Yuan Hongdao, who with his brothers founded the Gongan school of writers (Gongan being their native home) at the end of the 16th century, and enjoyed considerable fame— touched with notoriety—in his lifetime, was restored to prominence in the early 1930s by modern prose writers who were seeking a native ancestry for their compositions, their sights having previously been set on foreign genres such as essays, sketches, and belleslettres.
To them Yuan Hongdao both advocated and exemplified individualism and
contemporaneity in a culture that was basically conformist and backward-looking. He is still well represented in recent anthologies of classical prose.
Yuan Hongdao was an effective communicator, playing his part in propagating the school’s philosophy of xingling (native sensibility). This derived from the doctrine of tongxin (the childlike mind) of their mentor, Li Zhi (1527–1602), which advocated remaining naive and unspoilt, looking on the world with fresh eyes, unclouded by convention or tradition, and exploring one’s own interests; expression would thus be freed from the trammels of conventional rhetoric and habitual rhythms. As the school all agreed, they lived in their own times, so should write for their own times, and let the dead bury the dead. But Yuan Hongdao’s great personal contribution to the development of Chinese prose was not in originality of thought but in translating an attitude to life and literature into practices that clearly worked and that others could learn from, through pouring new wine into old bottles (biographical and scenic sketches), and extending the range of subjects that could be written about entertainingly (e.g. vulgar pursuits, riffraff).
Youji (travelogues, scenic descriptions) bulk largest in Yuan’s prose, reflecting his joy in traveling. From the great variety of these compositions it is possible to see the virtue of the Gongan school approach to literature. The writings are all inspirational and unexpected. Yuan may give a full description of the scene that met the travelers’ eyes (Chinese scholars usually made these outings in a group), but equally the interest may be in a story that is attached to the place, or what happened to the party, or may simply focus on a joke someone made. In other words, the shaping force is subjectivism: whatever took his fancy, whatever made the deepest impression, is what went down on paper, regardless of any plan or overview.
To take a standard scene description as an example of his work, “Manjing youji” (An excursion to the Brimful Well) records a visit to a famously big well about a mile outside the walled city of Beijing, made in 1599 when Yuan had a post in the capital. The long view of the distant hills, the middle view of the surrounding fields and dykes, and the close-ups of the well itself are not given in any ordered way, but by abrupt switching, and are described either by elaborate similes or in highly condensed four-character phrases.
The soft contours of the hills are likened to a woman’s high coiffure, freshly combed into place; the shine on the surface of the well, from which the “skin” of ice has just melted, is compared to the “cold glint” that shoots from a silver mirror when its box is opened.
Compactness is achieved by exploiting the grammatical flexibility of Chinese words, mostly by using nouns as verbs: so fellow trippers are classed as “spring-and-teaists” (those who drink tea made with spring water), “goblet-and-song-ers” (those who quaff wine and sing), and “red-attire-and-hack-ers” (colorfully dressed women riding docile horses). This kind of freshness of conception and fluidity of language betokens a true liberation from convention, a release of the brakes on the mind.
More celebrated and much more exuberant is Yuan’s “Hu Qiu ji” (1596; Tiger Hill), which describes the droves of people streaming out of the city of Suzhou on the night of the MidAutumn Festival to enjoy the full moon from Tiger Hill. Syntactically isolated strings of words are used like splashes of color to convey the carnival atmosphere, and to plunge the writer from his normal elevation into the mêlée. The high point is the amateur singing competition, in which contestants are eliminated until “one man alone takes the stage, and there is a deathly hush. His voice is like a thin strand of hair. It cuts through the air and pierces the clouds. A single syllable is drawn out for nearly a quarter of an hour. Birds are arrested in flight, and strong men break down in tears.”
It is, however, typical of Yuan Hongdao to undercut his own lyricism, as in “Tian Chi” (1596; The pool of heaven) when, after waxing enthusiastic about the beauties of nature, he asks his pageboy, “Isn’t that fine?” and the pageboy answers, “I’m dog tired, what’s fine about it?” This kind of deflation is not calculated to startle the reader, but inherent in his dedication to truthfulness to experience, and his complete openmindedness about what should go into a composition. It is in that spirit that he writes entertainingly about ant fights and spider fights, beggars and drunkards, dreams and uncanny happenings. Openmindedness also allowed him to rate folk songs above refined poetry and popular novels above the classics.
But if he was dedicated to truthfulness, it was the truthfulness of the moment. Where Yuan gains in inspiration, he loses in lack of reflection. In other ways, too, he displayed the vices of his virtues: wittiness spills over into facetiousness, freedom into license.
Convention is, after all, a useful restraint. If the conventions of accepted standards are rejected, there normally remains the restraining influence of (conventional) unseen readers; but Yuan Hongdao wrote, besides for his own pleasure, for a small coterie of like-minded people; there were no readers “out there” to take into account. However, genius always exacts a price, and we read Yuan with great enjoyment for what he was, with few regrets about what he was not.
Style (assumed on reaching manhood) “Zhonglang.” Born 1568 in Gongan. Passed the juren (provincial) exams, 1588, and the jinshi (civil service) exams, 1592. Held government offices sporadically (retiring frequently), including as a magistrate, Wu district (Suzhou), 1595–96, secretary, Ministry of Rites, 1600 and from 1606, positions with the Ministry of Personnel, 1608, vice director, then director, Bureau of Evaluations, 1608–09, and chief examiner of the juren exams, Shanxi, 1609. Cofounder, with his brothers, Putao she (Grape society), Chongguo Temple, Beijing, 1598. Lived in a religious community, Gongan, 1600. Died in Shashi, Hubei Province, 22 October 1610.
Essays and Related Prose
The Pilgrim of the Clouds: Poems and Essays by Yuan Hung-tao and His Brothers, translated by Jonathan Chaves, 1978
Translations of essays in Inscribed Landscapes: Travel Writing from Imperial China, translated by Richard E.Strassberg, 1994: 305–12
Other writings: poetry, a historical romance, a play adaptation, and diaries.
Collected works edition: Yuan Zhonglang quan ji, 1629, reprinted 1976.
Hong Mingshui, Yüan Hung-tao and the Late Ming Literary and Intellectual Movement (dissertation), Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1974
Pollard, D.E., Appendix on the Gongan School, in his A Chinese Look at Literature: The Literary Values of Chou Tso-jen in Relation to the Tradition, London: Hurst, 1973:158–66
Yang Depen, Yuan Zhonglang ji wenxue si siang (The literary thought of Yuan Hongdao), Taibei, 1976
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