The Tokyo National Museum announced last month that a copy of one of Wang Xizhi’s works of calligraphy had been found in private hands.
More than 16 centuries after his death, Wang (AD303-361) remains a cynosure among practitioners and devotees of Chinese calligraphy. To a near-philistine like me, Chinese calligraphic art isn’t that different from wine or tea drinking: I know when it’s really nasty, but my eye (or palate) isn’t properly trained or refined enough to discern the many grades of good. However, I trust that more than a millennium of acclaim counts for something.
Regrettably, none of Wang’s original works survive; the extant copies are just that. Many of these date from the Tang dynasty, whose second emperor, Li Shimin (599-649), was a big fan. Under his commission, facsimiles of Wang’s works were created either by having expert calligraphists write copies that were near-identical to the originals or, as in the case of the latest discovery in Japan, tracing the outlines of the original characters with a very fine brush and then filling in the traced characters with ink.
Due to the fragility of ink on paper and silk, and political upheavals throughout Chinese history, not only are Wang’s original works lost forever but even the copies that survive number only a couple of dozen.