Lost in the Dancing Lines

Reflecting on a poem produced from what may be one of the earliest documented, and certainly most civilized, drinking games in history. From one of our new contributors, a true Confucian gentleman who has studied, and memorized large chunks of, the Four Books and Five Classics.

by Jim Li

Am I the only one who has ever been lost in the dancing lines of Chinese written characters?

In January 2016, I was mesmerized by the dance and music of Shen Yun which graced the stage of the David Koch Theatre at Lincoln Center in New York. While I didn’t miss a second when I watched the same show in previous years, I couldn’t say the same for this particular show. In fact, to my greatest regret, I missed a whole act called “The Poets of the Orchid Pavilion.”

When the male dancers, in flowing white robes hemmed with light blue, portrayed poets engaged in wine drinking, conversation, and rapturous poetic composition in 343 in the Eastern Jin dynasty (317-420 CE), I was gazing at the backdrop on which Wang Xizhi’s calligraphic work, “The Preface to the Orchid Pavilion (Lantingji Xu),” appeared stroke by stroke (Figure 1).

Figure 1.  Lantingji Xu  attributed to Feng Chengsu, Tang dynasty, who copied the original by Wang Xizhi, which has since been lost. Ink on paper. Palace Museum in Beijing.

Figure 1. Lantingji Xu attributed to Feng Chengsu, Tang dynasty, who copied the original by Wang Xizhi, which has since been lost. Ink on paper. Palace Museum in Beijing.


In the ninth year of Eternal Harmony,

at the beginning of the late spring,

we have gathered at the Orchid Pavilion

in the North of Kuaiji Mountain

for the purification ceremony.

All the worthy men, young and old, have congregated.

This area has lofty mountains and towering hills,

dense forest and slender bamboos,

as well as a limpid, rapid stream which curves around.

We sit by the stream in a drinking game

with floating wine goblets.

Although short of the company of music,

the wine and poems are sufficient for us

to exchange our innermost feelings.


As it happened, 42 leading literati and poets joined this celebration. They wrote topics for poems on slips of paper and floated them down the stream in wine goblets. When one of the goblets came to a stop in front of someone, he was required to either compose a poem on the spot or, of course, drink. All told, 37 rather accomplished poems were written on various themes that day. 

Wang Xizhi, already tipsy with wine, was appointed to write a preface to the collection of these poems. He began, as was his habit, with hardly a moment’s rumination, to write, with his mice-moustache writing brush, on a piece of paper made of silkworm cocoon, and, voilà, a classic was born.

The prose, a masterpiece in its own right, gives expression to the bitter-sweet feeling about the impermanence of human enjoyment, a consciousness of the universal human condition.

“The Preface” has been deemed the pinnacle of Chinese calligraphic art, never to be surpassed by the over 1,600 years’ collective effort of Chinese artists. Indeed, apparently even the writer himself couldn't produce a better version of it after he got sober the next day.

Figure 2.  Orchid Pavilion Gathering  by Japanese artist Ike Taiga, a six-panel folding screen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.   A most civilized drinking game involving 42 literary celebrities of the day.   

Figure 2. Orchid Pavilion Gathering by Japanese artist Ike Taiga, a six-panel folding screen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

A most civilized drinking game involving 42 literary celebrities of the day.


The prose, a masterpiece in its own right, gives expression to the bitter-sweet feeling about the impermanence of human enjoyment, a consciousness of the universal human condition.

When the last stroke of the last word faded into the screen, I woke up from my euphoric reverie, and was ready to redirect my attention to the dancers on stage. But the dancers had already lined up for a formation, and the formation turned into a silhouette—it was over.

Should I apologize to the dancers for my inattention? Probably. But how can I apologize for my absorption in something as stunningly beautiful as Wang Xizhi’s “Preface”?


I have never been embarrassed by my sensitiveness to beauty. When I was a teenager, I would spend the whole day gazing at Chinese calligraphic works throughout the dynasties, much to the chagrin of my mom. In 1995, when I had a tour of the White Pagoda in the North Sea Park in Beijing with a college friend, I simply couldn’t leave the scene when we stumbled upon the original inscriptions on stone tablets, commissioned by Emperor Qianlong of the Qing dynasty, of Sanxitang fatie, or The Three Rarities Studio Model Calligraphy. How can anyone not be absorbed if he sees what I see, and sense what I sense?

Chinese writing is a cosmos, a fact of which the calligraphic beauty is only a derivative. The richness of meaning of the Chinese writing is also a derivative. And the prophetic power, the philosophical depth, and the poetic suggestiveness are all derivatives.

What follows are only a few snapshots of this miraculous system which I hope will point you to the mysterious and ineluctable cosmos that is the Chinese character.


Some snippets on the power of Chinese characters

It was a searing summer in 597 BCE, a year in the tumultuous Spring and Autumn Period. Zhuang, the King of the rising Southern power Chu, led his army to a sweeping victory over Jin, the Northern power, at Bi, a territory in the modern Henan province. Overwhelmed by rapture not without a tinge of malicious vengeance, Pan Dang, a nobleman at the Chu court, counseled King Zhuang to build a tower with the bodies of the Jin soldiers to memorialize the feat and preserve for generations to come a monument of military prowess.

Figure 3. Wŭ 武, martial, military, prowess (small seal script)

Figure 3. Wŭ 武, martial, military, prowess (small seal script)

King Zhuang bluntly dismissed his proposal, citing, surprisingly, an analysis of the character 武, martial or prowess, based on its component parts, zhĭ  止, to stop, and 戈, dagger-ax. King Zhuang said, thus we are told by Zuo Zhuan 左傳, or the Zuo Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals, “You simply don’t understand. As far as writing goes, to halt weapons constitutes true prowess 非爾所知也。夫文,止戈為武” (Figure 3).  

Having explained what he understood to be true military prowess by quoting past sages for the dumbfounded Pan Dang, King Zhuang finally declared, in a solemn tone: “True military prowess resides in curbing violence, terminating warfare, sustaining power, effecting successes, safeguarding the people, and increasing wealth 夫武,禁暴、戢兵、保大、定功、安民、豐財者也.” In a rare moment of modesty, this King of the ascending, militaristic Kingdom of Chu, admitted that he did not have any of the seven prerequisites for true military prowess and ordered his army to retreat after simply offering sacrifices to the God of the Yellow River and his own ancestors.[1]

King Zhuang’s declaration at the bank of the Yellow River marked not only an important chapter in Chinese political philosophy, but also a decisive moment in Chinese philology, as he set up a classic case of interpreting a character on the basis of its pictorial components and configuration. Xü Shen (c. 58 – c. 147 CE)), the first major Chinese lexicographer, cited exactly as a typical example for the formative principle of huìyì, conjoining meanings.

In fact, King Zhuang stood at the beginning of a long line of interpreters of Chinese characters who assign primary value to the pictographic elements. If Xu Shen was correct, Confucius himself was a practitioner of imagistic interpretation, as Shuowen jiezi recorded that Confucius said “He who induces the one (一 single principle) from the ten (十 diverse phenomena) is a shì (士 scholar, soldier, nobleman) 推十合一為士.” As we can see, Confucius here is explaining the character shì solely on the basis of its form, i.e. ten on top of one.

Figure 4. Sī 厶, selfishness

Figure 4. Sī 厶, selfishness

Duan Yucai 段玉裁, a Qing annotator of Shuowen jiezi, further elaborated on the idea: “A scholar returns to simplicity after he masters multiplicity, thus Confucius says ‘A scholar induces the one from the ten’ 學者由博返約,故云推十合一.”[2] It seems that, thus understood, the Confucian nobleman shì, a kind of combination of scholar and soldier in their best senses, is not much different from the Baconian inductive logician who creates universal rules out of particular data. We must remember, however, Confucius was more concerned, as always, with the moral aspect than with the intellectual aspect.

Figure 5. Gōng 公, public-spiritedness (small seal script)

Figure 5. Gōng 公, public-spiritedness (small seal script)

Belonging to this tradition is also Hanfeizi 韓非子 (c. 281 BCE-c. 233 BCE), the pre-Qin legalist philosopher who defined selfishness as “self-enclosing” based on the shape of the small seal script of sī 厶, selfishness (Figure 4). He defined gōng 公, public-spiritedness, as the “opposite of selfishness” on account of its two component parts, sī厶, selfishness, and bā 八, “opposite of” or “to counter.” 自環者謂之私,背私謂之公[3] (Figure 5).

In the Han dynasties, it is the occultist philosophy known as chènwěi 讖緯[4] that pushed the imagistic interpretation of characters to the extreme. However, as Confucianism became the dominant ideology in the Former Han dynasty and went on to be increasingly institutionalized in subsequent ages, chènwěi was kept in a marginalized position throughout Chinese history, only to emerge now and then to exert some influence on those who cared to look into this huge, if unkempt, body of literature.

In the Northern Song dynasty, the imagistic interpretation of characters found a powerful champion in Wang Anshi 王安石(1021-1086), famous reformer, erudite scholar, and the author of Zi shuo, or Explaining Characters 字說. Wang, a firm believer in the motivated nature of both language and writing, employed various approaches to explicate the character, the most prominent of which, as many have pointed out, was “conjoining meanings.” For example, to explain rú 儒, Confucian, a character consisting of the “human radical” 亻 and the “need radical” 需, he asserted in an offhand manner that “what everyone needs is a Confucian 人皆需之謂之儒.”[5]

Zi shuo was tremendously popular with students and officials when Wang was at the zenith of his power as a trusted prime minister. It also drew criticisms and ridicule from scholars the moment it got into circulation. Wang’s friend Su Shi 蘇軾, the witty and versatile poet and scholar, made fun of his method by a kind of reductio ad absurdum, saying: “If ‘wave’ is water’s skin, is ‘slippery’ water’s bone?”[6]

Unfortunately, good-humored intellectual discussion was soon forced to an end when Wang, losing his political campaign, was exonerated from office and his political opponent immediately banned his book. The official Dynastic History of Song dismissed Zi shuo contemptuously as “farfetched and strained 穿鑿傅會.”[7] The book did not survive except bits and pieces quoted by other authors in the centuries ahead.


[1] Yang Bojun 楊伯峻, ed. Chunqiu zuozhuan zhu 春秋左傳注 [Annotated Zuo Zhuan, the Zuocommentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals]. Vol. 2, pp. 745-747. My translation.

[2] Duan Yucai 段玉裁, Shuowen jiezi zhu 說文解字注 [An annotation of Shuowen jiezi].

[3] Hanfeizi 韓非子, “Wu Du” 五蠹 [Five vermin of the State], Hanfeizi.

[4] Strictly speaking, chèn讖and wěi 緯are two different practices, though often related. Chèn literally means prophecy; it also refers to the words, graphs, objects, etc. which have the function of prophecy. Wěi refers to a variety of exegeses of the Confucian Canon prevalent in the Han dynasties which combine the ideas of Confucianism, Taoism, Yin-Yang School, etc., and tend to turn to supernatural causes to explain natural anomalies and human affairs. See Zhong Zhaopeng 鐘肇鵬, Chènwěi lunlue 讖緯論略 [A concise treatise on Chènwěi], pp. 1-26.

[5] Zhang Zongxiang 張宗祥, ed, Wang Anshi Zi shuo ji 王安石《字說》輯 [Wang Anshi’s Zi shuo],

p. 31.

[6] Originally from Yang Shen楊慎, Shengan quanji 升庵全集 [Complete works of Yang Shen]. Collected in Zhang Zongxiang, p. 199. The Chinese character for “wave,” bō波, consists of two parts: the water radical氵 and the simple character pí 皮, skin. The Chinese character for “slippery,” huá 滑, consists of two parts too: the water radical 氵 and the simple character gŭ 骨, bone. Hence Su Shi’s pun and ridicule.

[7] Originally recorded in “Wang Anshi zhuan” in Songshi 宋史·王安石傳 [“Biography of Wang Anshi” in Dynastic history of Song]. Collected in Zhang Zongxiang, p. 166.