Kuài xuě shí qíng tiē 快雪時晴帖 was believed to be one of Wang Xizhi (王羲之) (303–361) originals extant.
This masterpiece of manuscript was treasured by scholars and connoisseurs throughout the past 1650 years. The great Yuan Dynasty Calligrapher and artist Zhao Mengfu (趙孟頫) (1254－1322) wrote a testimony or a colophon (題跋) for this manuscript.
In 1679 this masterpiece was presented to Kangxi Emperor (康熙皇帝) of the Qing Dynasty by one of his officials. In 1746 Qianlong Emperor (乾隆皇帝), the grandson of Kangxi, included this masterpiece in his Sān Xī Táng (三希堂). Qianlong Emperor loved it very much. During his long reign of the country for 63 years, he inscribed numerous colophons (題跋) and spattered many seals of various sizes onto the manuscript. It was Qianlong Emperor’s habit to inspect the manuscript and make copies every time it snowed in Beijing. On one occasion he even painted a small snow scene after the style of Yuan Dynasty artist Ni Zan (倪瓚) to the manuscript.
The manuscript is now kept in the National Palace Museum (國立故宮博物院), Taipei. Some modern scholars suspect that this manuscript may not be genuine. It may be a traced copy very skilfully done in the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907) in particular. A semi-transparent paper was placed over the original, and the brush strokes were faithfully traced and filled in. Even the dry brushes were copied this way. Yet no proof of forgery has been confirmed.
Kuài xuě shí qíng tiē is a short letter written after snowfalls. Wong Xizhi and his contemporaries were living at a time of political instability. They sent their best regards to one another occasionally. Written partly in hangshū (行書) and cǎoshū (草書), the manuscript consists of only 28 characters arranged in four rows. It is a casual note that Wang addressed to one of his friends called Zhāng Hóu (張侯, the word 侯 was a title of his friend Zhang) of Shānyīn (山陰). It is difficult to understand its real meaning, probably only known to the writer and the recipient!
The text: 羲之頓首快雪時晴佳想安善未果為結力不次王羲之頓首山陰張侯
頓首 mean bowing one’s head and is a courteous sign-off of letters. 羲之頓首 means Xizhi bows. 山陰張侯 Zhāng hóu of Shānyīn is the recipient of this letter. It is unusual to put the name of the recipient at the end. This leads to some scholars suspecting that the manuscript was a copy and the characters of 山陰張侯 on the envelope might have been copied onto the same piece of paper after the main text.
Taking away the characters 羲之頓首 王羲之頓首山陰張侯 only 15 characters remain.
Let us look at the meaning of 快雪時晴佳想安善未果為結力不次 (Kuài xuě shí qíng jiā xiǎng ān shàn wèi guǒ wèi jié lì bù cì.)
There may be 3 ways of putting punctuations in the text.
Version 1 : 快雪時晴。佳想安善。未果為結。力不次。
Version 2 : 快雪時晴佳。想安善。未果為結。力不次。
Version 3 : 快雪時晴。佳。想安善。未果為結。力不次。
Version 2 seems to be the best.
Translation version (1) The snow has fallen for a short time and it is sunny now. ( 剛才下了一陣雪，現在天又轉晴了。)
Translation version (2) We felt comfortable after the snowfall. It was good that it stopped at the right time. (下了一場雪，很舒爽，停得也是時候，很不錯。) This version is after Wang Jia-sheng (王家聲).
The word ‘qíng 晴’ is equivalent to the old word ‘夝’ which means ‘after raining stars can be seen in the night sky’ (雨而夜除星見也) or ‘rain stop in the night’ (夜間停雨). The word ‘qíng 晴’ may not be related to sunshine.
The word ‘kuài 快’ means delightful or comfortable, not ‘quick’ in this situation. The word ‘jiā 佳’ means fine or pleasant. Snow has the effect of eradicating pests in the field. Snow is regarded to be propitious or auspicious. After the snow has fallen, people felt more delightful.
I trust you are keeping well. (想必你那裡一切都好吧！)
The word ‘xiǎng 想’ means ‘I think’ or ‘I trust’ rather than ‘I want’.
Translation version (1) I have not finished writing the letter to fully express my thoughts. (沒能照心意把信寫完，表達難以得體。)
The words ‘wèi guǒ 未果’ may mean not achieving the objective, ie have not finished writing to express my thoughts fully. The words ‘wèi jié 為結’means ending ie finished writing the letter.
Translation version (2) I could not help you with the task and I have been feeling gloomy and depressed. (那件事情沒能幫上忙，心裡糾結至今。)
The words ‘wèi guǒ 未果’ may mean not achieving the goal, ie helping you with the task.
The words ‘wèi jié 為結’ may mean gloomy and depressed.
Translation version (1) I felt helpless and inadequate. (心有餘而力不足。)
Translation version (2) I felt weak. I could not express myself probably. I had to stop writing. (體力不繼，表達難以得體，就此停筆。)
In a CCTV program 國寶與書法(上), there is another modern Chinese translation which includes additional implied meanings as follows:
The snow has just stopped falling, now it is sunny again. I trust you are keeping well. I did not go to the last gathering and I felt gloomy. Your messenger said that he could not wait for long and needed to return quickly. I just wrote this much for now.
At the very end of the manuscript, there is a very small inscription of two characters ‘Jūn qiàn’ (君倩). Great calligrapher Mǐ fèi (米芾) of the Sung Dynasty suggested that the person might be Liáng Xiù (梁秀).Nothing is known about this person in Chinese history. Some recent scholars suggested that ‘Jūn qiàn’ might be Xuē Jūn–qiàn (薛君倩), the son-in-law (駙馬) of Táng Gāozǔ (唐高祖).
The calligraphy of Wang Xizhi was fresh, elegant and innovative.
Emperor Wudi of Liang- Xiāo Yǎn (梁武帝-蕭衍) (464－549) wrote in his Gu jin shu ren you lie ping 《古今書人優劣評》(Evaluation of Past and Contemporary Calligraphers): ‘Wang Xizhi’s calligraphy is as powerful as a dragon jumping through the Heavenly Gate, or a tiger crouching in the Pheonix Tower’ (王羲之字勢雄逸，如龍跳天門，虎臥鳳闕).
Every single character shows great elegance and spirit.
The words 果 and 為 are joined together beautifully. They echo with each other.
These 3 words are spiritually linked together.
From this masterpiece and other works of Wang Xizhi, we can appreciate the reason that Xizhi is respected as Shu Sheng (書聖), ‘Sage of Calligraphy’.
I would like to thank Professor P Lam for his continued support and guidance.
Bibliography and further readings :
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OassSRU4JWI 國寶與書法(上) (from 12:21 minutes to 30:45 minutes) (highly recommended to view, narrated in Chinese)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fZ7DMkqO3uk (5:22 minutes) 乾隆三希堂快雪時晴帖 (highly recommended)
http://www.9610.com/wangxizhi/kxsq.htm (good images of colophons and paintings)
http://extras.zhongweb.org/2011/08/ibook-a-vat-of-water/ (painting of “Sunny after Snow” )
蔣勳 (2010) 手帖 南朝嵗月, INK 印刻文學生活雜誌出版有限公司 ISBN 978-986-6377-94-5
Ouyang Z and Wen C.F. (2008) Chinese Calligraphy, Yale University Press, ISBN 978-0-300-12107-0