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Chinese Essay

In his book My Country and My People (1936), Lin Yutang (1895–1976), a 40-year-old intellectual educated in China, the United States, and Europe, described traditional Chinese prose literature in terms which if accepted would make the present survey rather short. His opening sentence was “There was very little good prose in the classical Chinese literature.” By “good,” he meant good by modern standards: that is, having a broad sweep and wide canvas, substantial intellectual content, the rhythms of speech, and a familiar, personal tone. Classical Chinese prose, in contrast, was typically euphuistic and poetic, impersonal and stereotyped, economical with words, and cast in a dead language. As an example of its limitations, Lin cited Hou Fangyu’s (1618–54) biography of Li Xiangjun. The liaison between the red-blooded young scholar Hou and the patriotic courtesan Li was the stuff that plays are made of (and, indeed, famously were), yet, as Lin put it, “Hou did his ‘Biography of Miss Li’ in exactly 375 words [characters], written in a manner as if he was describing the virtues of his neighbour’s grandmother.” Another swipe is aimed at the venerated poet Tao Yuanming (365–427 CE), whose portrait of himself, “Mr. Five Willows,” is even shorter (125 characters); this composition, though regarded as a model in the past, Lin found completely devoid of intellectual content. Both criticisms are correct: Hou’s “biography” is insipid, and Tao’s self-portrait vacuous. It is also true that both disappointments can be laid at the door of weaknesses endemic in Chinese prose literature. However, that is the start, not the end, of the story.
It will occasion no surprise to record that Chinese prose goes back a long way. In a divided empire of warring states for several centuries prior to reunification at the end of the third century BCE, many clever men found employment as political advisers. They spoke and wrote voluminously. More permanently employed court historians quite properly also had a great deal to say. If we unpick their works we find a multitude of finely composed “essays” on history and contemporary life and conduct. With the spread of literacy in succeeding ages, the number and output of occasional pieces expressing their author’s views or giving vent to his feelings grew exponentially. However, the channels and compartments for views and feelings differed from those that evolved in Europe; chronologically speaking they were all in place, indeed solidified, before the European “essay” that served as Lin Yutang’s yardstick for prose was ever thought of, and very little tinkering with them was done until the 20th century.
In ancient China those with a high degree of literacy served the state as civil servants.
Their best thoughts on social and ethical matters were addressed to the court in the first instance, with all the formality that entailed. Furthermore, as is the way with bureaucracies, forms were codified and rapidly acquired their conventions. Of the many vehicles for prose contained in Chinese anthologies of literature from the sixth to the 19th centuries, few allowed much freedom for maneuver. Personal letters (shu), widely circulated, were sometimes used for informal discussion of general topics, but the very fact that they had to be pressed into service is a token of the rigidity of established forms.
Another constraint, before paper and print became common, was the costliness of writing materials and the laboriousness of copying, which naturally encouraged pithiness; those early days set the models and standards for later literature. The search for a personalized essay with a wide canvas as Lin Yutang did was therefore bound to end in disappointment.

China flag

The characteristic of euphuism that Lin Yutang objected to was a natural concomitant of brevity: if words were to be few, a premium was placed on craftsmanship.
(Conversely, where space is limitless and cost negligible, the opposite holds true— craftsmanship is taboo.) Hence in the first historical period which enjoyed freedom of thought after Confucianism was set up as state orthodoxy, that advantage was offset by the bondage of formalism. The Six Dynasties (third to sixth centuries CE) saw the emergence of some of the most flamboyant individuals in Chinese history, but also the apogee of pianwen (parallel prose, composed in syntactically matching couplets). Even very long treaties and personal letters adopted this form, despite the impediment to the natural flow of thought it constituted. In the same period there developed a sophisticated aesthetic for literature, which reinforced the tendency to strive for artistic effect. The emphasis of this criticism was on performance rather than content, as with a concert where the score is taken as given and the interest is in the virtuosity of the soloist. Within the general directive that belles-lettres should “give pleasure to the ear, delight to the eye,” different genres were assigned their tone-coloring. For instance, the lun (disquisition) was said to be “rarefied and subtle, bright and smooth,” the shuo (plea) “dazzlingly bright and extravagantly bizarre” (Wenfu [3rd century CE; Description of literature])—these formulas themselves being expressed in parallel prose.
While performance criteria were being laid down on a generic level, ideas were formulated on how to assess and describe individual style. The seminal notion was that of qi, a kind of energy or life force, immanent in the author and perceptible in his work, that determined the pace and vigor of a composition. More superficially, works were described in terms of flavors and colors. What the great majority of critical statements had in common was their attention to the aesthetic or sensual experience of reader reception; thought content or mental power was rarely mentioned. The interest was less on what was said than on how it was said. Though this criticism could be extremely perceptive, it could also be looked upon as overrefined, and contributing to the kinship between classical prose and poetry that Lin Yutang deplored.
All was not lost, though: there was an alternative. Even in the heyday of parallel prose, plain prose continued to be written. In time this plain kind of prose came to be known as guwen (ancient prose), as it looked back to the “attic” simplicity of the classics and early histories. Guwen did not become a popular notion until the Tang dynasty (618–907), when the pendulum swing against the mellifluity—associated with decadence—of the preceding age occurred. The guwen school’s view of prose style was close to that taken in the West: a good style consisted of no more and no less than putting in the best order the words that could best express one’s thoughts. Along with disdain for ornament naturally went esteem for substantial content. On the other hand, the emphasis on restoring ancient virtues was not conducive to the independence of thought we associate with the prose essay. Forceful argument, skillful reasoning, vehemence, and subtlety of expression are to be found in quantity in Tang prose, as they should be, considering that the Quan Tang wen (Complete Tang prose) includes 18,000 pieces by 3042 authors. What was lacking was an “I” and a “you”; discourse on serious subjects tended to be delivered from an imaginary pulpit and addressed to the whole of the civilized world, when not to the emperor.
As all scholars were perforce students of Chinese history, historical essays featured prominently among their occasional pieces, highlighting things they admired or censured or found a reinterpretation for. In the works of the two acknowledged guwen masters of the Tang dynasty, Han Yu (768–824) and Liu Zongyuan (773–819), many examples can be found. As the intention was to prove a point, their focus was on clear and cogent reasoning, with no frills attached. Relaxed discussion of familiar matters had to find a home in letters (as mentioned), and of cultural matters in prefaces, neither of which allowed for much expansiveness. In three respects, however, they pushed forward the frontiers of prose composition. First, they used the zhuan (biography) to write of humble tradesmen (masons, nurserymen, snake catchers), not so much for the people themselves but as spokesmen for ways of life or healthy, common-sense attitudes that they, the authors, endorsed; in other words, the subjects were hardly more than borrowed voices.
Second, they developed the parable, Han Yu with his “Maoying zhuan” (Mr. Brush Tip) and Liu Zongyuan with his animal parables, which were very like Aesop’s fables. Third, Liu Zongyuan established the landscape essay as an art form. His “Yongzhou ba ji” (809; Eight descriptions of Yongzhou), each taking up on average no more than half a page in a modern edition, are like panels of a painting which put together form a broad vista.
Yongzhou was on the remote southwest fringe of Hunan province, a wild region to which Liu had been demoted. There for the first time he apprehended Nature as an overwhelming presence that made his mind “congeal” and his body “dissolve.” From this communion derived the sketches that would inform the consciousness of nearly all subsequent practitioners of this genre.
The next high point in the history of Chinese prose came in the 11th century with the revival of guwen, which had in the interim been overshadowed again by pianwen.
Compositions on matters of historical, philosophical, and general interest, previously the province of the disembodied intellect, were personalized in the hands of Ouyang Xiu (1007–72,), Su Shi (1037–1101), and their like, and the taut and compact, heavily freighted language of Tang prose loosened and lightened. The sophistication and civility of the Song dynasty (960–1279) brought relatively ordinary and routine aspects of life into the ambit of prose composition, there to be celebrated precisely because they represented sophistication and civility. Ouyang Xiu’s best-remembered pieces are those about pavilions constructed in beauty spots—civilization brought to the wilderness. They gave occasion to talk about the surroundings, local history, and local personages, the author included. “Zuiwen ting ji” (1046; “The Old Drunkard’s Pavilion”), the most famous of all, pictures a scene of perfect rural harmony under the benevolent rule of the prefect—himself. Despite relaxing some tensions, though, Ouyang was still constrained by his literary vehicles: his thoughts on retirement had to be framed as zizhuan (autobiography), and his thoughts on autumn framed as a dialogue and called a fu (description).
His protégé Su Shi went further than Ouyang in shaping what one might call the occasional essay, combining the elements of narrative, description, and reflection.
Persuaded of his own genius, justifiably it must be admitted, Su was the first writer in the pantheon of Chinese prose whom modern essayists were willing to recognize as a precursor, on account of his free thinking and uninhibitedness. Though Han Yu could be very witty, Su Shi’s writing was unprecedented in its liberal display of humor, not to say jokiness. His sense of superiority, in being attuned to the true harmonies of creation, led him to put forward his own view of everything, so he is almost always entertaining. On the other hand, his perspective is too elevated for modern tastes: as author he places himself far above what he writes about. This characteristic is general among classical scholar-essayists, but is particularly salient in Su’s case. His occasional essays typically set a scene, introduce someone else’s response to it, then cap that response with his own wiser view, leading to a serene resolution. They are faultlessly written, but they leave the impression that with Su Shi the magic of words takes precedence over truthfulness to experience.
The mainstream of classical prose after Su Shi flowed along a smooth bed for several hundred years. Lin Yutang discovered in it only a purely linguistic craftsmanship, “laid over a paucity of characterization, a vacuity of facts, and a baldness of sentiment.” That criticism was made specially to deflate the reputation of Gui Youguang’s (1506–71) finest piece, “Xianbi shilüe,” in memory of his mother. But there Lin erred. Granted the brevity (this and similar pieces are only about a page long) and baldness of statement; yet more sympathetic readers have found this piece extremely vivid and unbearably moving.
Facts may be few, but they are tellingly chosen; as for sentiment, Lin does not seem to have realized that things half-said or unsaid may be more powerfully affective than things said at length. Classical Chinese prose in fact made as much use of empty spaces as Chinese painting.
The next highwater came with a surge toward individualism at the end of the 16th century, which threw up the Gongan school, headed by Yuan Hongdao (1568–1610), and its successors. Like Su Shi they believed in genius, but unlike him they did not think of genius as a superior accomplishment but rather as innate in all individuals. Hence they rejoiced in popular entertainments and all interests pursued with gusto. Consistent with this attitude, the language they used, while still basically classical—for who would wish to relinquish such a rich inheritance?—straddled the boundary between the refined and vulgar, making raids in both directions, and frequently echoed the rhythms of speech.
Zhang Dai (1597–1679) was the last and best exponent of this style and persuasion. The new authoritarian Manchu dynasty closed down their business.
The grip of the classical language was loosened toward the end of the 19th century with the founding of journals and magazines in the principal cities, the heaviest concentration being in Shanghai. At last the time was ripe for the type of essay that the West had been familiar with since the same conditions pertained there: generous space to expatiate in, a readership no longer exclusively of the elite, but increasingly of middleclass citizens eager to expand their horizons, and financial rewards adequate to make writing for journals a valuable source of income. A new kind of written language, popularized by the leading journalist-intellectual of the day, Liang Qichao (1873–1929), became the standard medium for practical purposes. This still employed classical syntax, but its range was limited; more positively, it opened its doors wide to the vocabulary of the social sciences which had been introduced by translations of Western works. Within one generation there was a revolution in the way thoughts were formulated.
History decreed, however, that this simplified literary language would only be transitional. The flower of Chinese youth came back from being educated abroad to support the argument that survival in the 20th century required the unification of written and spoken languages, and the New Literature that took off around 1920 was all written in the vernacular (baihua). To sustain its newness the New Literature looked to foreign models, which included the foreign—principally English—essay. For the first few years when the New Literature was fighting its factional wars the polemical essay reigned supreme: that was when Lu Xun (1881–1936) won his spurs. Thereafter the civil essay shared the living space of prose: in the 1930s the “gentlemanly” essays of Zhou Zuoren (1885–1967) and the humorous essays of Lin Yutang gained a large following; by then the notion that the purpose of the essay was to enrich life, rather than pursue controversy, had taken firm hold.
In this Republican period (1912–49) the Chinese vernacular essay resembled the English essay in the manner of taking its readers into its confidence, and being frank and open; the author placed himself on a level with the reader, in fact often inferior to him, confessing weakness and failings. It also likewise took its subject matter from daily life and personal experience. Nevertheless, comparatively few followed the English model in taking a topic and discussing it intelligently and entertainingly from a variety of angles.
Only two writers stand out in this respect: Liang Yuchun (1906–32), who earned the sobriquet of “the Chinese Elia,” and Liang Shiqiu (1902–87), whose wartime essays reached a peak of urbanity. Adopting a droll and quizzical tone, these essays dealt with universal, everyday topics such as haircuts, illness, and anonymous letters. They included only enough personal matter to create familiarity; otherwise they drew upon observed behavior and the wit and wisdom of others. Liang Shiqiu’s great strength, apart from his way with words, was his knowledge of his native culture and way of life, of course, but also his extensive education in Western literature (he had studied at Harvard). Chinese and foreign old saws and modern instances therefore came easily to him, and put the stamp of a genuine man of the world on his work.
The great majority of modern essayists were, understandably, more native in their values and inclinations. They did not appreciate the rambling sentences and involved reasoning of the foreign essay. Argument, whether or not alleviated with wit or energized by histrionics, they preferred to assign to a separate category known as zawen, or contentious essays. Pure prose, in their book, should exemplify such virtues as sparkling freshness, intricate description, and “truthfulness” (zhen), by which in practice they meant something like soulfulness. In sum, the bent of their essays was toward lyricism— hence the popularity of “sketches” and reminiscences.
In the second half of the 20th century, essay writing did not go into the decline suffered in the West; on the other hand, it is difficult to name any really outstanding exponents of the art. In communist China it was impossible for three decades to write honestly: laudatory “reportage” was the order of the day. Since the relaxation of controls in the 1980s new reputations have yet to be made. In Taiwan the trend in prose has been toward narrative and dramatization, employing a large amount of dialogue. Those who have published most have been academics, but that has not guaranteed freedom from slackness and shallowness. An honorable mention should, however, be made of Yu Guangzhong (1928–), who can be relied upon to write wittily.
To return to where we began, euphuism has not disappeared from Chinese prose: encomia of people and places that bear little relation to reality are still tolerated, especially in mainland China. Nor is wisdom at a premium in the present age; perhaps it is out of fashion everywhere. Wisdom tends to do its work covertly, as in what may be called the “existential” essays of Hong Kong writer Xiao Si (1938–), which hint at the lessons that may be drawn from cameos of commonplace experience, and in the bizarre perceptions of the Taiwanese prose-poet Shang Qin (1920–). Of more lengthy compositions, the most interesting, particularly to the foreign reader, are those that capture the character of life in the community in which the author grew up, cherished mostly as memories now that impersonal urbanization has spread or is spreading everywhere.

Chinese Classical Prose: The Eight Masters of the T’ang-Sung Period, edited by Liu Shih-shun, Hong Kong: Chinese University of Hong Kong Research Centre for Translation, 1979
The Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature, edited by Joseph S.M.Lau and Howard Goldblatt, New York: Columbia University Press, 1995:585–716
The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature, edited by Victor Mair, New York: Columbia University Press, 1994: 507–756
Gems of Chinese Literature, edited by Herbert A.Giles, Shanghai and London: Kelly and Walsh, revised edition, 1922 (original edition, 1884)
Renditions issue on classical Chinese prose, 33–34 (1990)
Renditions issue on classical Chinese letters, 41–42 (1994)
Further Reading
Lin Yutang, My Country and My People, London: Heinemann, 1936
Liu Yan, editor, Zhongguo sanwen shigang (An outline history of Chinese prose), Hunan: Hunan jiaoyu chubanshe, 1994
Pollard, D.E., A Chinese Look at Literature: The Literary Values of Chou Tso-jen in Relation to the Tradition, London: Hurst, 1973
Pollard, D.E., “Ch’i in Chinese Literary Theory,” in Chinese Approaches to Literature from Confucius to Liang Ch’i-ch’ao, edited by Adele Austin Rickett, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1978:43–66

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