Ritual to Pray for Good Harvest (Xingrang tie)

Wang Xizhi (303-361)
Ritual to Pray for Good Harvest (Xingrang tie)
China, Eastern Jin
Calligraphy, handscroll
Tang dynasty, 7th-century tracing copy, ink on ying huang paper
letter alone 24.4 x 8.9 cm., entire scroll 30.0 x 372.0 cm.
Bequest of John B. Elliott, Class of 1951


Active during the Eastern Jin dynasty, the calligrapher Wang Xizhi developed new forms of running and cursive script that transformed calligraphy into a personally expressive medium. Although Wang produced many types of texts that came to be prized as works of art, the personal letter was the format in which the new expressive flexibility of calligraphy was most fully realized. Collectors valued these letters not for their literary content, but for the excellence of the calligraphy in which they were written. Owing to the now obscure references they contain, many of Wang's letters are no longer fully intelligible. In Ritual to Pray for Good Harvest, Wang appears to refer to a ritual sacrifice conducted by a friend and inquires about the political intentions of this person's followers.

This tracing copy of the letter preserves only the first half of Wang Xizhi's original text, and probably dates from the early Tang dynasty (618-907). Although this tracing copy remains one step removed from the original artifact, yet because no authentic work by Wang survives, it was highly prized by later collectors, including emperors, whose numerous inscriptions and seals surround the remaining two columns of characters with a total of fifteen characters written in cursive script. At one point it was in the collection of the Northern Song period Huizong emperor (reigned 1101–25), whose "slender-gold" script calligra¬phy in faint gold ink appears on a title strip to the upper right corner of the letter. Labels and numerous colophons by the Ming dynasty calligrapher Dong Qichang (1555–1636), the Qing dynasty Qianlong emperor (reigned 1736–95), and others were later added, surrounding the letter. As stated in one of Dong Qichang's colophons, because of its rarity, impeccable provenance, and value to understanding the Wang Xizhi tradition, "These two lines are worth more than thirty-thousand other scrolls."

During the social and political instability of the late Han and Wei–Jin periods, as scholar-officials sought to become an alternative source of authority to the weakened ruler, written texts came to be more valued than exemplary behavior and speech as works preserving the classical way of antiquity, and, consequently, calligraphy assumed new meanings. The chosen script style or type of writing allowed scholar-officials to align themselves with what they perceived as the genuine spirit of the past. Social, political, and intellectual distinctions were involved in such personal choices, and began to be equated with the writer's moral and ethical character. This shift was accompanied by a "revolution" in calligraphy from public monumental writing formats to more private individual formats. By the Eastern Jin dynasty, calligraphy had become a major art, and the revolutionary formation of a new literati cultural ideal as manifested in calligraphy crystallized around Wang Xizhi. Through his influence, the calligrapher emerged as a creative personality, and calligraphy came to be regarded as the embodiment of the mind and personality of the writer. Wang Xizhi was the most influential calligrapher in Chinese history, and his fame rests primarily on his personal letters. Unlike public writing on monumental stelae, or for official documents and sacred texts, Wang's letters were written in cursive or running scripts, forms of calligraphy in which characters are abbreviated and strokes linked in continuous motions of the brush. Wang's calligraphy was perceived as an embodied distillation of his innermost thoughts and feelings, and Ritual to Pray for Good Harvest is a fragment of one of his highly prized letters preserved in the form of a tracing copy in the Tang dynasty. Defying accurate transcription and translation, this letter exemplifies the new value placed on calligraphy as an art for personal expression.

The handscroll is associated with an outer textile wrapper (accession no. 1998-140.2), which was separated when the scroll was remounted in the 1980s.

Labels preceding the Letter

Huizong 徽宗 (Song emperor, r. 1100-26)
Dong Qichang 董其昌 (1555-1636)
Qianlong emperor 乾隆 (r. 1736-95)

Colophons and inscriptions

Dong Qichang 董其昌 (1555-1636)
Transcription of text, undated
Colophon, undated
Colophon, 1604
Colophon, 1609
References: See Fu Shen, Traces of the Brush, p. 94, partial reprod., p. 24.

Sun Chengze 孫承澤 (1592-1676)
Colophon, undated, signed, "Yanshanzhai" 硯山齋 tall rect. relief seal

Qianlong emperor 乾隆 (r. 1736-95)
Inscription, undated
Colophon, 1748
Colophon, 1748

Zhang Daqian 張大千 (1899-1983)
Colophon, signed, artist's seals, noting he acquired scroll in 1957

Published References & Reproductions

Shiqu baoji, xubian, vol. 5, pp. 2599-2600.

Sanxitang fatie (1755; 3 vols., Harbin: Heilongjiang renmin chubanshe, 1984), vol. 1, pp. 44-51; transcription, vol. 3, pp. 2628-31.

Shodō zenshū, n.s., 26 vols., (Tokyo: Heibonsha, 1960), vol. 4, pl. 37, pp. 168-69.

Nishikawa Yasushi, "Shinjutsu no gyōjo-jo," Shohin, no. 142 (1963), pp. 2-39.

Michael Sullivan, The Arts of China, 3rd ed. (Berkeley: Universityof California Press, 1967), p. 89, fig. 115.

Jan Fontein and Wu Tung, Unearthing China's Past (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1973), pp. 210, no. 114.

Shodō geijutsu, 3rd ed. (Tokyo: Chuokoron-sha, 1974), vol. 1, no. 70.

Fu, Shen C.Y., Traces of the Brush (New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 1977), pp. 5-8, 21, 22-25. [xerox of 22-25 in file]

Lothar Ledderose, Mi Fu and the Classical Tradition of Chinese Calligraphy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), pp. 13, 19 n.32, 51 n.60, 92.

Nakata Yujirō, and Fu Shen, Ōbei shūzō Chūgoku hōsho meisekishū (Masterpieces of Chinese Calligraphy in American and European Collections) (Tokyo: Chūōkōron-sha, 1981-83), vol. 1, pls. 1-6, pp. 130; Eng. abstract, p. ii.

Zhongguo meishu quanji: Shufa zhuanke bian, edited by Zhongguo meishu quanji bianji weiyuanhui (Beijing: Renmin meishu chubanshe, 1986), vol. 2, no. 48.

Michèle Pirazzoli t'Serstevens, La Cina, 2 vols. (Torino: UTET, 1996), ***

In Celebration (Princeton: The Art Museum, Princeton Univ., 1997), cat. no. 30 (color illus.).

Harrist and Fong, The Embodied Image: Chinese Calligraphy from the John B. Elliott Collection(Princeton: PUAM, 1999), cat. no. 2, pp. 39-40, 92-3, 241-59.

Lothar Ledderose, Ten Thousand Things: Module and Mass Production in Chinese Art (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2000), pp. 198-99.

Robert E. Harrist, Jr., "Record of the Eulogy on Mt. Tai and Imperial Autographic Monuments of the Tang Dynasty," Oriental Art XLVI, no. 2 (2000), p. 73, fig. 12.

Cary Y. Liu, "Embodying Cosmic Patterns: Foundations of an Art of Calligraphy in China," Oriental Art, 46, no. 5 (2000), p. 7, fig. 10, and cover illustration.

Lothar Ledderose, "Aesthetic Appropriation of Ancient Calligraphy in Modern China," in Chinese Art: Modern Expressions (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001). pp. 222-23, fig. 9.

Qianshen Bai, "From Wu Dacheng to Mao Zedong: The Transformation of Chinese Calligraphy in the Twentieth Century," in Chinese Art: Modern Expressions (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001). pp. 258-59, fig. 10.

Osaka Shiritsu Bijutsukan 大阪市立美術館 ed., Umi o watatta Chūgoku no sho: Eriotto korekushon to Sō Gen no meiseki 海を渡った中国の書: エリオット コレクション と 宗 元 の 名蹟 (The Embodied Image: Chinese Calligraphy from the John B. Elliott Collection) (Tokyo: Yomiuri Shinbunsha, 2003), cat. no. 2.

Princeton University Art Museum: Handbook of the Collections (Princeton: Princeton University Art Museum, 2007), p. 18.

Yang Yuanzheng 楊元錚, "Junjia liang hang shier zi, qiya yehou sanwan qian—Pulinsidun daxue yishu bowuguan cang 'Xingrang tie' liuchuan kaolue" 君家兩行十二字  氣壓鄴侯三万簽普林斯頓大學藝術博物館藏《行穰帖》流傳考略 ("The Tang Tracing Copy of Wang Xizhi's Calligraphy, Ritual to Pray for Good Harvest: A Study of Its Provenance"), Gugong Bowuyuan yuankan 故宮博物院院刊 (Palace Museum Journal), gen. no. 135 (January 2008), pp. 6–23. 

Cary Y. Liu, "Strangers in a Strange Land: From the Qing Palaces to the Princeton University Art Museum," in The Last Emperor's Collection (New York: China Institute, 2008), pp. 296-97, 301, 302-303.

Patricia Buckley Ebrey, Accumulating Culture: The Collections of Emperor Huizong (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008), pp. 218-20, fig. 7.5.