Wang Xizhi’s “Lantingji Xu” 《蘭亭集序》 is a beautiful piece visually, but viewed as literary art and not just as calligraphy it is even greater. It’s certainly one of the most difficult writings I have ever encountered in Chinese – granted, I’ve seen little – but this preface to a collection of poems is much more than an exercise in second-semester classical Chinese or a depiction of a gathering of literati: it actually expresses a lot about the human experience on this earth, more than I have learned from or been moved by any other “secular” work of its length.
At its heart, though it begins with a thoroughly idyllic scene with evocative images of enjoyment in “the finer things” in life, the “Lantingji Xu” is not a happy work. As it speaks of the pleasing heights of sharing one’s heart, it meets inevitably with the transience of such pleasure:
What in the past we have delighted in, in the space of a downward and upward glance, will already have become ancient traces, and so I cannot but be stirred in the heart because of this; in any case, length and shortness of life follows change, and in the end we have a date set to be finally spent.
Wang Xizhi notes that even as he is moved to sadness as he thinks of people of old being moved in the soul, though he cannot explain it, future generations will look back at his time and experience the same thing: he believes that past, present and future we are bound by the commonality of such feeling to man. His sentiments lend themselves to a heightened awareness of carpe diem.
I used to think carpe diem was something to live by, because we do have short lives and need so much to be changed. There is no time to be wasted. Seize the day, I thought, and triumph! But I was wrong.
Carpe diem is, I have found, really a mentality of great tragedy. How sad it must be for him who does not know God! How marked with tear-stained hopelessness! Any disciple of Christ who reads such pieces of ancient Chinese literature must be struck with compassion for people who know fleeting joys and know that death will come and that life and death are surely not the same. This is life and death that has suffered the tragedy of the Fall.
Let no Christian be afraid to read “secular” literature. Wang Xizhi was right: I could not help but be moved by the painful beauty in his words. I know nothing of drinking wine and writing poetry impromptu, but, as Wang Xizhi says, “It is like reuniting a token’s two halves: I have never read their writings and not been moved to melancholy.”
My Lord, show me what it is to have inexpressible joy, to truly believe in Your redemption in the innermost of my soul, when I live in a world of countless tragedies, and show me how to live in this way.