Having sampled tea prepared meticulously by our Song Dynasty masters, now it’s time to go back further in time and attend a wine-drinking session with the nobility of the East Jin dynasty in the third century A.D.However, let’s not drink it all in one gulp. The East Jin nobles knew just how to create the right kind of atmosphere for their wine-drinking sessions.
And it has nothing to do with wine glasses or cheese platters. Today, we will attend an outdoor party that will go down in history as one of the most famous gatherings in Chinese history. That is all I will say — you will find out soon enough.
Now, let us key in the following details into the control panel of our time machine.
Year: 353 A.D, Third Day of the Third Month
Place: Kuaiji, Shanying, Orchid Pavilion
“又是三月三？” 你问。 “上次和唐代小姐姐们出去野餐，也是三月三日。”
“The Third Day of the Third Month again?” You ask. “We had a picnic with some Tang Dynasty ladies on the Third Day of the Third Month too!”
Well, remember what I mentioned last time? This date marked a very important festival in Ancient China. A very long time ago, people would perform ceremonial baths, in hopes of warding off evil and bringing good fortune. (Any excuse just to get a breath of fresh air after holing up at home the entire winter — as anyone who is enduring a Covid lockdown would know)
By the time of the Eastern Jin Dynasty, communal bathing was no longer the norm. Instead, people kept this tradition going by organising excursions and picnics near water sources.
今天的天气特别好，四周群山环绕，熙和的暖风迎面吹来，穿过一片茂盛的竹林，前方传来潺潺流水声。只见前头有一条小溪，溪边坐满了四十来人。他们身上穿着都是当代的时尚精品 – 头上裹着窄小的头巾，身上穿着的是宽袍大袖。
So here we are. Put on your head wrap and adjust your sleeves. Now let’s disembark!The weather is simply perfect. Tall mountains surround the area, and a warm breeze blows invitingly. Let us cross this bamboo thicket — do you see the stream ahead? The party has assembled. And look at just how they are fashionably dressed — in loose, flowing robes and tight hair wraps.
Let us exchange greetings our fellow guests — this is Xie An, this is Sun Zhuo, and this is Wang Xizhi…hold your horses. You will get a chance to admire his calligraphy later, I promise.
Now, take a seat and let me explain the rules of the party. You see, we won’t be served wine directly by the servants. See how they are placing cups of wine into the stream? The cups will float downstream. When a cup pauses before you, pick it up and compose a poem. Then drink it up.
But what if poetry isn’t my thing? You see, the Ancient Chinese elites had to know a thing or two about poetry in order to mingle in high society. However, since we are time-travellers with limited knowledge of Classical Chinese, they wouldn’t expect us to compose at their level —let’s just drink a bit more to make up for it.
Uhm, and even if we aren’t writing any poems, I don’t think it is a good idea to waste paper, an expensive commodity, by making paper boats…
Just then, Xie An turned to Wang Xizhi and said, “We have composed a good number of poems today. It’s only fitting that you should write a preface for the poems composed today.” Wang Xizhi picked up his brush, pondered for a moment, and began to write with deft strokes,
“In the ninth year of Yonghe, at the beginning of late Spring…”
“The weather is fine today, and the breezes are pleasant. I look up and admire the expanse of the universe, and cast my gaze downwards at the variety of things in the world…”
“Our gaze drifts and our minds wander. We take pleasure in the sights and sounds, it is a joy indeed!”
At this point, his thoughts wander off on a philosophical trajectory. Life is short and conditioned to suffering. We enjoy each others’ company — but who knows what the morrow will bring? The philosopher Zhuangzi claimed that death and life is but two aspects of the same phenomena. But how true were his claims?
Wang Xizhi thought of the essays he read. The writers were long gone — yet, the issues that concerned them troubled him too. Times change, but the concerns of mankind were ever the same…
这好好的饮酒作乐，怎么就突然说起生死大事了呢？这还需要说起东晋的时代背景。简单八个字 — 政权更迭，内忧外患。西晋政权因为八王之乱崩塌，游牧民族建立的政权造成极大的威胁，西晋皇室和士族们往江南一带迁移。贵族们尚能觅得一刻安宁，百姓们却无处可躲，只能在烽火中苟且偷生罢了。
Hey, I thought we were supposed to be merry. What’s with that sudden metaphysical bent?
Well, let’s just consider for a moment how chaotic Wang Xizhi’s time period was. The Western Jin dynasty collapsed as a result of internal and external threats. Warlords vied for power, while nomadic tribes gained enough traction to establish new political regimes.
These threats, internal and external, drove the Western Jin ruling class to escape southwards, establishing the Eastern Jin dynasty. The elites enjoyed momentary peace— yet, the awareness of their precarious situation loomed in the back of Wang Xizhi’s mind, even in a joyful setting as this one.
Verses from the Ming dynasty play, “The Peach Blossom Fan” aptly captures his frame of mind: “I saw him building a mansionI saw him feasting with guestsBut I saw too, how his mansion collapsed”
The uncertainty faced by Wang Xizhi and his contemporaries drove them to rekindle an interest in Daoist thought. Daoism was concerned with questions the ever pragmatic Confucianists were reluctant to consider. The questions raised by Wang Xizhi in his essay were topics hotly debated by his contemporaries.
Is life and death but two faces of the same coin?
If death is inevitable, and if happiness is fleeting, what attitude should we keep?
And how do we find our place in this vast universe, as one among the multitude of things?
You feel some sympathy for Wang Xizhi. Like him, these questions had troubled you before. However, you have chosen to leave them aside as more pressing matters compete for your attention. Or perhaps, you were trying to install a sense of control as you focus your energy on immediate concerns.
“Perhaps you, our descendants, will be moved by my words.”
Wang Xizhi says to us.
你看着他，笑而不语。 生死大事，你不知。 但你很明确地知道，这场聚会，这篇《兰亭集序》，必能留传百世，绝卓千古。
You meet his gaze and return a smile.
The matters of life and death are beyond comprehension.
But there’s one thing you know for sure —This gathering, thanks to the “Preface of Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavillion” (Lan Ting Ji Xu) will be remembered and talked of for generations to come.