Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Calligraphy of Wang Xizhi

Above: Or.8210/S.3753 — British Library manuscript featuring copies of no. 3 (Longbao tie 龍保帖) and no. 8 (Zhanjin tie 瞻近帖) from Wang Xizhi’s Shiqitie.

Below: Pelliot chinois 4642 — Bibliothèque nationale de France manuscript featuring a copy of no.23 (Zhanji hutao tie 旃罽胡桃帖) from Wang Xizhi’s Shiqitie.

The fourth-century calligrapher Wang Xizhi (王羲之, 303–361) became known in China as the 'Sage of Calligraphy' for his mastery of all calligraphic forms, in particular semi-cursive script (行书). His work was prized by calligraphers, collectors and emperors, both for its artistry and its rarity. As none of his original work is known to have survived, it was through rubbings, tracings and copies that his legacy was secured as generations of calligraphers tried to emulate his distinctive style.

Even in Dunhuang, on the opposite side of China from his native province of Shandong, we know of at least two manuscripts that have been identified as copies of Wang Xizhi’s work. One of these is now in the Stein Collection at the British Library and the other, first identified by Pelliot, is at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Dating back to the Tang period (618–907), these manuscripts show three parts of the Shiqitie (十七帖), a model work in cursive script consisting of letters and other miscellaneous texts and named after the first two characters of the original piece.

Copies of Wang Xizhi's work continue to be identified and to make headlines. As recently as January 2013, a fragment of a letter held in a private Japanese collection was identified by specialists at the Tokyo National Museum as an expert copy of a Wang Xizhi original. It was promptly displayed in the museum's exhibition Wang Xizhi: Master Calligrapher, which ran from 22 January to 3 March 2013.

These manuscripts will feature in The Calligraphy of Wang Xizhi and Wang Xianzhi (王羲之王獻之書法全集), to be published in June 2013 by the Forbidden City Publishing House.

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