An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

The Later Seven Masters (Hou qi zi 後七子)

Dec 16, 2015 © Ulrich Theobald

The Later Seven Masters (hou qi zi 後七子) was a group of writers during the mid-Ming period 明 (1368-1644). The collective term refers to Li Panlong 李攀龍 (1514-1570), Wang Shizhen 王世貞 (1526-1590), Xie Zhen 謝榛 (1495-1575), Zong Chen 宗臣 (1525-1560), Liang Youyu 梁有譽 (1521-1556), Xu Zhongxing 徐中行 (1517-1578) and Wu Guolun 吳國倫 (1524-1593). In contrast to the Earlier Seven Masters (qian qi zi 前七子), this group of writers was more closely organized and supported each other in bringing forward theories on writing and literature. The group was inspired by the "Poetry Society" (shishe 詩社), founded in Beijing by Gao Dai 高岱 (1508-1564) and Li Xianfang 李先芳 (jinshi degree 1547). Among the early members of this society were Wu Weiyue 吳維岳 (1514-1569), Yuan Fuzheng 袁福征 (jinshi degree 1544), Wang Shizhen and Li Panlong. Later on Xie Zhen, after his release from jail, joined the group. Wang Shizhen and Li Panglong became the dominating voices of the group and so caused most others to leave. Instead, Zong Chen and Liang Youyu joined (constituting a group of five), later on Xu Zhongxing and Wu Guolun. Xie Zhen figurated as the leader of the group, even if he did not occupy an office. Yet he was a swift thinker and criticized many ideas to the works of Li Panglong. Li therefore began to attack Xie Zhen in a strife that led to the expulsion of the two squabblers from the group. The remaining five were dominated by Wang Shizhen.
The Later Seven Masters supported the same idea as the Former ones, that the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) had been the apogee of prose literature, and the Tang period 唐 (618-907) that of poetry. Wang Shizhen explained in his Yiyuan zhiyan 藝苑卮言 that Western Han 西漢 (206 BCE-8 CE) prose writings had been in full valour, while from the Eastern Han 東漢 (25-220 CE) onwards the art of prose writing declined more and more in a constant downward trend (yu qu yu xia 愈趨愈下). Later writings were "not worth reading" (ju wu zu guan 俱無足觀), as Li Panglong said. The practical result of this theory was that the writers of the group strictly imitated the style and even the lexicon of Western Han and Tang period writings, and that in such a good way that it was difficult to discern real ones from those of the Seven Masters. For several decades the names of Li Panglong and Wang Shizhen dominated the world of literature, and their influence was still felt during the early years of the Qing period 清 (1644-1911), as can be seen in some writings of Zhu Yizun 朱彝尊 and Mao Qiling 毛奇齡, and even in Shen Deqian's 沈德潛 Mingshi biecai ji 明詩別裁集. Yet there were groups of opponents, like the Gong'an Group (gong'an pai 公安派), headed by Yuan Hongdao 袁宏道, or the Jingling Group (Jingling pai 竟陵派), both representatives of the so-called Tang-Song School (Tang-Song pai 唐宋派).
Strictly speaking Wang Shizhen was not wholly adhering to the revival of the old style as Li Panglong did. In his later years he admitted that one could not disrespect persons from later ages as the Song. Wang's writings were rich of ideas, and therefore did not so much suffer under the dictum of imitation. He explained that talent produced thoughts, thoughts produced modes, and modes patterns (cai sheng si, si sheng diao, diao sheng ge 才生思,思生調,調生格). Thoughts were the application of talent, modes the realm of thoughts, and patterns the dominion of modes. An excellent imitator would divide his forces, by exhausting his strength and consecrating his attitude. The unification of these two matters would result in acceptable writings.
Xie Zhen, author of the poetry critique Siming shihua 四溟詩話, explained that one had to read poems intensively, in order to grasp their spirit, to sing them in search for the right mode, and ponder on them, in order to praise their excellence. When considering these points, it was not necessary to imitate Tang period poetry very strictly. It was in Xie's opinion quite important to write poems that gave the reader a superb awareness (chao wu 超悟) and met his taste and inspiration (xingqu 興趣). This was something quite different that the 'imitism' of Li Panglong, who hailed the old writings with the word that "looking at the refined wording of ancient texts, how could any principles in them be lost" (shi gu xiu ci, ning shi zhu li 視古修辭,寧失諸理)? Yet he saw the only appreciable contemporary writer in Li Mengyang 李夢陽, a member of the Former Seven Masters. Li's Gu yuefu 古樂府 was chapter by chapter, phrase by phrase written as if it dated from the Han period, without a single trace of the author’s own spirit.
While Zong Chen must be called a competent prose writer, as author of the Bao Liu Yizhang shu 報劉一丈書, Xu Zhongxuang and Wu Guolun were just mediocre poets. Experts on Ming period poetry, as Chen Zilong 陳子龍 (compiler of Mingshi xuan 明詩選) and Hu Yinglin 胡應鱗 (compiler of Shisou 詩藪) harshly criticized their works.
Liang Youyu soon left the group and joined a team of poets from his hometown, Ou Daren 歐大任, Li Minbiao 黎民表, Du Wan 吳旦 and Li Shixing 李時行, which were known as the "Later Five Masters of the Southern Garden" (Nanyuan hou wu xiansheng 南園後五先生). Their poems breathe the rich spirit of southern China, and are free from the search to imitate older models.

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