Master of Arts: Wang Xizhi in Japan and China

For centuries, Wang Xizhi (c. 303-361 CE) has been revered as the “Sage of Calligraphy” across East Asia. Born in the town of Linyi, in Shangdong, China, during the tumultuous years of the Jin dynasty (265-420 CE), Wang revolutionized and reinvigorated this traditional art through his mastery of all forms of Chinese calligraphy, including the notoriously difficult semi-cursive or “walking script.” A legend in his lifetime, Wang’s works were avidly copied by aspiring calligraphers across ancient China. Over the centuries, original pieces by Wang were lost and only exquisitely traced copies remain. Today, many of these copies are kept in Japan and revered as “national treasures.”

This winter, the Tokyo National Museum, in Tokyo, Japan, celebrates the life and legacy of China’s most admired calligrapher in Wang Xizhi: Master of Calligraphy. Reflecting on Wang’s style and artistic prowess, this exhibition seeks an authentic image of an elusive artist, reevaluating his artistic role and legacy through his influence on successive artists in China and Japan. In this exclusive interview, James Blake Wiener of the Ancient History Encyclopedia speaks with Dr. Tomita Jun–an expert on Chinese calligraphy and the show’s curator–with regard to Wang Xizhi’s enduring place in art history.

JW: Dr. Tomita Jun, thank so much for speaking to me on behalf of the Ancient History Encyclopedia! I am pleased to inform you that your interview is our first with a Japanese curator and our first with a Japanese museum. Welcome!

I wanted to begin with a elementary question of style and form: what makes Wang Xizhi’s artistic style so unique and thus worthy of our attention? Were scholars and artists attracted to his art because he mastered the five styles of Chinese calligraphy: seal; clerical; running (cursive); walking (semi-cursive); and standard?

TJ: Thank you, James. Each calligraphic style represents a manifestation of peoples’ wisdom, with each taking a long period of time to be fully developed. When Wang Xizhi was active as a calligrapher, the seal and clerical styles were already established. It is not really possible for an individual to alter established styles. The semi-cursive, cursive, and standard styles, however, were still in transitional stages, with their forms changing almost every day. I think that Wang Xizhi, who was born in this period when the three styles were continually evolving, greatly accelerated the development of calligraphic styles.

As society in the Eastern Jin dynasty was led by the nobility, this period saw calligraphy reach its highest level of refinement in China’s history. I feel that calligraphy, at this time, managed to incorporate profound expression into a casual writing style. Three hundred years later, Emperor Taizong (r. 626-649 CE) esteemed Wang Xizhi’s calligraphy above all others, stating that he never tired of looking at it. In other words, Wang Xizhi’s calligraphy was so engaging that it even captivated Emperor Taizong in the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE): a period which produced a highly opulent and cosmopolitan culture.

JW: Indeed! According to legend, Taizong was even buried with Wang’s masterpiece: The Record of the Orchid Pavilion Gathering. Wang’s works were readily collected and copied by the Chinese elite, and cherished by subsequent Chinese emperors for centuries. However, I was curious to learn more as to how Wang’s works were copied hundreds of years after his death: was their a special technique or method that enabled other artists to trace his masterpieces?

TJ: Even after Wang Xizhi’s death, successive generations of emperors continued to accumulate his works at the imperial court. At the court, professional copyists were hired to make copies of Wang Xizhi’s calligraphy. There were reportedly four methods used for producing these copies. The most sophisticated method used a technique called soko tenboku in Japanese.

In this technique, paper is placed over an original, with the characters showing through when viewed in sunlight. Soko means to then trace the outline of the characters; tenboku means to fill the traced outlines in with ink. This is, of course, a very general explanation. In some instances, depending on the place of production, ink lines the width of a hair were gradually built up to closely depict blurred parts of the original, or the movements of the original brush. As the paper and ink used were of the highest quality of their time, a remarkable quality of ink color remains even today.

JW: Many of these fine copies are now found in Japan and are proudly displayed in your exhibition. Do we know anything about how they came to Japan? Were they brought into the country during the period of commercial and diplomatic exchanges between Japan and China during the Asuka (538-710 CE) and Nara (710-794 CE) Periods?

TJ: It is thought that exquisite copies of Wang Xizhi’s works were brought back to Japan by envoys on the many Japanese missions sent from the imperial court to Tang dynasty China from 630 to 893 CE. I will provide some details below.

There are various written materials which tell us that copies of Wang Xizhi’s work were brought to Japan by envoys and other travelers from very early on. The most widely cited source is probably the Todaiji kenmotsu cho (Catalogue of Offerings to Todaiji Temple), a catalogue created when over 600 items cherished by Emperor Shomu (701-756 CE) were donated to the Great Buddha statue at Todaiji Temple, in Nara, by the emperor’s consort, Empress Komyo (701-760). The donation was made for the Buddhist memorial service marking forty-nine days after the death of Emperor Shomu, a service held on the twenty-first day of the sixth month, 756 CE (Tenpyo-shoho 8). Within this catalogue, there is an entry for 20 volumes of copies of Wang’s calligraphy, each volume containing roughly twenty to fifty lines of calligraphy. From the number of volumes listed, it is inferred that many other examples of his work were brought to Japan at this time.

A record that Emperor Kanmu (737-806 CE) borrowed copies of Wang Xizhi’s calligraphy from the Dairi (Inner Palace) is contained in a register of objects from the Shosoin Repository in Nara. According to this register, the twenty volumes of calligraphy mentioned in the Todaiji kenmotsu cho, as well as the first volume of a collection of Wang’s calligraphy, Daisho’o shinseki–which was added to the same catalogue in an entry for the first day of the sixth month, 758 CE (Tenpyo-hoji 2)–were borrowed from the Dairi on the twelfth day of the eighth month, 781 CE (Ten’o 1).

Of these, 12 volumes of the twenty were returned that year on the eighteenth day of the eighth month; the Daisho’o shinseki volume was returned the next year on the twenty-second day of the second month; and the remaining eight volumes were returned on the twenty-ninth day of the third month, 784 CE (Enryaku 3). The personal ink seals of Emperor Kanmu found on Note of Distress and Indignation (Sang luan tie) and Letter to Kong (Kong shi zhong tie)–both on display in the current exhibition–are thought to have been created at this time.

However, in the Konin tencho zomotsu shutsunyu cho (Records of Miscellaneous Objects in the Konin and Tencho Eras), there is an entry for the third day of the tenth month, 820 CE (Konin 11), which states that the Daisho’o shinseki calligraphy was sold publicly. As for the copies of Wang Xizhi’s calligraphy kept in the Dairi, though it is unclear what the circumstances were, it is known that they were gradually split up, scattered, and lost.

JW: When speaking of Wang, one must make some mention of his profound influence on the generations of calligraphers who lived after him. How does your exhibition demonstrate his importance to later artists and specifically, to Japanese calligraphers?

TJ: As we will hold an exhibition on Japanese calligraphy this autumn, we have not really incorporated this theme into the current exhibition. This is because, as the materials used for Asian calligraphy and paintings are extremely fragile, we have restrictions on the number of days a year they can be displayed.

The Japanese calligraphic work displayed in this exhibition, from the Akihagi jo Collection (National Treasure), is a scroll of copies of Wang Xizhi’s letters. This was created by a Japanese calligrapher in the 12th century CE. Eleven of Wang Xizhi’s letters are copied in this scroll, but among them are letters that cannot be found in China today. Wang Xizhi’s Preface to the Poems of the Orchid Pavilion Gathering also had a large influence on Japanese artists. The current exhibition features folding screens with depictions of the meandering stream at the Orchid Pavilion, painted by Ike Taiga (in 1763 CE) and Yosa Buson (in 1766 CE), who were renowned artists of the Edo Period (1603-1868 CE).

JW: To conclude this interview Dr. Tomita, what do you hope exhibition visitors learn about Wang and his calligraphy following a visit to your exhibition?

TJ: Wang Xizhi, who is revered as the “Sage of Calligraphy,” is a celebrated historical figure. However, no original works by him remain, and his personal character is wrapped in mystery. This exhibition features exquisite Tang dynasty copies of his work, which provide the most reliable documentation for assessing how his calligraphy actually looked. At the same time, copies of letters written by Wang Xizhi are also on display, with translations of their contents into modern Japanese. Through this exhibition, therefore, we hope visitors will gain a sense of the true image of Wang Xizhi’s calligraphy, as well as perceive the real form of his character. Additionally, we hope visitors will reconsider the attraction of Wang Xizhi’s calligraphy, which has fascinated people for the last 1,700 years, and consequently the question of what calligraphy is.

JW: I thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us, Dr. Tomita! We look forward to learning about the Tokyo National Museum’s future exhibitions in due time.

TJ: Thank you, James.

Wang Xizhi: Master Calligrapher will remain on show at the Tokyo National Museum, in Tokyo, Japan, until March 3, 2013. 

Image Reference & Credit:

1. Ritual to Pray for Good Harvest (Xingrang tie) (Item photograph)

(detail), Original: by Wang Xizhi, Copied in Tang dynasty, 7th-8th century CE, Princeton University Art Museum, New Jersey. Bequest of John B. Elliott, Class of 1951.

This work features just fifteen characters, in two lines, from a copy of Wang Xizhi’s calligraphy. The seals that crowd around it include those of the Northern Song dynasty emperor Huizong (r. 1100-1126 CE), and of the Emperor Qianlong (r. 1735-1796 CE) and Emperor Jiaqing (r. 1796-1820 CE), both of the Qing dynasty. The writing on the left and right sides is by Emperor Qianlong, who expresses his admiration for Wang Xizhi’s calligraphy.

2. Ritual to Pray for Good Harvest (Xingrang tie) (Display photograph)

Only a very few examples of exquisite, Tang dynasty copies remain. Of these, the provenance of this masterpiece is most prized.

3. Sister’s Arrival (Meizhi tie)

(detail), Original: by Wang Xizhi, Copied in Tang dynasty, 7th-8th century CE, Private collection.

The copies of Wang Xizhi’s work brought to Japan by envoys returning from China were divided into segments of a few lines and pasted into albums of model calligraphy. There is a large possibility that new examples will be discovered in the future.

4. By the Meandering Stream at the Orchid Pavilion, by Yosa Buson, Edo period, dated 1766 (Meiwa 3), Tokyo National Museum.

In Japan, The Orchard Pavilion Gathering is a scene idealized by the literati. The Preface to the Poems of the Orchard Pavilion Gathering includes profound, philosophical thoughts that have moved many people over the centuries.

5. Entrance to the exhibition

Against a background of his greatest masterpiece, the Preface to the Poems of the Orchard Pavilion Gathering, a portrait of Wang Xizhi greets visitors to the exhibition. The portrait is based on a work by Li Gonglin (1049-1106 CE), a court painter in the Northern Song dynasty.

Tomita Jun studied art at the China Academy of Art, in Hangzhou, China, on a Japanese government scholarship from 1985 to 1987. Soon afterwards, he graduated from the University of Tsukuba, in Tsukuba, Japan, with a doctorate in art. Since 1990, Dr. Tomita has worked for the Tokyo National Museum. As a follow-up to this exhibition on the life and works of Wang Xizhi, Dr. Tomita is now preparing a fall exhibition, which will explore the interplay between Chinese  and Japanese calligraphy across history. Additionally, this new exhibition will present the most recent scholarly research on Chinese calligraphy.

James Blake Wiener is a Director and the Public Relations Manager of the Ancient History Encyclopedia, providing a continuous listing of must-read articles, exciting museum exhibitions, and interviews with experts in the field. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor of history, James is also a freelance writer who is keenly interested in cross-cultural exchange. Committed to fostering increased awareness of the ancient world, James welcomes you to the Ancient History Encyclopedia and hopes that you find his news releases and interviews to be “illuminating.”

Nota Bene: In keeping with East Asian custom, we reference full names in this interview with the surname first, followed by the personal or given name, second.

All photographs and images supplied by the Tokyo National Museum are copyrighted and their exclusively property. The profile picture of Dr. Tomita Jun is his exclusive property and is also copyrighted. These images have been kindly given to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, as a privilege, for the purposes of this interview. The romanization and translations of Japanese and Mandarin Chinese terms and titles are the work of Dr. Tomita Jun. We thank him for providing these translations. We would also like to express our sincerest thanks to Ms. Takahasi Kumi for her assistance in arranging this interview. Without her, this interview would not have been possible. All rights reserved. © AHE 2013.

Filed under: Interviews


James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director at Ancient History Encyclopedia. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor, James is chiefly interested in cross-cultural exchange, world history, and international relations. Aside from his work at AHE, James is an avid Arabist, devotee of romance languages (French, Portuguese, and Spanish), reggaetoñero, and fan of ice hockey.