As many of my readers are writers themselves, I thought it would be fun to post one of the classic East Asian works on writing dated to sometime during the Three Kingdoms Period (220 – 280), Rhymeprose On Literature, or “On Literature”. Composed by General Lu Chi (261 – 303), it is China’s first systematic treatise on literary criticism. I have edited or abridged many sections for brevity’s sake, but have tried to retain the original translation’s clarity, using as my source material text from The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature (1994, Columbia University Press): pp. 124 – 133.
Every time I study the works of great writers, I flatter myself I know how their minds worked. Our constant worry though is that our ideas may not equal their objects and our style may fall short of their ideas [reference to Confucius: writing cannot express words completely: words cannot express thought completely.]. Now, it is true that I am hewing an axe handle with an axe handle in my hand, the pattern is not far to seek. However the conjuring hand of the artist being what it is, I cannot possibly make my words do the trick. Nevertheless, what I am able to say I have put down here.
Taking his position at the hub of things, [the writer] contemplates the mysteries of the Universe, he roams in the Forest of Literature, and praises the symmetry of great art. Moved, he pushes his books away and takes the writing brush, that he may express himself in letters.
At first he withholds his sight and turns his hearing inward; he is lost in thought, questioning everything. His spirit gallops to the eight ends of the universe, his mind wanders along vast distances. He sips the essence of letters; rinses his mouth with the extract of the six arts [the six classic Confucian texts]. He gathers words never used in one hundred generations; picks rhythms never sung in one thousand years.
He taps at the door of all that is colorful: he chooses from among everything that rings. Now the tiger put on new stripes, to the consternation of other beasts; now the dragon emerges, and terrifies all the birds. He traps heaven and earth in the cage of form; he crushes the myriad objects against the tip of his brush.
There is joy in this vocation; all sages esteem it. Poets struggle with Non-Being to force it to yield Being; we knock upon Silence for an answering Music. We enclose boundless space in a square foot of paper; we pour out a deluge from the inch-space of the heart. A laughing wind will fly and whirl upward; dense clouds will arise from the Forest of Writing Brushes.
Forms vary in a thousand ways; objects are not of one measure. Confronted with bringing something into being or leaving it unsaid, he groans; between the shallow and the deep, he makes his choice resolutely.
Lyric poetry traces emotions daintily; rhyme prose embodies objects brightly. The epitaph balances substance with style, while the dirge is terse and mournful. Disquisition is rarefied and subtle, while discourse is dazzlingly bright and extravagantly bizarre. Differing in form, they all forbid deviation from the straight, having no “twisty thoughts” (depravity).
Ideas should be cleverly brought together… and the mutation of sounds and tones should be like the five colors of embroidery, sustaining each other. If, however, you have missed the chance and reached the sense belatedly, you will be putting the tail at the head. The sequence of dark and yellow being deranged, the whole broidery will look smudged and blurred.
Weight merit or demerit by the milligram; decide rejection or retention by a hairbreadth. If your idea or word has not the correct weight, it has to go, however comely it may look.
It may be that language and thought blend into damascened gauze – fresh, delightful, and exuberantly lush. Glowing like many-colored broidery [while hinting at weltschmerz], like many chords; but assuredly there is nothing novel in my own writing. True, the arrow struck my heart; what a pity, then, that others were struck before me. [Thus] as plagiarism will impair my integrity and damage my probity, I must renounce the piece, however fond I am of it.
It may be that one ear of the stalk buds [only one line stands out among many]; solitary and exquisite. But shadows cannot be caught; echoes are hard to bind. Standing forlorn, your purple passage juts out conspicuously; it cannot be woven into ordinary music, and your mind, out of step, finds no place for it. When the rock embeds jade, the mountain glows, when the stream is impregnated with pearls, the river becomes alluring. We will weave the market ditty into the classical melody; perhaps we may thus rescue what is beautiful.
Entrusting your diction to an anemic rhythm: living in a desert you have only yourself to talk to. Fitting your words into a frazzled music; gaudy, your language lacks charm… the harsh note of a wind instrument in the courtyard below. Forsaking reason and going for the bizarre: you pursue inanity and the trivial.
I have been paying tribute to laws of words and rules of style. I know well what the world blames, and I am familiar with what the worthies of the past praised. Originality is a thing often overlooked at askance by the fixed eye. Gems and purest jade beads, they say, are (1) as numerous as the dry beans in the fields, and as inexhaustible as the space between heaven and earth; growing co-eternally with heaven and earth themselves. The world abounds with masterpieces, and yet they do not appear in my own hands. Oh how I grieve that the bottle is often empty; how I grieve that Elevating Discourse is hard to continue. It is no wonder I limp along with trivial rhythms, and make indifferent music to complete the song. I fear being a drummer on an earthen jug: mocked by jinglers of jade pendants.
You cannot hinder its coming or stop its going. When the Heavenly Arrow is at its fleetest and sharpest, what confusion is there that cannot be brought to order? When on the other hand, the Six Emotions [original text unclear: possibly like, dislike, pleasure, anger, sorrow and joy] become sluggish and foul, the mood gone but the psyche remaining, you will be as forlorn as a dead stump, as empty as the bed of a dry river. True, the thing lies in me, but it is not in my power to force it out. And so, time and time again, I beat my empty breast and groan, I really do not know the causes of the flowing and the not flowing.
Encomium on Style
The function of style is to serve as a prop for your ideas. It travels over endless miles, removing all obstructions in its way: spanning innumerable years, taking the place of a bridge. Looking down it bequeaths patterns to the future; gazing up it contemplates the examples of the ancients [sun, stars, moon, dragons, mountains…]. It is a match for clouds and rain in yielding sweet moisture: it is like spirits and ghosts in bringing about metamorphoses [comparison to the heavenly principle Ch’ien: the celestial aspect of the cosmos]. It inscribes bronze and marble to make virtue known; it breathes through flutes and strings, and is forever new.