An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

The Earlier Seven Masters (Qian qi zi 前七子)

Dec 12, 2015 © Ulrich Theobald

The "Earlier Seven Masters" (qian qi zi 前七子) were a group of writers and literary theorists who advocated the revival of ancient styles (fugu 復古). The members of this group that was flourishing during the mid-Ming period 明 (1368-1644) were Li Mengyang 李夢陽 (1473-1530), He Jingming 何景明 (1483-1521), Xu Zhenqing 徐禎卿 (1479-1511), Bian Gong 邊貢 (1476-1532), Kang Hai 康海 (1475-1540), Wang Jiusi 王九思 (1468-1551) and Wang Tinxiang 王廷相 (1474-1544). Another group of writers was called the "Later Seven Masters" (hou qi zi 後七子). The "Masters" desired to get rid of the overloaded phraseology of the "ministerial style" (taigeti 臺閣體), the argumentative style in poetry (liqi shi 理氣詩), and the mechanical style of the eight-legged essay (baguwen 八股文) used in the state examinations. The prose written under such condition was overloaded, difficult to read and understand, often with incomprehensible phrases, and moreover, one text resembled the other. Authors of such writings did exclusively refer to the Four Books (Sishu 四書) and the Five Classis (Wujing 五經). They suggested instead to use exclusively the simple style in prose used during the "Qin 秦 (221-206 BCE) and Han 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE)" periods (wen bi Qin, Han 文必秦漢), for poetry that of the Tang period 唐 (618-907, shi bi cheng 詩必盛唐 Tang). Anything else would not be according to the Way (fei shi zhe, fu dao 非是者弗道). Essays had to be written like "watching at a [textual] model" (wen ru lin tie 文如臨帖). Other writers like Xue Hui 薛蕙 and Yang Shen 楊慎 felt that this was a very rigid definition of how to write, and condemned the propositions of the seven masters as "pure imitations" down to the level of individual phrases and words (zi mo ju ni 字摹句擬). Any spirit of its own was thus destroyed (minmie ziwo xingling 泯滅自我性靈), resulting in "meaningless texts dressed up in profound words" (shen wen qi qian yi 深文其淺易).
There were even disputes among the Masters themselves. Li Mengyang's method of "imitating” Han period prose literature was to coordinate expansion and concentration, and set free arguments in the cadences of the essay (kai he zhao ying, dao cha dun cuo 開闔照應,倒插頓挫). In order to do this, it was necessary to "carve out [words] according to the intentions of the ancient models" (ke yi gu fan 刻意古范) and to observe exclusively their measurements (du shou chi cun 獨守尺寸). In contrast to this, He Jingming worked with the method of "trying to reach the shore by discarding one's raft" (da an she fa 達岸舍筏), meaning that one should not completely rely on the styles, expressions or wordings of Han period writers (bu fang xing ji 不仿形跡). He Jingming attacked Lin Mengyang for his strict adhering to the forms and shapes of antiquity, instead of resorting to a wider scope of patterns and bringing together spirit and emotions. Another opponent to Li was Xu Zhenqing, who advocated "relying on emotions to built up structures" (yin qing li ge 因情立格). It was indeed a problem that the Masters relied on the Han period style so much that not even argumentative structures, but also rhetorical figures and even the tone pitches of individual words were copied from ancient paradigms. In his later years Li Mengyang admitted that he had brought enough emotions into his poems (qing gua ci gong 情寡詞工), and explained that the true style was to be found in the "songs of the common people". Emotion was in fact an important argument of late Neo-Confucian philosophers like the Master's contemporarian Wang Yangming 王陽明. In his eyes, emotion (qing 情) was a unifying factor when words differed.
Some of the Earlier Seven Masters criticized the power structure at the imperial court, where eunuchs totally controlled the emperor. Examples for this political activism are the poems Xuanminggong xing 玄明宮行 by Li and He, Ma wei fei miao xing 馬嵬廢廟行 by Wang Jiusi, or Xishan xing 西山行 by Wang Tingxiang. Li Mengyang was twice thrown into jail for his direct criticism of courtiers supporting the eunuchs.
The influence of the earlier and later seven masters was so great that their style of writing was most popular for many decades. Li Mengyang's poems Zhao yin ma song Chen zi chu sai 朝飲馬送陳子出塞, Tuntian 屯田, Lifen 離憤 or Qiuwang 秋望, or He Jingming's Suiyan xing 歲晏行, Jinshi dayu ge 津市打魚歌, Guancang xing 官倉行 or Da wang zhi 答望之 expressed current problems or gave shape to a common mood, by describing manifold issues with vivid and powerful words.
Their research in Tang period poems inspired a wide range of anthologies, like Tang baijia shi 唐百家詩, compiled by Zhu Jing 朱警, Tang shi'erjia shi 唐十二家詩 by Zhang Xunye 張遜業, Tangshi ershiliu jia 唐詩二十六家 by Huang Guanceng 黃貫曾 or Guang shi'er Tangshi 廣十二家唐詩 by Jiang Xiao 蔣孝.

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