Piantiwen (骈体文) prose style, formed under the influence of fu poetry, became popular and the dominant prose style from the Han Dynasty to Tang Dynasty. This style is noted for its structural aesthetic appeal with rigid structure, parallel sentences, and ornate wording. Though subject to wide criticism in later generations, it did achieve a fairly high level, with a lot of literary masterpieces contributed by various writers. The Return (by Tao Yuanming), for example, takes such rigid prose form, and is regarded as a manifesto of the ancient Chinese recluse culture.
A Classical Prose Movement was launched in Tang-Song Dynasties by literary leaders such as Han Yu and Ouyang Xiu. The Movement criticized the piantiwen prose for being overly ornate to the point of overlooking the content, and advocated clarity and precision, liberal and free sentence patterns, and colloquial (as compared with piantiwen) language. The pre-Han Dynasty prose style were reintroduced, hence the Movement being entitled “classical”. Eight prose writers of the Tang-Song Period were collectively called “The Eight Great Tang-Song Prose Masters”, whose prose represented extremely high achievements in Chinese literature and often regarded as orthodox prose texts upon which the Chinese educated elites were brought up.
Prose literature of Ming-Qing Dynasties generally followed the Tang-Song prose styles, but suffered from strong influences of Neo-Confucianism and often looked too moralist-minded. However, some familiar essays, like Zhang Dai’s Mid-July at West Lake, broke away from such a tradition and frankly expressed personalized visions of the authors, which was to have an influence on China’s modern vernacular prose.
The following table recommends a few exemplary pieces of Chinese prose literature by categories that may serve as a guide for you to enjoy the best of Chinese prose.
Recommended Masterpieces of Chinese Prose
|English Title||Chinese Title with pinyin Romanization||Author||Descriptions|
|Philosophical writings of the pre-Qin Hundred Schools of Thought|
|The Art of War||孙子兵法 sun zi bing fa||Sun Wu (535~471 BC)||One of the oldest and most successful books on military strategy; likely influenced Napoleon|
|Tao Te Jing||道德经 dao de jing||Laozi||Foundational text of the Philosophical Taoism and central in Religious Daoism|
|Zhuangzi||庄子 zhuang zi||Zhuangzi||Work of another founding father of Chinese Taoism. Renowned for his brilliant wordplay and use of parables to convey messages, rich and bold imaginations, humorous and ironic critique of Confucianism.|
|The Grand Historian’s Records of History||史记 shi ji||Sima Qian (145~87 (?) BC)||The first systematic Chinese historical text, the Records profoundly influenced Chinese historiography and prose|
|The Commentary of Zuo on the Spring and Autumn Annals||左传 zuo zhuan||Zuo Qiuming||Commentary by Zuo, a historiographer of the State of Lu, on the Spring and Autumn Annals (the official chronicle of the state). Noted for its economy of words, delicate and meaningful choice of words.|
|Strategies of the Warring States||战国策 zhan guo ce||Accounting the diplomatic strategies and political views of the Warring Sates Period and reveals the historical and social characteristics of the period. Not just a brilliant historical work, but an excellent historical literature and novel.|
|Memorial to the Emperor Expressing My Feelings||陈情表 chen qing biao||Li Mi (224~287)||A letter submitted by Li to the emperor rejecting the offer of official post in favor of staying home to take care of his grandmother. True emotions of filial piety between the lines.|
|A Letter to Chen Bozhi||与陈伯之书 yu chen bo zhi shu||Qiu Chi (464~508)||A letter to Chen Bozhi, the defending enemy general and a former friend of Qiu’s. The letter successfully persuaded Chen to surrender.|
|A Letter on Severing Friendship with Shan Juyuan||与山巨源绝交书 yu shan ju yuan jue jiao shu||Ji Kang (223~262)||A letter to Shan Juyuan, in which Ji Kang dismisses Shan’s invitation to join Sima Zhao’s political clique, and vows to sever the friendship with Shan|
|Commentaries (on history, politics, public affairs, customs, etc).|
|A Memorial in Advice against Deporting Guest Immigrants||谏逐客书 jian zhu ke shu||Li Si (?-208 BC)||A memorial to King Yingzheng (later Qin Emperor Shihuang), calling for the stopping deporting foreigners from the State of Qin.|
|About the Six Kingdoms||六国论 liu guo lun||Su Xun (1009~1066)||An argumentation on the cause of the collapse of the six major powers in the face of the rise of the State of Qin, indirectly voicing the author’s critique of the contemporary Song government’s foreign policy towards the neighboring Liao Empire in the north.|
|On the Way of Teacher||师说 shi shuo||Han Yu (768~824)||Criticizing the contemporary popular mood, among the intellectuals, of being ashamed of learning from others.|
|Landscape, sightseeing records|
|Commentary on the Waterway Classic||水经注 shui jing zhu||Li Daoyuan (470~527)||A collection of Li’s commentary to the Waterway Classic, recording the picturesque geographical scenery of the watercourses.|
|Preface to Pems Composed at the Prince of Teng’s Pavilion||滕王阁序 teng wang ge xu||Wang Bo (649~676)||Depicting the grandeur of the scenery of Poyang Lake viewed from the Prince Teng’s Pavilion, and reflecting the young author’s ambition and longing for opportunity to give full play to his talents.|
|Enjoying the Snow Scenery at Mid-Lake Pavilion||湖心亭看雪 hu xin ting kan xue||Zhang Dai (1597~1679)||Relating the author’s experience of taking a boat to the pavilion at the heart of the West lake to view the snow.|
|Essays recording personal mood, emotions, habits, stories, etc.|
|The Return||归去来兮辞 gui qu lai xi ci||Tao Yuanming (365~427)||A manifesto of China recluse culture, in which Tao expresses his exhilaration on retreating from a bureaucratic career back to a carefree, reclusive life.|
|Inscription on a Crude Dwelling||陋室铭 lou shi ming||Liu Yuxi (772~842)||A very concise essay expressing the author’s contentment with a simple, yet elegant and clean life away from the mundane hustle and bustle of the bureaucratic life.|
|Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion||兰亭集序 lan ting ji xu||Wang Xizhi (303~361)||A celebrated work of literature, flowing rhythmically, expressing the author’s thinking over the question of joy and worry, life and death, and dismissing the Taoist nihilism on the question. |
More popularly known for the calligraphic value of the scroll.
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