Four Anecdotes from the Life of Wang Xizhi

Zhao Mengfu (Chinese, 1254–1322)

Yuan dynasty (1271–1368)
datable to ca. 1310
Handscroll; ink on paper
Image: 9 5/8 x 46 1/16 in. (24.4 x 117 cm) Overall with mounting: 10 7/16 in. x 27 ft. 1 1/8 in. (26.5 x 851.2 cm)
Credit Line:
Bequest of John M. Crawford Jr., 1988
Accession Number:
  • Description

    The emperor Yuan Renzong (r. 1312–20) is said to have remarked that no one could compare with Zhao Mengfu, who possessed seven outstanding qualities: Song royal ancestry, elegant appearance, wide learning, pure character and righteous conduct, literary accomplishment, skill in calligraphy and painting, and profound knowledge of Buddhist and Daoist teachings.

    As a leading calligrapher, Zhao advocated a return to ancient models, successfully integrating styles of the Jin (265–420) and Tang (618-907) dynasties to create a new synthesis in both regular and cursive scripts. During the fourteenth century, the typefaces of printed books were modeled after his regular script, while his cursive script, seen here, formed the basis for many later writers' informal writing styles.

    Four Anecdotes from the Life of Wang Xizhi testifies to Zhao's devotion to the "Sage of Calligraphy," Wang Xizhi (303–361). Strongly influenced by Wang's style, this scroll dates to about 1310.


    Artist’s inscription and signature (37 columns in semi–cursive and cursive scripts)

    In the beginning [Wang] Xizhi did not excel in calligraphy; he was no match for Yu Yi or Xi Yin. Toward the end of his life, however, he reached the highest peak of this art. Once he wrote a letter to Yu Liang in “draft cursive” script which Liang showed to Yu Yi. Admiring it, Yu sent a letter to Xizhi and said, “I once owned ten sheets of ‘draft cursive’ writing by Boying [Zhang Zhi, active about 150] which were lost when I fled north China across the Yangzi River. I deeply regret that such excellent works are gone forever. When I happened to see your letter to my brother, however, as brilliant as if written by a god, my former pleasure and appreciation were revived.
    When Xizhi left his position as the Prefect of Kuaiji, he resided at the foot of Mount Ji. One day an old woman was going to market with ten-odd hexagonal fans. Wang asked her the price and she answered that each cost twenty coins, whereupon Wang took a brush and wrote five characters on each fan. The old woman sorrowfully said that her whole family’s livelihood depended on those fans and asked why Wang wrote on them and ruined their value. Wang told her to tell the buyers that the calligraphy was by Leader of the Right Army Wang [Wang Xizhi] and to ask for one hundred coins each. The old woman went to the market and a crowd gathered and bought them all. She then brought ten–odd more blank fans for Wang to write on. He only smiled and did not answer.

    Xizhi once wrote a memorial to Emperor Mudi of Jin. The emperor ordered Zhang Yi to make an exact copy. Then the emperor himself wrote a reply upon it. Xizhi did not notice at first but, after a careful look, recognized the substitution. He sighed, “That fellow almost confused which one was authentic.”

    Xizhi was extremely fond of [the graceful appearance of] geese. In Shanyin there was a Daoist monk who had raised a flock of more than ten fine geese. One morning Wang decided to take a small boat and go there. He was delighted with the geese and wanted to buy them, but the monk refused to sell. Wang tried in vain to persuade him. Finally, the monk told Wang that he loved Daoist philosophy and had always wanted a transcription of Laozi’s Dao de jing with its commentary by Heshanggong. He had already prepared the silk, but no one was qualified to write it. He asked if Wang would condescend to transcribe two chapters each from the Dao and De sections, for which he would repay Wang with the whole flock of geese. Wang stayed for half a day to write out the chapters, then he caged the geese and returned home.[1] Written by Ziang





    Artist's seals

    Zhao shi Ziang 趙氏子昂
    Daya 大雅
    Songxue Zhai 松雪齋
    Tianshui Jun tushu yin 天水郡圖書印
    Mo miao 墨妙

    Label strip

    Shao Songnian 邵松年 (1848–1923), 2 columns in running/standard script, undated (mounted on brocade wrapper)

    Zhao Wenmin’s [Zhao Mengfu’s] transcription in manuscript form of four anecdotes from the life of Wang Xizhi, a work of the divine class. In the collection of Lanxue Zhai [Shao Songnian].



    1. Zhang Yu 張雨(1283–1350), 3 columns in standard script, undated; 1 seal:

    The text of the four anecdotes to the right comes from Lunshu biao (Discussion on calligraphy). Had Vice Minister Yu [Yu He, active 5th century] seen this piece by Zhao Weigong [Zhao Mengfu], what would he have said? Viewed by Zhang Yu from Mt. Gouqu [in present–day Gourong, Jiangsu Province].[3] [Seal]: Gouqu Waishi

    右四則語見《論書表》。使虞侍郎見趙魏公此蹟,當復作何語耶。句曲張雨觀。 [印]: 句曲外史

    2. Lu Jishan 陸繼善(1298–1345), 2 columns in running–standard script, dated 1338:

    On the fifteenth of the intercalary eighth month in the fourth year of the Zhiyuan era [September 29, 1338], viewed at the Xuanwen Guan by Lu Jishan from Fuli [in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province].


    3. Ni Zan 倪瓚 (1306–1374), 4 columns in standard script, dated 1368:

    The structural integrity and spirit of Grand Master Zhao’s [Zhao Mengfu’s] calligraphy surpasses those of the Song masters’. But in terms of self–containment, he was inferior to Tang masters. I have just seen his transcription of four anecdotes from Wang Xizhi’s life, which is no less elegant than the ancient masters’ calligraphy. On the seventeenth of the tenth lunar month of the wushen year [November 27, 1368] I viewed this at Zhang Yuandu’s (active 14th century) Huanlü Xuan studio, Ni Zan.


    4. Wu Kuan 吳寬 (1436–1504), 5 columns in semi–cursive script, dated 1493; 1 seal:

    Master Wenmin [Zhao Mengfu] took Xi [Wang Xizhi, ca. 303–ca. 361] and Xian [Wang Xianzhi, ca. 344–ca. 386] as his models in studying calligraphy all his life, so he liked to transcribe their life stories. In addition, his own manner resembled theirs too. On the sixteenth of the seventh lunar month in the guichou year of the Hongzhi reign era [August 27, 1493] I viewed this at the Bingxiu Tang studio while raining, Wu Kuan. [Seal]: Yuanbo

    文敏公平生學書以羲、獻為師,故喜書其事,其風度蓋亦類之也。弘治癸丑七月十六日雨中在並秀堂觀,吳寬。 [印]:原博

    5. Zhou Tianqiu 周天球 (1514–1595), 6 columns in running–standard script, dated 1570:

    In the fifth lunar month of the gengwu year in the Longqing era (1570) I visited Grand Mentor Sha An twice and saw five pieces of Wenmin’s [Zhao Mengfu’s] calligraphy. Among them, his copy of the Seventeen Letters best captures the principles of Wang Xizhi’s calligraphy. The flowing energy and spontaneity of this scroll are also derived from Wang’s. Ni [Ni Zan, 1306–1374], the oddball, degraded him to the rank of Song calligraphers. Wasn’t he indeed an oddball! I presumptuously argue against it. Zhou Tianqiu from Wujun [Suzhou, Jiangsu Province].


    6. Hu Shi’an 胡世安(1593–1663), 6 columns in semi–cursive script, undated; 2 seals:

    When the Administrator [Wang Xizhi] did calligraphy, his idea always preceded rules. These four anecdotes reveal his spirit in full. When the Recipient of Edicts [Zhao Mengfu] studied Wang’s methods, he focused on his idea, which this scroll well embodies. People of the past said that Ziang [Zhao Mengfu] got rid of all the faults of Yan’s [Yan Zhenqing’s, 709–784 or 785] and Liu’s [Liu Gongquan’s, 778–865] calligraphy and learned directly from the Jin masters, and that he was the only great one after Wang. This opinion was no mere flattery. Xiuyan Yinshi, Hu Shi’an, from Xishu [modern Sichuan Province]. [Seals]: Hu Shi’an yin, Chujing fu

    內史臨池,意先乎法,四則已露全神。承旨學王法,準乎意,此卷可稱具體。昔人謂子昂一洗顏、柳之病,直以晉人為師,右軍之後一人而已,似非阿好。西蜀秀巖隱史胡世安 [印]:胡世安印、處靜父

    7. Shao Songnian 邵松年(1848–1923), 4 columns in standard script, dated 1891; 1 seal:

    Wenmin [Zhao Mengfu] lived about six hundred years ago. His writings in large and small semi–cursive and standard scripts, kept in both manuscript and rubbing forms, amount to hundreds. In terms of the condition of paper and ink and the preservation of the work’s spirit, none surpasses this scroll. I acquired it in the capital years ago and have treasured it ever since. Last winter I also acquired his long handscroll that transcribed the “Thousand-character Essay” in four different scripts, which could make an excellent pair with this piece. In the ninth lunar month of the xinmao year in the Guangxu reign era (1891) Shao Songnian from Yushan [in Changshu, Jiangsu Province]. [Seal]: Songnian

    文敏至今六百年,大小行楷傳刻不下數百種,求其楮墨如新,精神完足,殆無逾此者。往歲得此卷于京師,奉為珍祕。客冬,復得公《四體千文》長卷,與此可稱珠聯璧合。光緒辛卯九月虞山邵松年 [印]:松年

    8. Shao Songnian 邵松年(1848–1923), 5 columns in standard script, dated 1916; 1 seal:

    I had this scroll and the Dingwu version of the Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Gathering traced and carved on stone to be preserved in my Lanxue Zhai studio. I then did the same with the standard–script and cursive–script parts of the Thousand–character Essay in Four Scripts and placed them at the beginning of my compilation of calligraphic rubbings, the Chenglan Tang fatie. Thus the two most indelible masterpieces of Zhao Mengfu’s calligraphy in my collection are now preserved on stone to last forever. Viewers in the future should treasure them greatly. In the second lunar month of the bingchen year (1916) Xi Laoren [Shao Songnian] at sixty–nine sui. [Seal]: Songnian zhi yin yue Songnian

    予既以是卷與《定武蘭亭序》摹刻于蘭雪齋中,又將《四體千文》中真草鈎勒以冠《澄蘭堂法帖》之首。蓋所藏松雪墨蹟銘心絕品二種,俱得上石以垂永久,後之覽者其珍重當何如耶。丙辰二月息老人時年六十有九。 [印]:松年之印曰松年

    Collectors’ seals

    1. Zhang Yu 張雨 (1275–after 1349)
    Gouqu Waishi 句曲外史

    2. Wu Kuan 吳寬 (1435–1504)
    Yanzhou Lai jizi hou 延州來季子後

    3. Liang Qingbiao 梁清標 (1620–1691)
    Liang Qingbiao yin 梁清標印
    Jiaolin Shuwu 蕉林書屋
    Yexi Yuyin 冶溪漁隱
    Jiaolin Jushi 蕉林居士
    Cangyanzi 蒼巖子

    4. Liang Qingjun 梁清雋 (17th c.)
    Liang Qingjun yin 梁清雋印
    Xuanying Zhai cang 玄映齋藏

    5. Shao Songnian 邵松年 (1848–1923)
    Songnian suocang 松年所藏
    Lanxue Zhai pingsheng zhenshang 蘭雪齋平生真賞
    Xi An 息盫
    Xi An zhencang 息盫珍藏
    Yanshan Shao zi Songnian zhi yin (twice) 燕山邵子松年之印
    Haiyu Shao shi zhencang jinshi shuhua zhi yin 海虞邵氏珍藏金石書畫之印
    Chang yi zisun 長宜子孫
    Shending zhenji 審定真跡
    Xi An zhenmi 息盫珍秘

    6. Xu Hanqing 許漢卿 (1882–?)
    Xu Hanqing yin 許漢卿印
    Hanqing zhi yin 漢卿之印

    7. Zhou Dawen 周大文 (ca. 1930)
    Zhou Dawen yin 周大文印
    Zhenda Dawen 貞大大文

    8. Cheng Qi 程琦 (20th c.)
    Gu She Cheng shi zhencang 古歙程氏珍藏
    Cheng Bofen yin 程伯奮印
    Ke An suode mingxin juepin 可菴所得銘心絕品
    Cheng Ke An shuhua ji 程可菴書畫記

    9. Gu Luofu 顧洛阜 (John M. Crawford, Jr., 1913–1988)
    Hanguang Ge zhu Gu Luofu jiancang Zhongguo gudai shuhua zhi zhang 漢光閣主顧洛阜鑑藏中國古代書畫之章

    10. Unidentified:
    Guixue Shanfang 癸雪山房
    Guixue Zhuren shending zhenji 癸雪主人審定真蹟
    Yunxiang siyin 允襄私印
    Hengshan Pan ? xiang tao ? tushu zhai 恆山潘□襄陶□圖書齋

    [1] Translation from Kwan S. Wong, Stephen Addiss, and Thomas Lawton, Masterpieces of Song and Yuan Dynasty Calligraphy from the John C. Crawford Jr. Collection. Exhibition catalogue. New York: China Institute in America, 1981, pp. 72-73. Modified.
    [2] Translations from Department records.
    [3] The Lunshu biao was written by Yu He in 470.

  • See also
    In the Museum
    Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History