In 353, the renowned calligrapher Wang Xizhi (307–365) and his friends met at the Orchid Pavilion (at Shanyin, in modern Zhejiang Province) to celebrate the spring festival of purification. Sitting by a stream, they held a poetry competition. When the time was up, eleven men had finished two poems, and fifteen had finished one; the sixteen who failed to come up with anything (among them, Wang’s son Xianzhi) were penalized by having to drink three additional cups of wine. In Qian Gu’s representation of this famous literary event, cups of wine float downstream as the poets, lined up on both sides, drink freely and struggle to complete their poems.
Orphaned at an early age, Qian Gu did not receive a formal education until adulthood, when he became a pupil of Wen Zhengming (1470–1559). This painting is modeled after a composition said to have been originated by Li Gonglin (ca. 1049–1106).
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明 錢榖 蘭亭修禊圖 卷
Title:Gathering at the Orchid Pavilion
Artist:Qian Gu (Chinese, 1508–ca. 1578)
Period:Ming dynasty (1368–1644)
Medium:Handscroll; ink and color on paper
Dimensions:Image: 9 1/2 x 171 1/2 in. (24.1 x 435.6 cm) Overall with mounting: 9 3/4 x 491 3/8 in. (24.8 x 1248.1 cm)
Credit Line:Ex coll.: C. C. Wang Family, Gift of Douglas Dillon, 1980
Inscription: 明 錢榖 蘭亭修禊圖 卷 Qian Gu (1508-ca. 1578) Gathering at the Orchid Pavilion (Lanting xiuqi) Datable to 1560 Handscroll; ink and color on paper 9 3/8 x 161 11/16 in. (23.8 x 436 cm) Ex coll.: C. C. Wang Family Gift of Douglas Dillon, 1980 1980.80
Artist’s signature and inscriptions (195 columns in standard script, dated 1560; mounted after the painting)
[Transcription of Wang Xizhi’s 王羲之 (303–361) Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Gathering 蘭亭集序]
In the ninth year  of the Yonghe [Everlasting Harmony] reign, which was a guichou year, early in the final month of spring, we gathered at Orchid Pavilion in Shanyin in Guiji for the ceremony of purification. Young and old congregated, and there was a throng of men of distinction. Surrounding the pavilion were high hills with lofty peaks, luxuriant woods and tall bamboos. There was, moreover, a swirling, splashing stream, wonderfully clear, which curved round it like a ribbon, so that we seated ourselves along it in a drinking game, in which cups of wine were set afloat and drifted to those who sat downstream. The occasion was not heightened by the presence of musicians. Nevertheless, what with drinking and the composing of verses, we conversed in whole-hearted freedom, entering fully into one another's feelings. The day was fine, the air clear, and a gentle breeze regaled us, so that on looking up we responded to the vastness of the universe, and on bending down were struck by the manifold riches of the earth. And as our eyes wandered from object to object, so our hearts, too, rambled with them. Indeed, for the eye as well as the ear, it was pure delight! What perfect bliss! For in men's associations with one another in their journey through life, some draw upon their inner resources and find satisfaction in a closeted conversation with a friend, but others, led by their inclinations, abandon themselves without constraint to diverse interests and pursuits, oblivious of their physical existence. Their choice may be infinitely varied even as their temperament will range from the serene to the irascible. Yet, when absorbed by what they are engaged in, they are for the moment pleased with themselves and, in their self-satisfaction, forget that old age is at hand. But when eventually they tire of what had so engrossed them, their feelings will have altered with their circumstances; and, of a sudden, complacency gives way to regret. What previously had gratified them is now a thing of the past, which itself is cause for lament. Besides, although the span of men's lives may be longer or shorter, all must end in death. And, as has been said by the ancients, birth and death are momentous events. What an agonizing thought! In reading the compositions of earlier men, I have tried to trace the causes of their melancholy, which too often are the same as those that affect myself. And I have then confronted the book with a deep sigh, without, however, being able to reconcile myself to it all. But this much I do know: it is idle to pretend that life and death are equal states, and foolish to claim that a youth cut off in his prime has led the protracted life of a centenarian. For men of a later age will look upon our time as we look upon earlier ages—a chastening reflection. And so I have listed those present on this occasion and transcribed their verses. Even when circumstances have changed and men inhabit a different world, it will still be the same causes that induce the mood of melancholy attendant on poetical composition. Perhaps some reader of the future will be moved by the sentiments expressed in this preface.
[Trans. by H. C. Chang in Chinese Literature: Volume Two: Nature Poetry, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1977, pp. 8–9]
The stone engravings of the Orchid Pavilion Gathering manuscript and the related colophons from past to present amount to several dozens, of which only the Dingwu edition is good. However, even those from the Dingwu edition vary with fleshy or lean brushwork, and it is hard to tell which is superior. Monk Chunling, Abbot of the Shouning Temple, loves arts and letters and follows me in cultural engagements. After seeing a rubbing [of the manuscript] in the residence of the Prince of Zhou, he had these three pieces of old paper connected into one and asked me to paint on it. Interrupted by miscellaneous things, I worked on it intermittently, unable to finish it until five months later. Upon its completion, he again forced me to copy the Dingwu edition [of the manuscript] and the poetic colophons with the writers’ names after the painting to make the scroll an all-inclusive enjoyment. I am not a calligrapher. Unable to get away with this request, I struggled to get it done. Knowing that my brushwork is unrefined and my mind is uncultivated, how dare I emulate the ancients! With image and text side by side, however, it may be good enough for private amusement in the mountains. To show it off to other people will incur ridicule. Written with embarrassment on the fifteenth of the sixth month in the summer of the gengshen year in the Jiajing reign era (July 8, 1560) by Qian Gu. [Trans. by Shi-yee Liu]
Qing emperor Xuantong 清帝宣統 (r. 1909–1911) Xuantong yulan zhi bao 宣統御覽之寳 Wuyi Zhai jingjian xi 無逸齋精鑒璽 Xuantong jianshang 宣統鑒賞
Wang Jiqian 王季遷 (1907–2003) Wang Jiqian haiwai suojian mingji 王季遷海外所見名跡 Ceng cang Wang Jiqian chu 曾藏王季遷處 Zhenze Wang shi Baowu Tang tushu ji 震澤王氏寳武堂圖書記 Zhenze Wang shi Jiqian shoucang yin 震澤王氏季遷收藏印 Huaiyun Lou jianshang shuhua zhi ji 懷雲樓鑒賞書畫之記
Mu Si 穆思 (Earl Morse, 1908–1988) Mu Si shoucang mingji 穆思收藏名迹
Douglas Dillon American, New York (until 1980; donated to MMA)
Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. "Late Wu School Painting and Calligraphy," September 14, 1984–October 28, 1984.
Fort Worth. Kimbell Art Museum. "Late Wu School Painting and Calligraphy," December 2, 1984–January 27, 1985.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "A Millennium of Chinese Painting: Masterpieces from the Permanent Collection," September 8, 2001–January 13, 2002.
New York. Godwin-Ternbach Museum, Queens College, CUNY. "The Light of Infinite Wisdom: Asian Art from the Godwin-Ternbach Museum and Other Collections," October 15, 2003–December 20, 2003.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Chinese Gardens: Pavilions, Studios, Retreats," August 18, 2012–January 6, 2013.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Show and Tell: Stories in Chinese Painting," October 29, 2016–August 6, 2017.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Companions in Solitude: Reclusion and Communion in Chinese Art," July 31, 2021–August 14, 2022.
Wang Jie 王杰 et al. Midian zhulin shiqu baoji xubian 秘殿珠林石渠寶笈續編 (Catalogue of painting and calligraphy in the Qianlong imperial collection, second series). Preface dated 1793. Facsimile reprint of an original manuscript copy. 8 vols. vol. 1, Taipei: National Palace Museum, 1971, pp. 420–23.
Murck, Alfreda, and Wen C. Fong. A Chinese Garden Court: The Astor Court at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1980, pp. 22–23, fig. 21.
Morris, Edwin T. The Gardens of China: History, Art and Meanings. New York: Scribner, 1983, p. 49.
Karlsson, Kim, and Alexandra von Przychowski, eds. Magie der Zeichen: 3000 Jahre chinesische Schiftkunst (The Magic power of Chinese characters: 3,000 years of Chinese writing and calligraphy). Exh. cat. Zurich: Museum Rietberg, , p. 79, fig. 13.
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