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On Removing the Stale Speech-A Case Study of Cliched Allusions in Tang-Song Prose

I wrote this paper before I started writing my dissertation on late Tang prose as a reflection of the secondary sources I have read in preparation for my project. My understanding of "ancient prose" (guwen 古文) has become much clearer as I was writing this paper.

At the beginning of the ninth century, the thirty-three-year-old Han Yu 韓愈 (768-824 C.E.), who was about to become the Directorate of Education at the School of the Four (Guozi jian simen boshi 國子監四門博士), spoke of his ideal prose writing style in a letter to his student, a promising young scholar, Li Yi 李翊 (fl. 800-837 C.E.): “the stale speech must be removed.”[1] Han Yu probably did not expect this letter to be studied so carefully and widespread later, nor would he had imagined his urge to “remove the stale speech” to influence writers of centuries later so greatly. By saying this, Han was calling for original, fresh, new, the opposite of “stale,” which became a critical characteristic of the ancient-style prose (guwen古文), contrary to the contemporary-style prose (shiwen 時文). It also became a guideline for the two-phased Ancient-Style Prose Movement (guwen yundong 古文運動) in both the Tang 唐 and the Song 宋 phases.

In the same letter, Han Yu also told Li Yi that when he imitated “the ancient way of establishing words,” he “dared not to read books that are not from the Xia 夏, the Shang 商, the Zhou 周, and the two Han 漢 dynasties.”[2] Would it be possible to stay away from “stale speech” when no reading material comes from the current time? What could emerge to be original from the words of the past? Indeed, as admitted by Han himself, it was hard to avoid “staleness” in writing, but Han must have achieved his goal to receive much acclaim. The famous Song scholar-official Su Shi 蘇軾 (1037-1101 C.E.) profusely praised Han Yu for his excellent prose writing as that which “lifts up [what is] in decline during the eight dynasties.”[3] Being one of the best prose writers of his time, Su Shi was a guwen advocate himself. According to Su, writings had been in decline throughout the Eastern Han 東漢, the Wei 魏, the Jin 晉, the Song 宋, the Qi 齊, the Liang 梁, the Chen 陳, and the Sui 隋 dynasties. If the writings of the eight dynasties, and clearly of the Tang in which Han lived, were full of stale speeches, Han Yu and Su Shi’s writings should be a breath of fresh air. We should believe that Han Yu had in mind the perfect definition and examples of the stale speech, but later interpretations can easily misrepresent the idea. It is, therefore, pointless to decide on the exact meaning of the term in Han Yu’s letter but place it in a larger context. In a broad sense, as a leading figure of the Guwen Movement, Han Yu was proposing an original speech in prose writing, which may consist of original ideas, original syntax structures, original rhyming patterns, original vocabulary, original rhetorical devices, and so on.

Any diligent guwen-style prose writer should realize that the least original part of a stale speech is cliched allusions. Such allusions are allusive phrases made according to either historical figures or events or quotations coming from classic literature. To express an idea smoothly in the ancient style, we expect the guwen writer to tell no old story which the shiwen writers use but explain their ideas with more tangible and relatable examples. In this paper, I intend to explore the definition and application of “stale speech” in the context of the Guwen Movement from the perspective of the use of cliched allusions. The database is built upon a set of prose articles written by the Eight Masters of the Tang and Song (Tang Song ba da jia 唐宋八大家). Specifically, I will rely on the TangSong ba da jia wenchao 唐宋八大家文鈔 compiled by Mao Kun 茅坤 (1512-1061 C.E.), a Ming 明 dynasty scholar who ardently rejected the widespread literary idea of “When it comes to prose, it must be the Qin and the Han” (wen bi Qin Han 文必秦漢) and supported the guwen revival. With the prose works of the Eight Masters, who were promoted as the greatest ancient-style prose writers in the collection, as a database, I will select a typical cliched allusion as a case and analyze the use of it. The Eight Masters’ choice of allusions and their ways of using them are to be compared with that of the shiwen examples, which were written by skillful pianwen 駢文 writers like Li Shangyin 李商隱 (813-858 C.E.). Through the study, I plan to find out if the theory that the Eight Masters did not care for cliched allusions holds true. If so, to what extent they avoided the cliched allusions? If my examination proves the hypothesis wrong, to what extent they employed them? If the use of cliched allusions was more than occasional in guwen-style prose articles, what made the Eight Masters’ articles stand out as new in this respect, if they did stand out at all? In that case, it is not only the allusion itself that matters; how the allusion is inserted in a sentence and incorporated in the entire essay plays an essential role. Thus, a detailed textual analysis of representative cases will follow the preliminary quantitative study, through which I intend to shed light on the originality the Eight Masters offered to remove stale speeches.

Guwen, shiwen, and pianwen

Before we establish Han Yu’s proposal to remove the stale speech as a guideline of the Guwen Movement, it is necessary to clarify the meanings of some relevant terms. The avocation of guwen did not start with Han Yu. In fact, as early as in the Sui dynasty, an official named Li E 李諤 (fl. 580-600 C.E.) had sent up a memorial to Emperor Wen of Sui 隋文帝 (541-604 C.E.), calling for the correction of the literary style. In this memorial, Li harshly criticized the writing style of the Six Dynasties for being overly florid and ornate. The contemporary writers all followed the style by “competing for the strangeness of a rime” and “battling for the skillfulness of a word.” Moreover, their learnings did not salute the ancients, and they search for the vulgarness and move along with the time. They wrote insignificant articles and formed cliques in seek of fame.[4] Li E’s awareness of the flamboyant style did not bring a revolution to the literary field, but less than a century later, the early Tang writers Wang Bo 王勃 (650-676 C.E.) and Chen Ziang 陳子昂 (661-702 C.E.) echoed him. In the eighth century, Xiao Yingshi 蕭穎士 (717-768 C.E.), Dugu Ji 獨孤及 (726-777 C.E.) and Li Hua 李華 (715-766 C.E.) also promoted the ancient style in prose writing. The movement did not receive attention great enough to attract followers until Han Yu and Liu Zongyuan’s 柳宗元 (773-819 C.E.) time. The Old Book of Tang (Jiu Tang shu 舊唐書) tells us of Han Yu:[5]


He often thinks that since the Wei and the Jin, those who write prose articles have mostly been constrained by antithesis and parallelism, but the intention of the classics and the “Gao”[6], the character and style of Sima Qian and Yang Xiong have not been elevated as before. Therefore, the prose articles written by Han Yu strive to be in opposition to the recent style. He expresses his ideas and establishes words, and he forms new speeches of his own school.

Li E and Han Yu were parted by two hundred years; the shiwen and jinti could hardly be identical. Another two hundred years later, the topic was raised again. At the beginning of the Northern Song, Liu Kai 柳開 (947-1000 C.E.) and Wang Yucheng 王禹偁 (954-1001) became the pioneers of the second wave of the Guwen Movement. In “Responding to Criticism,” (“Ying ze” 應責) Liu Kai, an ardent admirer of Han Yu, denounced the contemporary style and endorsed the ancient style. To him, the current writing style was an unacceptable obstacle to achieving the ancient Way:[7]


Wishing to practice the Way of the ancients, but, in turn, mimicking the writing of the contemporaries. It is like one who swims in the sea rides a fine steed; how is it acceptable? If, and only if, it is unacceptable, then I will follow the writing of the ancients.

In the same article, Liu confidently declared his own writings, which were supposed to be of the ancient style, to be the writings of Confucius, Mencius, Yang Xiong, and Han Yu.[8] When Ouyang Xiu 歐陽修 (1007-1072 C.E.) and Su Shi appeared on the stage, the ancient style was finally in vogue again. It surely does not mean that the shiwen immediately fell out of fashion. Even Ouyang Xiu admitted to being one of the shiwen writers. In “A Letter to Jingnan Talent,” (“Yu Jingnan xiucai shu” 與荊南秀才書) Ouyang said:[9]


I had been alone and destitute since young, so I craved for official salary and career to provide for my parents. I had no time to study under a mentor or get to the end of the classics. Instead, I read the Shu and the History cursorily, and I temporarily followed the current vulgar world to compose what was referred to as the contemporary-style prose articles. All [of the writings] were representations of through studies of the classics and the biographies, and [I] shifted [words from] there to make possible the antithesis there. I take them as floating and shallow, as all I feared was that my writings did not please the contemporaries. There was no outstanding word that stands on its own like what the ancients wrote. Nevertheless, the government overpraised my writings and thought of them as superior to other scholars’, again and again. Since I passed the civil service exam, I, myself, thought that what I had composed were insufficient to be called the writings of a government official, nor could they represent the knowledge of an elder. From then on, I have utterly changed the style and maybe have had establishments.

In speaking of the shiwen, Ouyang Xiu was less averse to it but more understanding than his predecessors:[10]


In general, although the contemporary-style prose articles are called floating and skillful, its being achievement does not come easily. I, in lack of fine inborn talent, forced myself to compose in the style, so compared with those written by the contemporaries, mine was especially not delicate. The reason why they were sufficient to get official salary and career and steal fame and praise was that they followed the time.

Up till then, the definition of shiwen must have evolved throughout the centuries. Unlike Li E and the early Tang writers, who were disappointed by the Qi and Liang court literary style that was passed down to their times, when talking about shiwen, Han Yu and Liu Zongyuan clearly had the “regulated fu” (lüfu 律賦) as the target. The trend of the regulated fu started because of the strict prosodic requirements of the imperial exam. In 714, during Emperor Xuanzong’s 玄宗 reign (712-756 C.E.), a scholar Li Ang 李昂 (fl. 714 C.E.) composed a regulated fu- “Fu on Flags” (“Qi fu” 旗賦) for the exam, which perfectly fulfilled the question setter’s hard requirements on rhymes.[11] He was then selected as the Principal Scholar (Zhuangyuan 狀元). Thereafter, the exam-takers regarded Li Ang as the model and began to prepare themselves with the ability to write the regulated fu. The regulated fu had strict rules of form and expression and required the use of consistent rhymes throughout each piece. Because of its rigid restrictions, it is not surprising that the scholars paid more attention to the parallelism and rhymes than the ideas. When the Northern Song guwen advocates criticized shiwen, it was the writing style prevalent during the late Tang and the Five Dynasties 五代 that they disapproved. Wang Yucheng was clear when he commented on the literature since the late Tang period:[12]


Since the reign of Xiantong, this culture of ours lacked vitality. As for changing the wrongness and reversing the ancient style, it is something nice to hear about.

The most renowned representatives of the style in late Tang are Li Shangyin and Wen Tingyun 溫庭筠 (812-870 C.E.). Li’s Collection of Fannan’s Literary Works (Fannan wen ji 樊南文集) set a new model for prose writing for the Northern Song writers. Yang Yi 楊億 (974-1020 C.E.), Liu Yun 劉筠 (971-1031 C.E.), and Qian Weiyan 錢惟演 (977-1034 C.E.) all admired Li’ style. Their writing style was later known as xikun style (xikun ti 西昆體), named after their collection The Collection of Correspondence in Poems of Xikun (Xikun chouchang ji 西昆酬唱集). The xikun-style prose thus became the most appropriate example of shiwen in Su Shi and Ouyang Xiu’s time.

Although shiwen is apparently the best antonym of guwen, it seems to be a concept too hard to define. The more consistent thing is probably the style of shiwen regardless of its changes with time. For Li E, the florid writing style employed by his contemporaries was inherited from the previous dynasties:[13]


The three founders of the Wei worshiped patterned words even more. They ignored the great Way of the lords but were fond of the petty craft of carving insects. The subordinates followed the superiors; the like-minded influenced each other. They compete to produce patterned and adorned literature, and subsequently, it became the custom. As for the Qi and the Liang of the East of the Yangtze River, their case is even worse. The noble, the petty, the wise, and the foolish were all only busy with reciting and chanting.

For Chen Ziang, it was also the style of the Qi and the Liang, which had “paired rhetoric” and “competed for complexity.”[14] What distinguishes Chen and Li is their view of the style of the Wei. Chen lamented for the decline of the proper writing style since five hundred years ago, which roughly dated back to the start of the Western Jin dynasty. Then, he pitied the loss of the vigorous style of the Han and the Wei. Whether the Wei writing style is one that “carves insects” or one of “vigorous style” is a matter of personal literary judgment rather than an undebatable fact. After all, the style of the Qi and the Liang is under attack by all. When Mao Kun compiled the works of the Eight Masters, he made clear of his criteria for prose article selection for the wenchao: “As for (Liu Zihou’s) epitaphs and stele inscriptions, they were composed when he was serving as the Investigating Censor and Vice Director of the Ministry of Rites. Most that remained is of the style of the Six Dynasties. I do not include them.”[15] The style of the Six Dynasties is, again, undoubtedly pianwen. Therefore, it is convenient and tempting to equate shiwen to pianwen. The accusation coming from the guwen advocates of different generations shared the same target-the writing style of the Qi and the Liang, and pianwen’s prevalence in the Qi-Liang period was beyond doubt.

Indeed, lots of features of pianwen match with that of shiwen. For example, the lengths of the couplets are almost invariably the same. Each line consists of either four or six characters, which is why pianwen is also called siliuwen 四六文. The structure within each couplet should also match. Verbs should correspond to verbs, and nouns to nouns. More strictly, the verbs and nouns fall into categories and should not be mixed. The four tones are also to be considered in the composition of pianwen. The rigid rules of pianwen make help to produce neat and regulated prose articles, but the constraint it also imposes unavoidably results in formulaic cliches. The shiwen, being heavily criticized by the guwen advocates, is not identical to pianwen. It is not only because the writing rules do not tally with each other completely, but also due to the fact that some guwen writers wrote excellent pianwen too.

In 1928, Hu Shi 胡適 (1891-1962 C.E.) first used the word “movement” to summarize the emergence of the literary ideas and the subsequent series of literary practice.[16] Hu Yunyi 胡雲翼 (1906-1965 C.E.) adopted the term and narrowed it down to Guwen Movement in 1931.[17] Since then, the term has been widely used. It is not the goal to discuss the appropriateness of the term in this paper, but it should be noted that the definitions of guwen, shiwen, and pianwen are easily confused. By grouping the writers from different generations together, one tends to pay attention to the similarities but overlook the individualities. That being said, the universally agreed features that the guwen advocates strived to get rid of are to be studied in this paper.

Allusions in prose articles

The guwen advocates strived to be free from the contemporary style, which required the removal of some features of pianwen. Among all, the use of allusion in four-character and six-character couplets is most characteristic. The skillful use of allusion is a symbol of erudition and talent in writing. A good allusion is a conversion only with equally well-read audiences. Moreover, it creates space for contemplation, illuminates the unclear, and deepens the understanding of the writer’s ideas. However, the use of allusion in pianwen can be counterproductive. The line with the quotation needs to be in parallel with the other within a couplet, which limits the choice of quotations as well as the ways of quoting. One of the best pianwen writers in the Liang dynasty, Yu Xin 庾信 (513-581 C.E.), was known for his outstanding skill in using allusions. In the preface of his masterpiece “The Lament for the South” (“Ai Jiangnan fu” 哀江南賦), allusions appear in most couplets. The following couplet should serve as an example:[18]

將軍一去,大树飄零; Once the general left, the great tree shed leaves.

壯士不還,寒風蕭瑟。 The hero did not return, and the cold wind rustled.

In the couplet, Yu Xin uses two allusions for each of them. In the first line, the general refers to the Eastern Han dynasty general Feng Yi 馮異 (d. 34 C.E.). In the Book of the Later Han (Hou Han shu 後漢書), it was recorded that Feng Yi often sat under a big tree alone when other generals sit together and talked about their merits.[19] He was nicknamed “Big Tree General.” By quoting this anecdote, Yu Xin compares himself with Feng and lamented for the fall of the Liang since he left the country. The second line tells the story of Jing Ke 荊軻 (d. 227 B.C.E.). Entrusted with the mission of assassinating the First Emperor of Qin 秦始皇 (259-210 B.C.E.), Jing Ke parted the Prince Dan of Yan 燕太子丹 (d. 226 B.C.E.) by the Yi River 易水 in the cold rustling wind. He was then killed in the mission and never went back.[20] Yu Xin was sent to the Western Wei, by which his home country would be attacked and perish. The state of Yan is like the Liang, a home impossible to return. The two couplets, each consists of two four-character phrases, completely match with each other. Jiangjun 將軍 (the general) corresponds to zhuangshi 壯士 (the hero); qu 去 (to leave) corresponds to huan 還 (to return); dashu 大樹 (big tree) corresponds to hanfeng 寒風 (cold wind); piaoling 飄零 (to shed leaves) corresponds to xiaose 蕭瑟 (to rustle). There is no extra words or explanation. One who has read about Feng Yi will understand the sadness of the leaves-shedding of the big tree; one who has not read about Jing Ke will not feel for the depression brought by the cold wind. Yet, one has to relate the author’s experience to the allusions since the “I” and everything of “mine” were absent. As the textbook example of pianwen allusions, their parallel structure, the implicitness, and, of course, the appropriateness of its use are all features celebrated and pursued by later writers.

The shiwen writers certainly did not abandon these features when it comes to allusions. Li Shangyin, whose pianwen was as skillfully written as his poems, had his ways of using allusions. Still remained the subtleness in his prose articles, Li hardly presented his views or emotions explicitly through quotations of historical events or literary quotes. Compared to Yu Xin, Li was slightly more restrained with the usage of allusions. In terms of the level of implicitness, one may find Li’s allusions easier to comprehend. We can get a taste through the following example:[21]

檢庾信荀娘之啟,常有酸辛。Examining Yu Xin’s letter to Xunniang, I often get the sourness and bitterness.

詠陶潛通子之詩,每嗟漂泊。Chanting Tao Qin’s poem to his son Tong, I sigh for the rootlessness every time.

In this couplet, Li Shangyin uses two allusions to express his sorrow. When he wrote this letter to Liu Zhongying 柳仲郢 (d. 864 C.E.), Li had just lost his wife five months ago. With a son and a daughter left behind, Li accepted Liu’s invitation to work in the remote Zizhou 梓州.[22] When Liu offered Li a courtesan to be his concubine, Liu politely declined with the letter. Xunniang referred to Yu Xin’s son and Tongzi referred to Tao Qian’s son. Letters and poems from fathers to sons remind Li of his own children, whom he could not raise personally. There is no backstory in the letter Yu Xin wrote or the poem Tao Qian composed; nothing echoes Li’s lament for being away from the children as a single parent. Still, one may be at a loss without the knowledge of Yu Xin’s letter to Xunniang and Tao Qian’s poem for Tao Tong. Aside from the content, the structure of the couplet with the two allusions almost reached the level of neatness in Yu Xin’s “The Lament for the South.” The verb jian檢 (to examine) corresponds to the verb yong 詠 (to chant); Yu Xin and Tao Qian are both people’s names; Xunniang and Tongzi were clearly trimmed to fit in the phrases and match with each other, but the structure maintained intact; the two nouns qi 啟 (letter) and shi 詩 (poem) need no explanation. Then, Li matched the adverbs chang 常 (often) and mei 每 (every time), followed by the two verbs you 有 (to have) and jie 嗟 (to sigh). At last, the couplet ends with the paired words suanxin 酸辛 (sourness and bitterness) and piaobo 漂泊 (rootlessness).

Of course, merely two examples cannot represent the development of the use of allusions in prose articles, but the common features should inform us of the standard writers tried to hold. With allusions in a couplet, it is the perfect parallel structure that was to be kept. Also, the insertion of quotations should provide subtleness in revealing the author’s ideas or emotions. Finally, the ideal use of allusions ought to create a perfect match between the backstory of the quotations and the intention of the prose article.

It is hard, if not impossible, to replicate allusions as well as in “The Lament for the South,” since the requirements for the structure, riming, and tones are high for pianwen. Another conundrum a writer may face concerns the choice of quotations. There are well-known stories from the classics that any scholars should be familiar with; similarly, there are phrases recited by all. By citing Confucius’s words from the Analects (Lun yu 論語), one does not prove his erudition but his basic qualification to be an established scholar. By the same token, referring to the convention in the Liji 禮記 hardly gives one no credential to be superior to others as it had been one of the required texts to study for the civil service exam since the Sui dynasty. It was apparently not a pleasant experience to find counterparts in the works of one’s contemporaries while choosing novelty over commonality was not a better solution either. The risk lay in the lack of like-minded audiences who was as learned as the writer, and more importantly, who shared the same taste in reading materials. Additionally, the criticism of being pretentious was unlikely to get away with. Li Shangyin must have heard of the complaints about the arcaneness of his works. The xikun-style writers leading by Yang Yi were often targeted as well. Even Su Shi was not free from criticism. As well-read as Su Shi was, the classics was not his sole source of reference. His broad interest in Daoism and Buddhism led him to Buddhist sutras and Daoist texts, and anecdotes also appear in his writing. The conundrum faced by writers was a real issue to be solved by the guwen advocates. On the one hand, the stale speech, which obviously associates with cliched allusions, was to be removed; on the other hand, the rigid structure of pianwen or shiwen should not be a constraint to the use of allusions in their case. The next section intends to find out how, in reality, the guwen advocates dealt with this issue. Specifically, I will look for a set of cliched allusions that were widely used by contemporary writers in the works of the Eight Masters. The frequency of the usage should tell us how well the Eight Masters did in removing the stale speech. Clearly, the result will reflect a certain degree of personal preference, which shall be discussed. Furthermore, it is expected that the use of the cliched allusions by the Eight Masters differed from the shiwen writers. If that is true, the difference is worth studying.

The worthy advisor

A worthy advisor was what all kings and emperors seek, and all upright literati hope to become. Therefore, the exemplary worthy advisors appear repeatedly in Chinese literature. The officials might call for better treatment to worthy advisors or more effective ways of selecting them, and the officials-to-be might comparing themselves to one, hoping that attention be caught to their talents. Between sponsors and proteges, a worthy advisor could be a compliment or an aspiration. Thus, it should not be surprising to see the name of a worthy advisor in all kinds of prose articles such as memorials, epitaphs, exam papers, stele inscriptions, personal letters, and so on.

One of the most renowned advisors in Chinese history is Yi Yin 伊尹. Also known as Yi Zhi 伊摯, he was a brilliant, loyal, and upright advisor of Shang Tang 商湯, the first ruler of the Shang dynasty. Yi Yin’s greatest achievement was helping with the defeating of Jie 桀 of the Xia dynasty and the founding of the Shang dynasty.[23] As Yi Yin’s account was carefully written down by Sima Qian 司馬遷 (d. 86 B.C.E.) in the Shiji史記, a work any scholar should have read then; his name became one of the most frequent visitors in literature when the appropriate topic was brought up. Because the need for an exemplary worthy advisor was so strong, Yi Yin, as the obvious great choice, became a cliché. It is impossible to get the number of times his name was mentioned, but we can certainly find some instances in the works of the pianwen writers of whom the guwen writers disapproved.

In “Letter to Congratulate Minister Lord Runan” (“He xiangguo runan gong qi” 賀相國汝南公啟), Li used Yi Yin to compare with Lord Runan, Zhou Chi 周墀 (793-851 C.E.), who just received a promotion:[24]

殷奉伊尹,則謂之元聖;The Yin Shang worshiped Yi Yin, then they referred to him as Yuanshang.

周事呂尚,則命為太公。The Zhou viewed Lü Shang as diligent, then they named him Taigong.[25]

In this couplet, the cliched allusions were used in a cliched way. The two great advisors Yi Yin and Lü Shang were both hinting Zhou Chi. The parallel structure of the two lines is impeccable. The proper nouns correspond to proper nouns, and the verbs are also in a matching position. Since this was a congratulatory letter that undoubtedly serves some political purpose, the subtleness is absent. Probably afraid to be too indirect with his flattery, Li Shangyin commented in a short phrase after the couplet: “This is how the rulers respected the worthy and the outstanding but did not regard them as suspicious.”[26] This couplet, thus, shows exactly the kind of stale speech the Eight Masters should avoid.

A simple search for Yi Yin in the wenchao database gives us seventy-one entries. Among them, we can find more than one prose article directly dealing with the figure. Liu Zongyuan’s “Praising Yi Yin for Approaching Jie for Five Times” (“Yi Yin wu jiu Jie zan” 伊尹五就桀讚) is one example. In this article, Liu Zongyuan applauded Yi Yin for approaching the evil ruler Jie repeatedly. He explained that Yi Yin’s action did not indicate his confusion over right or wrong. Instead, Yi Yin was ready to rectify the wrong even though the rumor might ruin his reputation. As a typical essay with historical subjects, this article adopted the most cliched topic-Yi Yin. The originality in it, however, was the new perspective and interpretation of an old story.

The next article which mentions Yi Yin’s name ten times is Wang Anshi’s 王安石 (1021-1086 C.E.) “Discussion of the Three Saints” (“San shengren lun” 三聖人論).[27] In this article, Yi Yin was revered as one of the three saints together with Bo Yi 伯夷 and Liu Xiahui 柳下惠 (720-621 B.C.E.).[28] In this essay, Wang explained the individual philosophy of each of the “saints” and how it was only appropriate for their time. His primary argument was to be flexible in a changing world, which echoed his proposal for political reform. Hence, Yi Yin served as a convenient example to support Wang’s argument, just as how he was employed in Liu’s article. The practice of handling the historical subject with new angles was not uncommon in the works of the Eight Masters.

Zeng Gong 曾鞏 (1019-1083 C.E.) was clearly an admirer of Yi Yin. In the seven articles collected by Mao Kun in Volume 106, he referred to Yi Yin in three articles. As a guwen practitioner, Zeng Gong rarely used the four-character or six-character line structure in pianwen, nor did he care about the use of allusions. In terms of the literary style, Su Zhe 蘇轍 (1039-1112 C.E.) was similar to Zeng Gong. He apparently felt comfortable using historical topics to express his political views. For this reason, Yi Yin was discussed in a series of essays such as “Discussion of Lord Zhou” (“Zhou gong lun” 周公論), “New Discussion” (“Xin lun” 新論), and so on.

If the entries above all strive to provide novel opinions with an old topic, Liu Zongyuan’s “The Second Letter to Explain the Carriage’s Rule to Yang Huizhi” (“Yu Yang Huizhi shu jie che yi di er shu” 與楊誨之疏解車義第二書) symbolizes another typical way of using the historical material. In this article, Liu Zongyuan tried to educate his relative Yang Huizi, whom he encountered in Yongzhou 永州.[29] The intelligent young man, who was not yet twenty years old, was proud and willful. In the first letter to him, Liu used a simple metaphor, the carriage, to explain significant moral principles. When Yang replied with puzzles, Liu replied on Yi Yin to answer his questions:[30]


Yi Yin took taking care of people as his responsibility, and Guan Zhong showed with scented herbs to aid what is under the Heaven. Confucius regarded them as humane.

Then, Liu continued to discuss the pettiness of Gan Luo 甘羅 (b. 247 B.C.E.), whom Yang Huizhi viewed as successful at a young age. In Liu’s opinion, Gan Luo was short-sighted and willing to sacrifice people’s wellness for his own benefit. His behavior should be disparaged and avoided.[31] Because for the need of instruction, this letter was written in a straightforward language style. The choice of Yi Yin and Guan Zhong as examples was based on their popularity. In other words, the cliched materials were employed to explain simple ideas.

Liu was not the only one to embrace the cliched material to argue for simple ideas; Han Yu also did not shy away from the story of Yi Yin. Unlike Liu Zongyuan, whose intention was moral cultivation for the young generation, Han’s article was a political persuasion. His “Responding to Question of Yu” (“Dui Yu wen” 對禹問) argued for the advantage of passing down the throne to one’s son. The discussion responded to the question of why Yu handed over the throne to his son, while Yao 堯 to Shun 舜 and Shun to Yu. Han Yu thought that when there was the best candidate to be a successor, it would be wise to choose him over one’s son. When there was no perfect candidate, passing the throne down to one’s son could avoid turmoil. In the case of Yu, he said:[32]


Four hundred years passed after Yu; then there was Jie; another four hundred years later, there were Tang and Yi Yin. Tang and Yi Yin could not be waited for and then handed over the throne to. Rather than not handing over the throne to a saint and causing fights and chaos, it is better to pass it down to the various sons. Even if one gets no worthy ruler, it still maintains the law.

The argument was not new, if not a cliché. Han’s understanding of Yi Yin was also conventional. The topic of the great sages-Yao, Shun, and Yu was probably the most popular one in the entire Chinese history of literature. Writers had been trying to outshine others with unconventional interpretations. Han Yu clearly did not join the battle. Instead, this article can even be read as a plain complement to the existing government, which does not help us associate Han with his claim to “remove the stale speech.”

“Responding to Question of Yu” is not Han’s only essay to mention Yi Yin. In the “Preface to Sending Meng Dongye Off” (Song Meng Dongye xu 送孟東野序), Han Yu used this worthy advisor to give advice to his friend and student Meng Jiao 孟郊 (751-814 C.E.). When sending off the frustrated scholar, Han urged Meng in this article to make his words heard through writing even though the time was against him. In the following paragraph, Han tried to bring the significance of “making a sound” (ming 鳴) to attention:[33]


The essence of human sound is speech; words and phrases, when compared with speeches, are, again, the essence of them. One should particularly choose those that are good at making sound and use them to make a sound. During the time of Tang Yu, Jiu Tao and Yu were people who were good at making sound, then they used them to make a sound. Jiang could not make a sound with words and phrases, then he, again, used the music “Shao” to make a sound. During the Xia, the five younger brothers [of Taikang] used their songs to make a sound. Yi Yin made a sound for the Yin. Duke Zhou made a sound for the Zhou.

To be frank, the metaphor was not Han’s best, and Yi Yin was merely a cliched example of a worthy man. The exact relationship between Yi Yin’s marvelous service to the Shang and Han Yu’s suggestion to voice out cannot be investigated. One may also ask in which method Yi Yin made a sound for the Yin, and in which method Duke Zhou made a sound for the Zhou. That being said, we are ensured that Han Yu was not unlike the shiwen writers when selecting materials. The grant task of “removing the stale speech” was not unchallenging at all.

Han Yu was not alone. If the cliched example in a personal letter indicates the author’s unconscious preference for convenience, then it is even more challenging to have original words in a letter with practical purposes. Ouyang Xiu’s “A Request Letter to See Grand Councilor Lü on Behalf of Judge Yang” (“Dai Yang tuiguan ji shang Lü xianggong qiu jian shu” 代楊推官洎上呂相公求見書) serves as the best example. As the title suggests, this letter was written on behalf of a lower-ranked official Judge Yang-Yang Pan 楊蟠 (1017-1106 C.E.) to the Grand Councilor Lü Yijian 呂夷簡 (978-1044 C.E.). Ouyang spent most of the letter praising Lü, who was then a senior minister at court. The words and phrases were explicitly flattering with clichéd remarkable historical figures to applaud Lü’s worthiness. The first paragraph, where Yi Yin was undoubtedly mentioned, reads:[34]


I heard that in ancient times, when Yao, Shun, and Yu served as rulers, they had fellows like Gao, Jiang, Yi, and Ji to serve as their vassals. Then when Tang ruled as the king, he also had men like Zhonghui and Yi Yin. When the Zhou first flourished, there were Duke Zhou and Duke Zhao; when it resurged, there were fellows like Fangshu, Zhao Hu, and Shen, Fu. Down to the Han, when we talk about the early stage, meritorious vassals were especially numerous. Then those who deserved to be called great ministers were Xiao and Cao, and subsequently, we speak of Bing and Wei. At the beginning of the Tang, we then speak of Fang and Du, and afterward, we speak of people such as Yao and Song. They were all capable of assisting their lords with merits and inner strength, and moreover were people who were outstanding and excelled others with fame, and then seen by the world.

The name list provided by Ouyang Xiu here is long, while none of the names on it will strike us as unfamiliar. Ouyang’s did not try to remove the stale speech; on the contrary, he viewed his audience to be one who preferred the conventional than the novel style. Although Mao Kun did careful thinking when he compiled the Eight Masters’ works to exclude what he thought represented the contemporary writing style, we are still going to find countless examples of stale speech.

A career at court means a set of literary responsibilities. Thus, the name of Yi Yin became too hard to miss in official writing. The Eight Masters, no matter how passionate about the ancient style, often found themselves bound to use pianwen for some occasions. For Han Yu, “Stele for Pacifying Huaixi” (“Ping Huaixi bei” 平淮西碑) was his absolute masterpiece. For Liu Zongyuan, “Jizi bei” (“Jizi bei” 箕子碑) was revered by the Qing critics Wu Chucai 吳楚材 (1655-1719 C.E.) and Wu Tiaohou 吳調侯 (fl. 1700 C.E.). Su Shi also chose the traditional four-character prose when he wrote “Eulogy for the Wei State Han Linggong” (“Ji Weiguo Han linggong wen” 祭魏國韓令公文). Unlike Ouyang Xiu’s “A Request Letter to See Grand Councilor Lü on Behalf of Judge Yang,” Su Shi’s admiration for Han Qi 韓琦 (1008-1075 C.E.) allowed this eulogy to be more than a formality. As an adept writer, Su Shi was especially skillful with appealing language, and he apparently did not reserve good words for Han Qi. Comparing Han Qi to Yi Yin is a perfect example:


Lord Han at the time was [comparable to] Yi Yin and Duke Zhou. When he completed the merits and then retired, the three territories ceased fire. The whole world was crying; when would things reverse? Duke of Bi was outside [the court], but his mind lay with the royal house.

Although Ouyang Xiu was associating Lü Yijian with the great advisors in the past, he never explicitly drew the equal sign. Su Shi, on the contrary, was straightforward. Probably because he was free from the risk of being called a sycophant for writing a eulogy slightly more overstated, Su employed all the famous historical figures to express his respect. In this case, Su’s understanding of Yi Yin was no different from anyone else’s. However smooth Su’s writing was, we cannot deny that the metaphor of Yi Yin fell into the cliched category. From the perspective of the structure of the phrases, Su Shi’s writing style did differ from the pianwen writers. It was four-character phrases that he used, but the inner structure of each phrase signaled his clear preference for guwen than pianwen. We see no parallelism in the phrases, nor do we find antithesis. The many historical figures mentioned by Su did not match neatly with each other, and not to mention the allusiveness Yu Xin and Li Shangyin strived to achieve.

The list of using Yi Yin in official writings goes on, and unfortunately, none of the Eight Masters could get away with the charge of using this cliched example. The seemingly surprising findings through an examination of Yi Yin as a keyword tells us various facts. First of all, it is dangerous to make a judgement too quickly on what the ancient people mean in their writings. The meaning of shiwen, for instance, can be misinterpreted. Wholeheartedly accepting the generalized terminology Guwen Movement can lead to ignorance of the changing literary environment. For the guwen advocates, pianwen was associated with the Qi and the Liang court writing, but to what extent it equaled to the contemporary style they disparaged is a much more complex question. Even more dangerous is when we simply place pianwen at the opposite side of guwen and try to explain away all the pianwen articles to be found in the works of the guwen advocates. Surely, we can have come up with all sorts of excuses-their social duties as a protégé, a subordinate, an official, or a once naïve writer who lost his way, but the writing is not an either-black-or-white world. A writing style consists of many features. From a broad perspective, there are themes, vocabulary, metaphor, etc.; when we narrow it down, there is much to discuss, from the length of a phrase to the requirements of the rhyming words. Hence, it would not be wise to conclude over-confidently that one style is superior to others in every way. Sometimes, a devoted revolutionist could make a U-turn. The Jiu Tang shu recorded that Li Shangyin “was capable of composing ancient-style prose articles and did not care for antithesis.” His change was due to his studies under Linghu Chu 令狐楚 (766-837 C.E.), who clearly mastered pianwen composition. From then on, Li “started to write in the contemporary style for official documents.” He “was erudite and had great memory; once he started to write, he could not stop.”[35]

When we look back to the original mission set out in the paper, there is no easy answer to the question of whether or not the Eight Masters really removed the stale speech in their works. On the one hand, the use of the cliched allusion, Yi Yin, was far from absent in all of their works. The occurrence of seventy-one times is too often to ignore. On the other hand, their ways of using the ancient model’s name were distinctive from Yu Xin and Li Shangyin. Moreover, we see Yi Yin’s name appear in formulaic official documents filled with flattery and cliched political arguments. The writers did not care to hide their opinions or emotions, which was in contrast to the subtle language in Yu and Li’s works. When he celebrated the Eight Masters as great guwen writers, Mao Kun was providing a generalized guideline for his selection without sacrificing the completion of a collection. If he were a harsh critic who scrutinized every piece and excluded each of those that contained the stale speech, the wenchao would be too small a collection to draw our attention. Writing is tough, even for the top-notch writers. “Removing the stale speech” was bold and revolutionary, also an ambitious goal to be achieved with the efforts of a few. On the bright side, the Qi-Liang style, which features overly florid and ornate language, was not to be found in the wenchao, not even in the socially bound writings. The few articles with the topic of Yi Yin written by Su Zhe and Wang Anshi did provide a new lens into well-known historical events.

The case of Yi Yin is not a thorough survey of the Eight Master’s works, and each piece of article should be looked at independently before collectively. Every author had his literary career path that is worth investigating. Should we overlook the development of their styles but focusing on the single piece that stands out, the conclusion would be as wrong as any other quick generalization. Still, any breakthrough has the first step. Yi Yin is not the only cliched allusion that deserves to be studied. Similar to Yi Yin, we can never ignore the frequently mentioned Yao, Shun, and Yu as great rulers. Yi Yin’s counterparts can be found from the mythological Xia dynasty to the Tang. Furthermore, the quotations from the classics are not hard to find in prose articles at all. A systematic study of cliched allusions should reveal much unknown and, thus, await to be done.

[1] “陳言務去” in “A Reply Letter to Li Yi” (Da Li Yi shu 答李翊書). See Dong Gao 董誥 (1740-1818 C.E.) comp., Quan Tang wen 全唐⽂ (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1987), 552.X [2] Ibid. [3] See “Temple Stele of Chaozhou Han wengong” (“Chaozhou Han wengong miao bei” 潮州韓文公廟碑) in Xie Bingying 謝冰瑩 annt. and tran. Xin yi Guwen guanzhi 新譯古文觀止 (Taibei: Sanmin shuju youxian gongsi 三民書局有限公司, 1971), 647 [4] See “Memorial on Correcting Literary Style” (“Shang shu zheng wen ti” 上書正文體) in Yan Kejun 嚴可均 (1762-1843 C.E.) comp., Quan shanggu san dai Qin Han Sanguo Liuchao wen 全上古三代秦漢三國六朝文 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju 中華書局, 1958), 20.X [5] See Liu Xu 劉昫 (887-946 C.E.) comp., Jiu Tang shu 舊唐書 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju 中華書局, 1975), 160.4203 [6] The “Gao” 誥 (“Admonition”) refers to the admonition King Cheng of Zhou 周成王 (1055-1020 B.C.E.) issued to send an expedition against Wu Geng 武庚. It is included in the Shang shu 尚書. [7] See “Responding to Criticism” (“Ying ze” 應責) in Liu Kai 柳開, Hedong ji 河東集 (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe 上海古籍出版社, 1987), 257. [8] Ibid [9] See Chen Xin 陳新 ed. Ouyang Xiu xuan ji 歐陽修選集 (Shanghai: Xinhua shudian 新華書店, 1986), 312-4 [10] Ibid [11] See Li Fang 李昉 (925-996 C.E.) comp., Wen yuan ying hua ⽂苑英華 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1966), 64.290 [12] See “Preface to Sending Sun He Off” (“Song Sun He xu” 送孫何序) in Wang Yucheng, Xiao chu ji 小畜集 (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1987), X [13] See Liu, Jiu Tang shu, 150.3138 [14] See “Chapter on Trimming Bamboo with Preface” (“Xiu zhu pian bing xu” 修竹篇並序) in Peng Xu Peng 徐鵬 ed., Chen Ziang ji 陳子昂集 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1960), X [15] See Mao Kun 茅坤 comp., Tang Song ba da jia wenchao 唐宋八大家文鈔 (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1987), X. [16] See Hu Shi 胡適, Baihua wenxue shi 白話文學史 (Taibei: Hu Shi jinianguan 胡適紀念館, 1969), 3 [17] See Hu Yunyi 胡雲翼, Xin zhu zhongguo wenxue shi 新著中國文學史 (Shanghai: Beixin shuju 北新書局, 1937), 108 [18] See “The Lament for the South” (“Ai Jiangnan fu” 哀江南賦) in Ni Fan 倪璠 (fl. 1705 C.E.), Yu Zishan ji zhu 庾子山集註 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1980), 94 [19] See Wang Xianqian 王先謙 (1842-1918) annt. Hou Han shu ji jie 後漢書集解 (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 2002), 17.642 [20] Ibid. 43.1474 [21] See “A Letter to Hedong gong” (“Shang Hedong gong qi” 上河東公啟) in Liu Xuekai 劉學楷 annt., Li Shangyin wen bian nian jiao zhu 李商隱文編年校註 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2002), 4.1901 [22] Zizhou has located in the modern Sichuan 四川 Province. [23] See Sima Qian, Shiji 史記 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1959), 3.94-9 [24] See “Letter to Congratulate Minister Lord Runan” (“He xiangguo runan gong qi” 賀相國汝南公啟) in Liu annt., Li Shangyin wen bian nian jiao zhu, 4.1759 [25] For the account of Lü Shang, See Sima, Shiji, 32.1477-80 [26]此王者之所以尊賢傑而不以為疑也.” See “He xiangguo runan gong qi” in Liu annt., Li Shangyin wen bian nian jiao zhu, 4.1759 [27] See Wang Anshi, Wang Linchuan ji 王臨川集 (Shanghai: Shangwu yinshuguan 商務印書館, 1929), X [28] Boyi was one of the sons of Lord Guzhu 孤⽵君, a vassal in the Shang dynasty. Liu Xiahui served as a grand councilor in the State of Lu 魯 during the Spring and Autumn 春秋 Period. For a detailed account of Boyi, see Sima, Shiji, 61.2123. [29] In the fifth year of the Yuanhe 元和 reign (810 C.E.), Yang Huizhi met with Liu Zongyuan in Yongzhou when he was on the way to visiting his father in Linhe 臨賀 (in modern Guangxi 廣西 Province). Liu was exiled to Yongzhou after the reform failed. [30] See “The Second Letter to Explain the Carriage’s Rule to Yang Huizhi” (“Yu Yang Huizhi shu jie che yi di er shu” 與楊誨之疏解車義第二書) in Liu Zongyuan, Liu Zongyuan ji 柳宗元集 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1979), 849-59 [31] See Sima, Shiji, 71.2319-2321 [32] See Dong comp., Quan Tang wen, 559.X [33] See Xie annt. and tran. Xin yi Guwen guanzhi, 453-7 [34] See “A Request Letter to See Grand Councilor Lü on Behalf of Judge Yang” (“Dai Yang tuiguan ji shang Lü xianggong qiu jian shu” 代楊推官洎上呂相公求見書) in Ouyang Xiu, Ouyang Xiu quan ji歐陽修全集 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2001), X [35] See Liu comp., Jiu Tang shu, 190.5077-8


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