An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Wenxin diaolong 文心雕龍

Jul 18, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

The Wenxin diaolong 文心雕龍 "The Mind of Literature and Carving Dragons" is a literay critique written by the Liang period 梁 (502-557) scholar Liu Xie 劉勰 (d. 522). Liu lived in a time when the literary production and literary theory acheived a first apogee.
The Wenxin diaolong is divided into 10 juan "scrolls" and 50 chapters. The first five chapters are a kind of general outline of literary theory. All literary writings have to be based on the background of a certain dao 道 "way" and have to go back to the literary examples of the glorious past. In the following part (chapters 6-25) Liu Xie describes the development of the various literary styles. The chapters dealing with poetry are of great importance (chapters Mingshi 明詩, Yuefu 樂府 and Quanfu 銓賦). Yet historiography (Shizhuan 史傳), "masters" (Zhuzi 諸子) and treatises (Lunshuo 論說) are also described in detail. In the subsequent part (chapters 26-26) the technique of compiling a literary work is dealt with. They are important for conosseurship and literay critique.
The aspect of literary philosophy plays an important part for the position of literary works in the humans world and in cosm. A successful author has to know about the natural "way" and its spirit (shen 神). His works integrate a natural innateness of the world order and therefore are an ideal object for study and for education. Such a spirit can be found in the Confucian Classics. The author has to go back to the "way" of nature (Yuandao 原道), he has to take the classics as his prototype (Zongjing 宗經), and he has to follow the Saints of antiquity (Zhengsheng 徵聖). All different genres of literature are "branches" of the Classics. Yet when Liu Xie concretely describes the techniques of composition he leaves this abstract level and provides concrete statements about how to rate literary works, the special aspects of each genre and the rules for these. He advocates a simple and genuine style and suggests that a good author has his own particular style. The evolution of different literary genres, but also the general development of literature follows, as Liu Xie states, the political and social conditions of the time. Change and adaption are therefore an inevitable process (Tongbian 通變). The course of such a process can also be influenced by authors and their inventions. Changes, nevertheless, can not be so great that literature can not any more understood by contemporarians. Individual excesses in content, meaning and the form are thus not allowed but an author has to balance between invention or process on the one side and tradition or a common sense on the other.
For a successful composition it is important to discern between subjective feelings and objective criteria. This was already known in earlier times. The "Grand Preface" (Daxu 大序) to the Shijing 詩經 "Book of Songs", for instance, talks of feelings stirred up in the heart that are to be expressed by words. Cao Pi 曹丕 had already mentioned the natural qualities of a writer in his book Dianlun 典論 (only the chapter Lunwen 論文 has survived), and Lu Ji 陸機 had talked about the literary imagination in his book Wenfu 文賦 (lost), but Liu Xie was the first who discussed the art of writing in detail. Literature, in his eyes, had to achieve the same beauty as coloured clouds or blossoming flowers. Adornments are not only an outer appearance but contribute to the naturalness of the work. Any author has to bring with him a natural inclination and talent to write that has to be fostered through practicising and study. The subjective feelings have to be paired with an objective scenery or condition which mutually influence and support each other. The admiration of natural beauty like a landscape or the sea reflects the inner feelings, like the author's emotions find themselves in the surrounding nature. Things and objects of the outer world described in the poem reflect the inner self. Literature is born out of the heart, and it is not possible that feelings are produced for literature. Shape and style of a literary work are accordingly also formed by the emotional intention of the author.
All literary writings can have eight different characters which consists of four pairs of opposites, namely elegant and exceptional, obscure and clear, complicated and frugal, and robust and light. These pairs of opposites can pass over to each other, so that a work does not necessarily have to stick to one character. A literary writings has to possess both "spirit" (feng 風) expressing thoughts and feelings and also a clear, fresh and vigorous structure (gu 骨). Literary imagination does not have to be too abstract or obscure but has to refer to examples from daily life that every reader might be able to experience or at least to picture himself. The mind of author and reader has to wander slowly but constantly to the envisaged target, it does not have to leave the concrete world and common senses.
The chapter Zhiyin 知音 is one of the oldest writings of literary critique. It explains the conduct of critique, the creation of an objective standpoint, and which points a critic has to observe. Some of Liu Xie's arguments come from the side of the Confucian Classics, but most of his points are more incisive than pure formal criteria. The critic, he says, has to gain an overall picture of the genre in general and of the poem he deals with specifically. A poem or a literary work to be criticized has to be regarded in all its aspects, from content to expression and the formal shape. Otherwise a critic would "look towards the east and not see the western walls" (Liqi 程器). A critic has to study a lot of literature before being able to make any serious comment, he has "to read a thousand poems and to examine one thousand swords in order to become an expert". Some later scholars criticized Liu Xie with the argument that he himself did have a biased view towards the poems of Tao Yuanming 陶淵明 whom he does not even mention.
The Wenxin diaolong is very strong in its description of the various literary genres and their historical development. It continues the first efforts to categorize literature by Cao Pi, Lu Ji, Zhi Yu 摯虞 (Wenzhang liubie lun 文章流别論) and Li Chong 李充 (Hanlinlun 翰林論). Except of a small fragment of Cao Pi's Dianlun, the other early critiques are lost. The Wenxin diaolong is therefore also the oldest book describing the various genres of belles-lettres.
The oldest extant version of the Wenxin diaolong is a manuscript fragment dating from the Tang period 唐 (618-907). It is preserved in the Beijing Library 北京圖書館. The oldest print was made during the Yuan period 元 (1279-1368) which was reproduced by the Shanghai guji press 上海古籍出版社. The reprint series Sibu congkan 四部叢刊 contains a reproduction of a Ming period print. The most common versions are that of the Qing period 清 (1644-1911) scholar Huang Shulin 黄叔琳, Fan Wenlan's 范文瀾 Wenxin diaolong zhu 文心雕龍注 (Renmin wenxue press 人民文學出版社 1958), Yang Mingzhao's 楊明照 Wenxin diaolong jiaozhu 文心雕龍校注, Zhou Zhenfu's 周振甫 Wenxin diaolong zhushi 文心雕龍注釋 and Wang Liqi's 王利器 Wenxin diaolong jiaozheng 文心雕龍校證.
There is a translation by Vincent Yu-chung Shih (1959), The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons: A Study of Thought and Pattern in Chinese Literature, New York: Columbia University Press.

The 34 different literary genres of the Wenxin diaolong are:

  1. sao elegic poetry of the South
  2. shi lyric poetry
  3. 樂府 yuefu songs of the Han Music bureau
  4. fu rhapsody
  5. song odes
  6. zan appraisals
  7. zhu sacrificial prayer
  8. meng oathes of agreement
  9. ming inscriptions
  10. zhen exhortations
  11. lei dirges
  12. bei epitaphs
  13. ai laments
  14. diao commemorations
  15. 雜文 zawen miscellaneous writings
  16. xie humors
  17. yin enigmas
  18. 史傳 shizhuan historical writings
  19. 諸子 zhuzi speculative writings of the Masters
  20. lun treatieses
  21. shuo discussions
  22. zhao edicts
  23. ce scripts
  24. xi war proclamations
  25. yi dispatches
  26. 封禪 fengshan Sacrifices to Heaven and Earth
  27. zhang memoranda
  28. biao memorials
  29. zou presentations
  30. qi "opening" communications
  31. yi discussions
  32. dui responses
  33. shu letters
  34. ji notes

1. 原道 Yuandao On Dao, the Source
2. 徵聖 Zhengsheng Evidence from the Sage
3. 宗經 Zongjing The Classics as literary sources
4. 正緯 Zhengwei Emendation of apocrypha
5. 辯騷 Biansao An analysis of the sao poetry from the South
6. 明詩 Mingshi An exegis of poetry
7. 樂府 Yuefu Musical poetry (yuefu poems)
8. 銓賦 Quanfu Elucidation of fu rhapsodies
9. 頌讚 Songzan Ode and pronouncement
10. 祝盟 Zhumeng Sacrificial prayer and oath of agreement
11. 銘箴 Mingzhen Inscription and exhortation
12. 誄碑 Leibei Dirge and stone inscription
13. 哀弔 Aidiao Lament and commemoration
14. 雜文 Zawen Miscellaneous writings
15. 諧讔 Xieyin Humor and enigma
16. 史傳 Shizhuan Historical writings
17. 諸子 Zhuzi Speculative writings (the "masters")
18. 論說 Lunshuo Treatise and discussion
19. 詔策 Zhaoce Edict and script
20. 檄移 Xiyi War proclamation and dispatch
21. 封禪 Fengshan Sacrifices to Heaven and Earth
22. 章表 Zhangbiao The zhang and biao memorial
23. 奏啟 Zouqi The zou and qi memorial
24. 議對 Yidui Discussion and answer
25. 書記 Shuji Epistolary writing
26. 神思 Shensi Spritual thought or imagination
27. 體性 Tixing Style and nature
28. 風骨 Fenggu The "wind" and the "bone"
29. 通變 Tongbian Flexible adaptability to varying situations
30. 定勢 Dingshi On choice of style
31. 情采 Qingcai Emotion and literary expression
32. 鎔裁 Rongcai Casting and cutting, or, on editing of ideas and rhetoric
33. 聲律 Shenglü Musicalness
34. 章句 Zhangju Paragraph and sentence
35. 麗辭 Lici Linguistic parallelism
36. 比興 Bixing Metaphor and allegory
37. 夸飾 Kuashi Embellishment and description
38. 事類 Shilei Factual allusionand textual reference
39. 練字 Lianzi Philology and choice of words
40. 隱秀 Yinxiu The recondite and the conspicuous
41. 指瑕 Zhixia Literary flaws
42. 養氣 Yangqi The nourishing of vitality
43. 附會 Fuhui Organization
44. 總術 Zongshu Discussion on the art of writing
45. 時序 Shixu Literary development and time
46. 物色 Wuse The physical world
47. 才略 Cailüe Literary talents
48. 知音 Zhiyin An understanding critic
49. 程器 Chengqi The capacity of a vessel
50. 序志 Xuzhi Preface and treatise
Min Ze 敏澤 (1986). "Wenxin diaolong 文心雕龍", 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. 2, 934-936.
Richter, Antje (2015). "Wenxin diaolong", in Cynthia L. Chennault, et al., eds. Early Medieval Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide (Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley), 389-400.
Wong, Siu-kit (1986). "Wen-hsin tiao-lung 文心雕龍", in William H. Nienhauser, ed. The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature (Bloomington/Indianapolis: Indiana University Press), 889-891.