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Biography of Wang Xizhi

Wang Xizhi is known as the Sage of Caligraphy. He is remembered not only for revolutionizing the art of Chinese writing, but also for his complete devotion to this traditional Chinese art form.

Born in 303 AD in the state of Eastern Jin, Wang Xishi started learning how to write when he was seven. His first teachers were his father's elder brother and a well-known lady calligrapher, Madam Wei Shuo.

Wang Xizhi began by mastering the zheng (regular) style calligraphy. Under his school of calligraphy, the Chinese ideograms were written in symmetrical blocks. As he grew older, the calligrapher began to develop his own style of writing. Wang Xizhi's xing (walking) style of calligraphy breathed life and motion into the written words. As its name suggests, xing calligraphy is a more flowing style of writing, allowing the writer to express his feelings and his moods through the brush.

Wang Xizhi's most celebrated piece of calligraphy is Lan Ting Xu (The Prelude of the Orchid Pavilion). This was written in 353 AD, when the calligrapher and a group of 41 relatives and friends were on an outing in the countryside.

The picnickers sat by the two sides of a running stream. Little cups of wine were then floated downstream. When a cup stopped in front of anyone, that person was required to compose a poem. Those who failed to do so were made to drink the wine as forfeit.

At the end of the day, 26 of the picnickers had to compose a total of 35 poems. Much wine had also been consumed in the process.

The good company and the strong wine put Wang Xizhi in such an excited mood that he took up his brush and, there and then, wrote the Lan Ting Xu as a prelude to the collection of poems. It is said that Wang Xizhi tried to reproduce the Prelude for nearly 100 times several days later, but he was never able to match his spontaneous calligraphy of that day.

The original Lan Ting Xu, which is considered the greatest masterpiece of Chinese calligraphy in history, was subsequently acquired by Emperor Tai Zong of the Tang dynasty. He liked it so much that he ordered his court's calligraphers to make copies of it. When he died, Wang Xizhi's calligraphy was buried with him.

Although the original Lan Ting Xu disappeared from the world in 650 AD, Wang Xizhi's style of writing continued to be a dominant influence of Chinese calligraphy. Emperor Tai Zong's high regard for the prelude encouraged many calligraphers to imitate Wang Xizhi's writing style.

A good calligrapher is not only able to express his thoughts through his writing, he is expected to give life and form to his words. It is an art which requires a clear mind and complete control of the writing painting brush. It is an art that takes years of painstaking practice to achieve.

Even as a child, Wang Xizhi was absorbed in practising his calligraphy that he would often forget to eat. A story goes that he absent-mindedly dipped a piece of bread into the black ink, thinking that it was his brush! And a pond that was outside his house turned completely black because he used it so often to wash his brushes.

Wang Xianzhi (the seventh son of Xizhi) worked equally hard on his calligraphy. When he was 12, he showed a word which his father had corrected to his mother. The lady, who was also a calligrapher, immediately spotted the stroke that had been written by her husband.

The young boy realised that he was still very poor as compared to his father. Determined to improve his writing, the young boy filled 18 big jars with water and promised that he would not give up until he had finished using the the water to wet his ink stone!

Wang Xizhi served as a court official in his adulthood. He was a compassionate man and tried to persuade the other officials to treat the common people fairly and humanely. However, he retired because of his ill-health and died in 361 AD when he was 58. To this day he examplifies the diligence. He and his son, Wang Xianzhi, are respected for their patience and hard work.

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