Wednesday, June 19, 2013

ritual to pray for good harvest | Wang Xizhi and the Paratextual Present

... the artist is always there, in the work, in his mark. This is a truth established at the very beginning of the Western tradition—when Protogenes recognized the presence of Apelles in a single line, the beginnings of connoisseurship—and it is central to the aesthetics of Chinese and Japanese calligraphy.

—David Rosand, "'My I': Toward an Iconography of the Self”1

It is a nearly unassailable article of faith in the Chinese tradition that through the trace of the brush, the remnant of ink left on paper, a person might be known. Wang Xizhi (303-360) stands at the historical source of this belief. As Robert Harrist explains it:

It was outside the domain of official life that calligraphy became a major art, more or less as the term is understood today, during the Eastern Chin dynasty (317-420). Founded after the north of China was lost to foreign invaders, the Eastern Chin had its capital at Chien-k'ang (modern Nanking) and was dominated by aristocratic émigré families. Among these aristocrats was Wang Hsi-chih [Wang Xizhi] ...2

The dominant mode of writing at the time as it had been established in the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) tended toward the monumental, in particular stone stelae engraved with governmental decrees and commemorations. Exploiting the recent invention and increased availability of paper, Wang and his circle developed an artistic subculture enamored of individual expression and exchange, manifested in personal letters written in new running and cursive scripts, "forms of calligraphy," as Harrist writes, "in which characters are abbreviated and strokes linked in continuous motions of the brush" (89).

The real pleasure was not so much the often trivial content of the letters, "not," as Roland Barthes writes of the art of ikebana, "to read it (to read its symbolism) but to follow the trajectory of the hand which has written it."3 None of Wang's letters survive. Only copies are left, the oldest being tracing copies from the early Tang dynasty (618-906). One of these, now known under the title "Ritual to Pray for Good Harvest,"4 contains only half of the original letter. Many of the characters, particularly from other half, which survives as a separate copy, are indecipherable. When they can be deciphered, the biographical circumstance surrounding them remains hopelessly opaque. The remainder of this process of semantic erosion is calligraphy itself, a form of pulse, graphic evidence of what was.

Despite the cult of personality that still pertains around Wang Xizhi, what is now most strikingly present is not his particular work, or even calligraphy itself, but rather the whole paratextual complex that developed around and beyond it. The tracing copy measures only about 24 by 9 centimenters, while the scroll in which it is mounted stretches horizontally over a space of 12 feet, paper having been repeatedly added to make room for additional seals, colophons, and inscriptions. The material traces of artists, emperors, and collectors seem hardly distinguishable—a dialogic chain kept up over centuries but only recently evident as the single, fertile field of soot, cinnabar, and fiber that it is.

image: from The Embodied Image: Chinese Calligraphy from the John B. Elliott Collection, eds. Robert E. Harrist and Wen Fong (The Art Museum, Princeton University, 1999). 

1 in Robert Motherwell on Paper, ed. David Rosand (Henry H. Abrams, 1997), 26.

2 The Embodied Image: Chinese Calligraphy from the John B. Elliott Collection, eds. Robert E. Harrist and Wen Fong (The Art Museum, Princeton University, 1999), 89.

3 Empire of Signs, trans. Richard Howard (Hill and Wang, 1982), 45.

4 This tracing copy is the subject of an essay by Harrist titled "A Letter from Wang Hsi-chih and the Culture of Chinese Calligraphy" in The Embodied Image (241-259).