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Orchid Pavilion Preface (蘭亭序)

Wang Xizhi (王羲之, 303–361), Jin Dynasty (266–420)

Handscroll, ink on paper, 24.5 x 69.9 cm, The Palace Museum, Beijing

       This is perhaps the most famous piece of calligraphy in Chinese history. Legend has it that Emperor Taizong of Tang (唐太宗, 598–649) was so fond of this piece that he had it buried with him. Numerous copies were made in the Tang and subsequent dynasties. The image here is a trace copy made by Feng Chengsu (馮承素, 617–672) during the Taizong reign, and is generally regarded to be the one closest to Wang Xizhi’s original. The text is translated below:

       On this late spring day, the ninth year of Yonghe (AD 353), we gathered at the Orchid Pavilion in Shaoxing to observe the Spring Purification Festival. All of the prominent people were there, from old to young. High mountains and luxuriant bamboo groves lie in the back; a limpid, swift stream gurgles around, which reflected the sunlight as it flowed past either side of the pavilion. We sat by the water, sharing wine from a floating goblet while chanting poems, which gave us delight in spite of the absence of musical accompaniment. This is a sunny day with a gentle valley breeze. Spreading before the eye is the beauty of nature, and hanging high is the immeasurable universe. This is perfect for an aspired mind. What a joy.

       Though born with different personalities—some give vent to their sentiment in a quiet chat while others repose their aspiration in Bohemianism—people find pleasure in what they pursue and never feel tired of it. Sometimes they pause to recall the days lapsed away. Realizing that what fascinated yesterday is a mere memory today, not to mention that everyone will return to nothingness, an unsuppressible sorrow would well up. Isn’t it sad to think of it?

       I am often moved by ancients’ sentimental lines which lamented the swiftness and uncertainty of life. When future generations look back to my time, it will probably be similar to how I now think of the past. What a shame! Therefore, when I list out the people that were here, and record their musings, even though times and circumstances will change, as for the things that we regret, they are the same. For the people who read this in future generations, perhaps you will likewise be moved by my words.


       夫人之相與,俯仰一世,或取諸懷抱,悟言一室之內;或因寄所托,放浪形骸之外。雖趣舍萬殊,靜躁不同,當其欣於所遇,暫得於己,怏然自足,不知老之將至。及其所之既倦,情隨事遷,感慨系之矣。向之所欣,俯仰之間,以為陳跡,猶不能不以之興懷。況修短隨化,終期於盡。古人雲:“死生亦大矣。” 豈不痛哉! 


Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion
Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion