Prospect | Kano Sansetsu’s folding screen at Harvard illustrates the legendary story of the Chinese calligrapher Wang Ziyou

When Wang Ziyou woke in the middle of the night, a moon was peeking through the mist. Wang poured himself a glass of wine, recalled a poem he knew, and then decided, on impulse, to visit his friend Dai Andao.

What happened next is possibly my favorite story of all time. Or at least this week.

It’s represented in a massive, 12-panel folding screen by the Japanese artist Kano Sansetsu (1589-1651) at Harvard Art Museums. The four panels on the left are devoted to Wang’s middle-of-the-night voyage. The four central panels are almost entirely empty. The panels on the right show a monk, Li Ning, who has arrived at a gate. He seems ready to knock, but instead turns his back to the threshold and smiles.

Li’s story is enigmatic. But it is Wang’s story that has a special place in my heart. In fact, I’m thinking of starting a club as a form of tribute to Wang Ziyou: I will invite all my favorite people, and we will never, ever convene.

Wang (321—379) was a Chinese calligrapher and poet. His midnight voyage has been a mainstay of both Chinese and Japanese art, and you can see versions of the subject by artists from both cultures in many museums.

Kano Sansetsu was a contemporary of Kano Tan’yu, regarded as the greatest in the centuries-long line of Japan’s canonical Kano School. Sansetsu was an important and versatile artist in his own right. Notice here the trees slumping under heavy snow; the steep, crystalline rocks; the sliding, unfocused perspective.

How did Wang’s trip end? What makes this story so great?

Wang huddled in a boat as his attendant paddled through the cold night until they reached the home of Dai Andao. But by now, Wang’s original urge had deserted him. So just as spontaneously, he decided to go home.

How wonderful is that?

The poem Wang had recalled with his wine, known as “Summons to a Retired Gentleman” (or sometimes “Beckoning the Recluse”), has a history of shifting connotations in Chinese culture. These needn’t detain us — except to the extent that Wang’s decision to turn back may have signaled respect for his friend’s seclusion.

Personally, I prefer Wang’s more irrational explanation, which American Sinologist Richard Mather translates thus: “I originally went on the strength of an impulse, and when the impulse was spent, I turned back.”

We are always setting goals and letting ourselves be seduced by the need to organize our experience in accordance with those goals. But what if we change our minds? What if the impulse fizzles? Must we go through with it, like bad actors, turning our parts grotesque?

Infact, no. And that is why I revere Wang Ziyou. To me, his decision expresses unrestrained freedom even within a predicament of wintry austerity.

His eccentric explanation — “the impulse was spent” or, effectively, “I changed my mind” — may seem capricious. But it’s a spiritual antidote to modernity’s foundational nightmare, described by Franz Kafka in “The Trial.” In Kafka’s parable, a man seeking “entry to the law” waits “for days and years” at a gate where a gatekeeper denies him that entry. The man tries all he can, but to no avail. He grows old, feeble, deaf and blind. Dying, he asks the gatekeeper one last question:

“Everyone strives after the law, so how is that in these many years no one except me has requested entry?” The gatekeeper has to shout to be heard: “Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you. I’m going now to close it.”

The parable, like the story of Wang Ziyou, has many possible meanings. But I couldn’t help thinking of it when I saw the panel on the right of Sansetsu’s work — the one that shows Li Ning arriving at a gate. Instead of knocking, he turns around and smiles.

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