Highlights of Chinese Culture and History

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Inscribing on Fans at Bridgehead

Chinese calligraphy, which is handwriting with a Chinese writing brush, is one of China's traditional art forms. In doing calligraphy, due attention must be paid to the correct way of holding the brush, to the principles of putting down the eight basic strokes, i.e., dot strokes, horizontal strokes, vertical strokes, rising strokes, left-falling strokes, right-falling strokes, hook strokes, turning strokes, and to the overall structure and positioning of the tops and bottoms, the left and right sides and the inner and outer parts of each individual character.

Calligraphy as an art form has a very long history in China. Originating from pictographs, the Chinese script gradually evolved into different styles of writing: seal characters, official script, regular or formal script, running hand, cursive hand, etc. Many distinguished calligraphers have emerged, each with his own distinctive style, which is often the reflection of his individual temperament and character. This accounts for the popular saying: "The handwriting mirrors the writer." Let us take for example Wang Xizhi, the great calligrapher of the Eastern Jin Dynasty. With its many variations and beautiful shapes, his handwriting, known as the "style of Wang" after his surname, brings to mind the image of  floating clouds in the sky, or a flying dragon on a rampage through space.The handwriting of the great calligrapher Ouyang Xun of the Tang Dynasty, called the "style of Ou," reminds one of a frightened snake slithering through a thick growth of grass, or streaked lightning amidst gathering dark clouds. It is a perfect combination of grace and strength. In addition, there are also the "style of Wei," "style of Yan," "style of Liu," "style of Zhao", all of which are artistic accomplishments that appeal to people's aesthetic taste. Wang Xizhi, whose handwriting is considered the acme of calligraphy, has traditionally been called the "sage of calligraphy."

At the age of seven, Wang Xizhi began to learn calligraphy from a female calligrapher Madame Wei together with his father. He was soon so deeply involved in it that while he was walking, he would often ponder over the structure of a word and the best way of manipulating the brush. All the while he would execute the various strokes on his body, until finally his clothes were worn through from incessant practice. Each time he finished writing, Wang always washed his writing brush and ink slab in the pond in front of his home, causing the once clear water to grow blacker and blacker until it virtually became, as the people called it, the "ink pond." Through years of diligent and unremitting practice, Wang finally became the most outstanding calligrapher in the history of Chinese calligraphy. Under his influence, his wife and seven sons all work a great liking to calligraphy, especially his youngest son Wang Xianzhi who later became a famous calligrapher as well. The term "the two Wangs" in the history of Chinese calligraphy refers to none other than his father and son pair. History abounds with stories and legends about the calligraphy of Wang Xizhi.

One evening, Wang Xizhi was strolling on a stone bridge in Shaoxing when he saw an old woman leaning on a staff at the head of the bridge, carrying in her hand a basket full of bamboo fans, her face overcast with gloom and depression for want of customers.Feeling sorry for the old woman, Wang went up to her and said, "Granny, there are neither paintings nor inscriptions on your fans. That's why they won't sell. How about letting me writing a few words for you on the fans?" The old woman did not know Wang Xizhi, yet trusting him to be a kind person, handed over all her fans. Wang borrowed a writing brush, an ink slab and some ink at once. Then leaning against the parapet, he began to work, inscribing a few words on each fan. This he finished doing in a few minutes. At the sight of the sweeping strokes which left a confused black and white pattern on the fans, the old woman looked rather glum. Wang tried to comfort her, "Don't worry. Just tell people that there words were written by Wang Youjun, and you'll have no lack of buyers." And sure enough! On hearing that the fans bore the inscriptions of Wang Xizhi, people clamored for them and the whole lot was gone in no time. The old woman was of course most grateful to Wang Xizhi. In present Shaoxing, there is a stone-arch bridge which is believed to be the very one where Wang Xizhi inscribed the fans for the old woman. It is called "Fan-inscribing Bridge."

According to tradition, there was a Taoist priest who had long wished to have a hand-written copy of Daodejing by Laozi in the calligraphy of Wang Xizhi. Being told that Wang was very fond of white geese because of their noble and unsullied character, correct and upright deportment and loud, resonant voice, he started to raise a flock of white geese. One day, when Wang happened to pass by the home of the Taoist priest, he saw swimming in an emerald pond a flock of white geese. They flapped their wings and splashed the water about.Honking loudly, they swam straight ahead, their heads high and erect. Wang stood fascinated by the sight and found it hard to tear himself away. Finally he pleaded with the Taoist to sell the whole flock to him. With a smile, the Taoist said in reply, "Since you are so fond of them, I'll give them all to you on condition that you write for a copy of Daodejing by Laozi." Without hesitation, Wang set about writing a copy of the book for the Taoist, who in return immediately put all the geese in a cage and gave them to him as token of his gratitude. In today's Lanting Park outside the town of Shaoxing, there is a stone tablet by the side of a goose pond; on that tablet is written two Chinese characters, the equivalent of the English term, "goose pond", of which the first word is said to be written by Wang Xizhi and the second by his youngest son Wang Xianzhi.


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