An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Dianlun 典論

Oct 27, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

Dianlun 典論 "On the standards [for literature]" is a literary critique written by Cao Pi 曹丕, writer, poet and emperor (Wei Wendi 魏文帝, r. 220-226) of the Cao-Wei dynasty 曹魏 (220-265). Of this 5 juan "scrolls" long book, only the chapter Lunwen 論文 "Discussing literature" and the preface (Zixu 自叙) are preserved in a relatively intact condition. The Dianlun contained chapters about politics, society, Confucian moral behaviour, as well as literature. The chapter Lunwen is China's oldest treatise of literary critique. It consists of four parts. In the first part, the author criticizes that many writers are too self-centered and do not esteem the writings of others. In the second part, he stresses that each type of literature has different requirements to the writer, and only those who are able to profess all these requirements (tongcai 通才) would be able to become masters in literature. In the third part, he brings forward the importance of a certain spirit (qi 氣) which has to be expanded and assembled for each literary style and can not be forced on writings. Some persons possess an impure spirit and will never be able to become good writers, while others are champions by nature. In the fourth part, he argues that literature is able to hold together state and society as a never-vanishing treasure.
Contemporary writings, like letters written among Cao Zhi 曹植, Chen Lin 陳琳, and Cao Pi show that all of them, like the so-called Seven Worthies of the Bamboo Grove (Zhulin qixian 竹林七賢), estimated literature as an important communication tool and part of Chinese culture.
The Lunwen has survived because it was included in the literary anthology Wenxuan 文選. Fragments of the Dianlun have been collected by the Qing period 清 (1644-1911) scholars Huang Shi 黃奭 and Sun Fengyi 孫馮翼.

Li Xueqin 李學勤, Lü Wenyu 呂文鬰, eds. (1996). Siku da cidian 四庫大辭典 (Changchun: Jilin daxue chubanshe), Vol. 2, 1547.
Xu Gongchi 徐公持 (1986). "Dianlun-Lunwen 典論論文", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, part Zhongguo wenxue 中國文學 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, 113.