Italian Sinologist Bi Luo: Why did Lantingji Xu Go Viral in Space?
“Facing upwards to the blue sky, we behold the vast immensity of the universe; when bowing our heads towards the ground, we again satisfy ourselves with the diversity of species. Thereby we can refresh our views and let free our souls, with luxuriant satisfaction for both ears and eyes. How infinite the cheer is!”
Recently, Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, who was on a mission in space, quoted on social media the famous lines of the Chinese calligrapher Wang Xizhi's Lantingji Xu (Preface to the Collection of Poems of the Orchid Pavilion) during the Eastern Jin Dynasty when she was travelling over China on the International Space Station. She wrote this ancient Chinese text in Chinese, Italian, and English respectively to express her thoughts when facing the vast starry sky. Travelling through more than 1600 years, the Lantingji Xu went viral immediately.
Bi Luo (Pietro De Laurentis), an Italian sinologist and professor at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, believes that Wang Xizhi's Lantingji Xu and Da Vinci's Mona Lisa share the same cultural status. "Although different civilisations have different perceptions of beauty, I believe the pursuit of beauty and its appreciation is undoubtedly a phenomenon transcending borders, time, and space." In an exclusive interview with East Meets West of China News Service, Pietro said that although the universe was vast, the Chinese ancients could achieve true freedom and transcendence by "refreshing views and freeing souls". Therefore, the cosmic view reflected in the Lantingji Xu is the product of the Chinese cultural system of thousands of years and the embodiment of traditional Chinese cultural ecology.
CNS: Your Chinese name Bi Luo is taken from Zhuangzi, and the Tianxia chapter of Zhuangzi says, "The Dao embraces everything, and there is nowhere for it to end up." How do you understand this saying, and how does it reflect a Westerner's view of calligraphy and Chinese culture?
Bi Luo: I have been using the name "Bi Luo" for 25 years, and I came across it when I was studying Chinese in Italy in 1997. At that time, my classmates and I went to a Chinese restaurant, mainly to communicate with Chinese people to practise oral Chinese. A young Chinese man who worked there gave me the Chinese name "Bi Luo". I didn't know at the time that "Bi" was a common surname in China, and I never thought it would be used until now.
A few years later, I learnt that "Bi Luo" also had a profound meaning in ancient China - we need to be alert and cautious in dealing with all unknown phenomena, and more importantly, we need tolerance. Given my personality and life experiences, the quote "The Dao embraces everything" from Zhuangzi really suits me, not only reflecting my attitude towards the world for over 20 years, but also summarising my academic research and cultural aspirations.
From a broader view of Chinese culture, the open and tolerant international spirit of the Tang Dynasty, in its religious, political, and cultural aspects, and the true calligraphers who were excellent in all five scripts of calligraphy, all embody the kernel of 'embracing everything'. The history of calligraphy in the Tang dynasty is one of the main focuses of my research.
The 2016 CCTV Mid-Autumn Festival Gala was staged at Xi'an’s Tang Paradise. Photo by Zhang Yuan
CNS: You once said that "the study of sinology requires massive accumulation, and there is a long way before one gets started with traditional Chinese culture". How do you think the study of calligraphy can help to understand traditional Chinese culture?
Bi Luo: Without a certain accumulation of Chinese vocabulary and basic knowledge of traditional literature, it is impossible to deal with the vast amount of materials on ancient Chinese literature and history, let alone "sinology".
From the perspective of traditional Chinese culture, calligraphy is a highly sustainable cultural expression. The practice of calligraphy is a relatively low-cost activity, unlike sculpture or painting, which require expensive materials to 'get started'. There is no fundamental difference between copying the same masterpieces of the regular script from the Tang dynasty, except that in the Song dynasty, rubbings were used, and today photocopies.
From the perspective of objective historical exploration, ancient Chinese society was still 'applying benevolent governance' and consciously sent out strong signals of humanistic culture to society through the calligraphic beauty of Chinese characters in calligraphy. Thus, we can fully understand the complex humanistic and social-ecological phenomena of the time through ancient calligraphic works to make up for the lack of historical documentation.
Around the world, people interested in the history of ancient Chinese civilisation will acknowledge the cultural status of calligraphy, even if they may not be able to appreciate it.
CNS: In your opinion, how was it possible for the Lantingji Xu to travel 1,600 years in space and "go viral"? Is it a coincidence?
Bi Luo: Strictly speaking, the Lantingji Xu has "gone viral" for a long time. Since the end of the 19th century, it has been included in the textbook Cursus Litteraturae Sinicae (1879-1892), compiled in Latin by the Italian missionary Angelo Zottoli. It was read by many Westerners who met Chinese literature from the late 19th to the early 20th century.
Today all major translations of ancient Chinese literature in the West contain the Lantingji Xu. Any Western scholar exposed to Chinese art history in the early 20th century recognises Wang Xizhi as one of the most respected artists in Chinese history. When I taught ancient Chinese at the Università degli Studi di Napoli “L’Orientale, I would have my students read the Shenlong edition of the Lantingji Xu and copy the text for translation into Italian.
The full text of the Lantingji Xu. Photo by Li Zhihua
Although I am not the sinologist mentioned by the Italian astronaut, it seems that Samantha Cristoforretti's reference to the Lantingji Xu in Western social media can be considered a representative point in the cyber-age of Chinese culture. I have recently proofread a small book in Italian entitled Drinking and Chanting: A Study of the Lantingji Poems (Bevendo e poetando tra monti e ruscelli nell’antica Cina), which will be published in Milan in February 2023, and I hope to present it to the Italian astronaut at that time.
Bi Luo’s Bevendo e poetando tra monti e ruscelli nell’antica Cina (Drinking and Chanting: A Study of the Lantingji Poems) will be published in Milan in February 2023. Credit: The Interviewee
CNS: You have talked about "seeing Wang Xizhi as a world figure, and treating Wang Xizhi and Chinese calligraphy as a highlight of world culture ...... Wang Xizhi's Lantingji Xu and Da Vinci's Mona Lisa are actually the same in terms of cultural status ". Does this suggest that the understanding of 'beauty' and 'freedom of mind' resonates most readily across civilisations? How does this contribute to the exchange of art between East and West?
Bi Luo: I bring up the world significance of Wang Xizhi because calligraphy is a shining point in the long process of exploring beauty among different civilisations worldwide and deserves to be shared more widely. Although there are differences in the perception of beauty between civilisations, I believe that the pursuit and appreciation of beauty is undoubtedly a phenomenon that crosses borders, time, and space. Anyone who understands the basic rules of the expressive language of a 'work of art' and appreciates it without prejudice can feel its charm.
What is most lacking in the world today is an awareness of the diversity of beauty. The sense of beauty is common, but there is no single standard of beauty.
In the history of the Eastern world, Chinese civilisation has long been a leader. Chinese civilisation was transmitted to other civilisations in East Asia through the use of Chinese characters as the main carrier, forming the East Asian 'Chinese Culture Circle' and contributing to the economic and social development and civilisational progress of these countries and regions.
With the influence of Western civilisation being so great, how will Chinese civilisation be able to interact with Western civilisation and other civilisations harmoniously? Easterners and Westerners need the nourishment and inspiration of different cultural traditions. While Chinese culture has specific characteristics in terms of Chinese medicine, architecture, and craftsmanship, calligraphy is the only art that has been preserved in its original form for a thousand years. The fundamental purpose of the study of calligraphy is precisely to enrich the spiritual life and aesthetic interests of viewers from different civilisations and to enhance their horizons through the proper appreciation of calligraphic works.
Through calligraphy, we can see the full extent of traditional Chinese culture in greater depth, and the study of Sinology in both East and West will undoubtedly benefit from it, which is one of the reasons why calligraphy has played such a prominent role in the long history of Chinese civilisation. There is a great need for calligraphy to go global, and as long as we approach it with rigour and openness, calligraphy will surely shine on the stage of international cultural exchange.
A visitor looked at the Lantingji Xu rubbing at the Palace Museum in Beijing. Photo by Wei Liang
CNS: How should the process from viewing to dialogue, informing to sharing, and understanding to recognition be completed between civilisations? What role does calligraphy play in this process?
Bi Luo: A study of the history of calligraphy shows that calligraphy is one of the highest expressions of aesthetics in ancient China. A piece of calligraphy is a composition of ink and brush created in a single stroke, which can actually be seen as a musical performance unfolding on paper, and like the intuitive perception of music, goes directly to the heart of the writer and the viewer. This is the ancient Chinese perception of the world and 'everything'. The use of brush strokes to transcribe ideas and humanistic ideals into two-dimensional, flat textual symbols.
This art form has the advantage of cross-cultural communication, cross-cultural understanding, and cross-cultural influence. Successful calligraphic works are a fusion of cosmic time and space with the ideals of the literati, with heart-rending life experiences, brilliant and independent meditations on life, and a profound cosmic consciousness, full of temporality and a sense of three-dimensionality that goes far beyond the two-dimensional surface.
Several guides dressed in calligraphic script costumes visited the calligraphic Lantingji Xu stele of the former residence of Wang Xizhi in Linyi, Shandong Province. Photo by Wang Linan
In order to learn from each other, we should try to get in touch with and focus on classic works and historical figures representing different cultures, and strive to get closer to the absolute gems and outstanding representatives that have gained historical recognition. We will then facilitate a more accurate and realistic understanding of the complexities of different civilisations, and thus complete the process from viewing to dialogue, informing to sharing, and understanding to recognition.
In the case of calligraphy, whether in the East or the West, the ancient classical paradigm is a fundamental starting point for understanding and appreciating civilisations, as it is a contemporary development of ancient wisdom. We are fortunate to be able to speak directly with the ancient sages of China through calligraphy, to learn and gain something in terms of technique, aesthetics, and spirituality, which is an advanced 'practice' of self-discovery and self-improvement. It also allows more people to move from recognition to appreciation and see more of this planet's subtle and wonderful 'beauty'.
Bi Luo (Pietro De Laurentis) got his PhD from the Università degli Studi di Napoli "L'Orientale", Italy, and is an Italian sinologist, professor at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, head of the Research Centre for Chinese and Foreign Writing Culture and Art Exchange, Member of the Expert Committee of the Wang Xizhi and Wang Xianzhi Studies Research Centre, and Specially Appointed Research Fellow at the Centre for the Study and Dissemination of Chinese Calligraphy, Jinan University. He has published several books in Italian, English, and Chinese, and several papers in authoritative journals at home and abroad, including the German Journal of Chinese Studies, Chinese Dunhuang Studies, Tang Studies, and Chinese Calligraphy.
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