Thursday, June 10, 2010
Bian Cai Sadly Lost the Authentic Lanting Xu 辩才痛失《兰亭序》
The calligraphy sage Wang Xizhi’s representative works include the ‘Inscription of Calmness’, the ‘Inscription of Crescent Moon’, the ‘Inscription of Clearing-Up After Snowing’, etc. Among them the most famous one is the Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion written in walking style (xing-shu). The preface of a collection of poems written by some friends when gathering at the Orchid Pavilion (or Lanting) near Shaoxing of Zhejiang Province for the Spring Purification Festival, it comprises 28 lines and 324 characters, with each character in different shapes. The original is lost, but there are a number of fine tracing copies and rubbings.
The original copy of Lanting Xu was given to Wang Xizhi’s son Wang Xianzhi. After Wang Xianzhi, the calligraphy was lost for nearly 300 years until in the year 636, the emperor of Tang dynasty Taizong obtained it through cunning means from the monk Bian Cai, who was a disciple of Zhi Yong, an seventh-generation descendent of Wang Xizhi.
A story recorded by He Yanzhi and collected in the Taiping Guangji (Tai Ping Anthologies) tells how Emperor Taizong obtained the original copy from Bian Cai.
Half-way through his reign, Emperor Taizong of Tang decided that he would learn the calligraphy of two Wangs, i.e. Wang Xizhi and Wang Xianzhi. He had collected all their calligraphic works, except the Lanting Xu, which is known to be the best calligraphy of walking style. It was later learned that the authentic work was in the hands of Monk Bian Cai. Tang Taizong sent emissaries on three occasions to retrieve the text, but each time, Biancai responded that it had been lost during troubled times and he had no idea what it was now.
Prime Minister Fang Xuanling recommended that imperial historian Xiao Yi be despatched to retrieve it from Bian Cai by all means. Xiao Yi disguised as a wandering scholar, and he quickly became a good friend of Bian Cai, as they shared common interests in playing chess, citing poetry, talking about painting and calligraphy. One day, Bain Cai can’t help showing off the authentic Lanting Xu that was hidden behind the roof beam. Xiao Yi later stole the copy and brought it back to the capital for Emperor Taizong.
After he got it, Emperor Taizong cherished Lanting Xu as if he had found a most rare treasure. He ordered that copies to be made for giving away to members of royal families and his court officials. He said to his son on his death bed, ‘I know you are a son of filial piety. I would like to request a favour from you and I am sure you will not disappoint me. Will you?’
With that, the authentic Lanting Xu was buried with the emperor in his mausoleum.