Martin Kern - Professor of East Asian Studies, Princeton University
Wang Xizhi’s (303-361) Xingrangtie (Prayer Ritual for a Good Harvest) is a monument of Chinese calligraphy. A tiny paper slip of 24.4x8.9 cm, it is one of only nine surviving tracing copies of Wang Xizhi’s entire oeuvre and the only one housed in a Western collection, the Princeton Art Museum. Its text of fifteen characters is in part trivial, in part unintelligible; moreover, the anonymous tracing copy, believed to come from the Tang dynasty, is the first half of an original letter but a poor match to the other half which is preserved only as a rubbing of unknown origin. In short, Xingrangtie is compromised in every possible way⎯so why did it attain its stature as a monumental cultural icon?
Proceeding from this question, the talk will closely review the physical properties of the scroll in order to trace its evolution over time. From there, it will address a series of paradoxes, among them the way in which an anonymous copy turned into an original and authentic artifact, triviality and unintelligibility as a precondition of canonization, imperial appropriation of purportedly private and informal expression, and the idea of Wang Xizhi’s “genuine traces” (zhenji) in a world of anonymous and confusingly diverging copies.