Four Anecdotes from the Life of Wang Xizhi, ca. 1310
Zhao Mengfu (Chinese, 1254–1322)
Handscroll, ink on paper; 9 5/8 x 46 1/8 in. (24.4 x 117 cm)
Bequest of John M. Crawford Jr., 1988 (1989.363.30)
The Yuan emperor 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 the leading calligrapher of his time, Zhao advocated a return to ancient models, successfully integrating Jin (265–420) and Tang (618–906) dynasty styles to create a new synthesis in both standard and cursive scripts. During the fourteenth century, the typefaces of printed books were modeled after his standard script, while his cursive script, seen here, formed the basis for the informal writing styles of many later calligraphers.
Four Anecdotes from the Life of Wang Xizhi testifies to Zhao's devotion to the "calligraphy sage" Wang Xizhi (306–365), whose calligraphic style strongly influenced his own. Each of these apocryphal stories conveys a sense of how much Wang's calligraphy was valued in his lifetime. The last story is a good example:
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 Daodejing 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 give Wang the whole flock. Wang stayed for half a day to write out the chapters, then he caged the geese and returned home.