|又有清流激湍， 映帶左右，||and was surrounded by a gushing stream full of pristine sparkling waters,|
|引以為流觴曲水，列坐其次。||which was used to lead floating wine cups into a winding canal, with all of |
us sitting beside it.
|雖無絲竹管絃之盛， ||Although there was no wonderful instrumental music to accompany us,|
|一觴一詠，亦足以暢敘幽情。 ||our wines and poems were more than enough to uplift us into cheerful and |
|是日也，天朗氣清，惠風和暢；||That day, the skies were clear, and the air was fresh with a gentle breeze;|
|仰觀宇宙之大， ||we looked up the sky and admired the great immensity of the Universe, |
|俯察品類之盛。 ||while we observed the ground in owe with the myriad diversity of Nature.|
|所以遊目騁懷，||We indulged our eyes with these wonders as we opened up our thoughts,|
|足以極視聽之娛， ||and this was more than enough to satisfy all our visual and auditory senses,|
|信可樂也。||indeed, this was a joyous occasion.|
|夫人之相與，俯仰一世,||As friends associated with one another, time flew by as if life was too short,|
|或取諸懷抱，悟言一室之內；||some engaged in earnest and unreserved conversations indoors; |
|或因寄所託，放浪形骸之外 ||while others identified themselves with their obsessions, losing themselves |
in unrestrained indulgences.
|雖趣舍萬殊，靜躁不同， ||No matter how different their preferences or their temperaments were,|
|當其欣於所遇，暫得於己，怏然自足，||they all found temporary comfort and satisfaction when they came upon |
anything that amused them,
|不知老之將至。||they felt so glad that they forgot that they would be turning old soon.|
|及其所之既倦， ||When they finally grew tired of their pursuits, |
|情隨事遷，感慨係之矣。||their passions changed along with the new circumstances, how regrettable |
|向之所欣，俯仰之間，||Obviously, the delights that we enjoy at the moment disappear in split seconds,|
and then all become distant memories,
|猶不能不以之興懷；||this is truly disheartening,|
|況脩短隨化，終期於盡。 ||not to mention that our lives are dictated by natural laws and that we |
all shall perish eventually.
|古人云：「死生亦大矣。」||Indeed, the wise from the past once said: "after all, birth and death are two|
important life events".
|豈不痛哉！ ||So how can we not be agonized about them?|
|每攬昔人興感之由，||Whenever I ponder about the sentiments of those before us and the reasons|
behind their feelings,
|I see no difference between what we feel today and what they felt in the past,|
|未嘗不臨文嗟悼，不能喻之於懷。||accordingly, I feel an inexplicable sadness whenever I read their writings.|
|固知一死生為虛誕，||Of course, I know that it is absurd to equate life with death,|
|齊彭殤為妄作。||and even more ridiculous to believe that a long or a short lifespan does not |
|後之視今，亦由今之視昔，悲夫！||Alas! It is sad to realize our future generations will look upon us with the |
same sentiments as we look upon those before us.
|故列敘時人，錄其所述，||Hence, I am here to document who was present and what was composed|
during this gathering.
|雖世殊事異，所以興懷，其致一也。||Although times and circumstances may change, we all share the same |
sentiments throughout the ages.
|後之攬者，亦將有感於斯文。||Therefore, I am certain that future readers shall be touched by my words |
in this text.
(translated by KS Vincent Poon, Oct . 2015)
Personal CommentsHistory repeats itself. No matter how technologically advanced we are, we are still faced with similar struggles like
war, poverty and injustice. Certainly, our emotions, when facing these challenges, are also similar, and so nothing
seems to change over the ages. The question, then, is why are we not advancing in eliminating these struggles so
that we can all live better? Certainly, primordial emotions like greed and hate play a big part in perpetuating these
events, but, more importantly, most people do not read, let alone understand, history. It is disheartening for me,
as a teacher, to see our children repeat the very same mistakes my predecessors or I made. In today's new
education system, where it is heavily focused on student-centred learning as students are encouraged to explore
themselves with minimal guidance, there is very little emphasis on transmitting our past wisdom directly to children.
"Inherit the past, and build the future" (繼往開來, an adage from ancient China) is a very important element in
education; you do need to know the past to build a better future - if you need to think outside of the box, you should
know what the box looks like in the first place.
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