A Dragon at the Core of Literature: 1,500-year-old writing advice from China

Wanglongsi zaoxiang

Wanglongsi zaoxiang (Via Wikipedia)

Liu Xie (c.470-539 AD) was a literary critic during the Liang Dynasty, a time and place where to become a writer was a matter of a long apprenticeship in courts or monasteries and even bureaucratic documentation was a work of art. His great work “Carving a Dragon at the Core of Literature” captures both the mysticism and asceticism of the writer’s craft in all times and in all places. Although this work is about fifteen thousand years old, I go back to it repeatedly for a fresh vision and, at times, a stern talking to, in the great tradition of far eastern masters.

My translation (by the brilliant Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang) is in a rare volume of assorted prose and poetry from the Han, Wei and Six Dynasties, published in Beijing by Panda in 1986. I found this book and appropriated it from my parent’s bookshelves a long time ago. It still contains scribbled marginal notes in my 15-year-old’s handwriting – from my Buddhist phase.

The tract as good as opens with these fine words, enough to bring anyone back to the page with fresh expectancy:

“Thoughts shaped in silence can reach a thousand generations to come.”

Liu Xie is a proponent of an immersive, intentional and disciplined approach to writing that involves every level of an author’s being:

“A man should cleanse his heart, purify his spirit, amass knowledge to store up learning, use reason to increase his capabilities, study things carefully to improve his powers of observation, and train himself in the use of the right phrase. Then the mind, pre-eminent, can seek out rhythm to guide the pen and like a skilled craftsman give fitting form to ideas.”

He goes on to give “fancy” its rightful place as “the prime requirement in writing”, assuming that the previous stipulations on spiritual purity and training have been fulfilled, of course:

“When we give rein to our fancy, innumerable paths open up ahead; we plot any course we please, inlay any invisible pattern. Would we climb a mountain? Our spirit soars above it. Survey the ocean? Our ideas reach over the sea. Whatever talents we have seem to race with the wind and the clouds; we take up a pen, inspired beyond all telling, but the work when written may express only half of what was in our hearts. This is because an idea not yet formulated may easily seem striking but it is hard to set down skilfully in so many words. Thoughts pass into ideas, ideas into language, sometimes corresponding so closely that no discrepancy exists, sometimes so loosely that a thousand li stretch between. An argument may be at hand while you seek it at the horizon; an idea may be hard by yet hid from your mind as if by mountains and rivers. So to improve his writing a man should train his mind and not count on simply cudgelling his brains. Once he knows the right way to express himself, no undue exertions are needed.”

Next, he suggests that some thinkers are slow and spend years conceiving, executing and polishing their work, while others are quick and discharge treatises between waking and taking breakfast. Wherever you fall on the spectrum between these extremes, you must embrace it.

I am very thankful to be closer to the fast end: I’m already almost bored with writing this post (in my lunch break). In a few minutes, I’ll hit “publish” without reviewing it, and I’ll move on to the next thing. I’ll probably never produce a great work like Zuo Si who spent a dozen years on his essay on the Three Imperial Cities, but I can live with that.

I get the impression that Liu Xie is telling us that, as long as the work of studying the classics, “delving into changes in style, and understanding the forms of literature” has been done “, we can “give birth to new ideas and fashion striking images” according the speed of our thought, but almost unconsciously.

Learning to write well is like learning to drive skilfully, it becomes a matter of muscle memory and reflex, with long practice and deep immersion in the canon of all ages.

Later in the work, he attacks those who “counterfeit feeling” for the sake of art. He points out that the composers of old folk songs genuinely gave voice to their anguish but that many later poets feigned sentiment for the sake of a dazzling turn of phrase. It’s a timely reminder of the need to write what we know, from the heart. This is absolutely one of my values as a wordsmith; when we tell lies, we do it with words, and yet we also propagate truth, clarity and revelation with words.

There is a sense throughout “Carving a Dragon at the Core of Literature” of the office that writers hold and the service that writers provide to society, and of the seriousness with which this must be taken. This was ever the way in less literate times and places, where even the ability to reproduce and comprehend the shapes of alphabets and pictographies was for an elite. In spite of the great syndication of the scribe’s art that has taken place since Caxton, I think there are still those who are entrusted with the continuation of this special role in relation to how humanity thinks aloud about itself … on paper.

“We cannot meet the men of old face to face, but by reading their works we can see into their hearts … A man of deep understanding and keen observation will have the same pleasure in his mind as a crowd of revellers on the terrace in spring or travellers stopping for good music and food. Just as the orchid, king of fragrant flowers, becomes more fragrant when worn; so books, which are sovereign flowers too, reveal their beauty when studied and analysed. Let men of discrimination ponder this!”

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3 Responses

  1. It’s been good seeing you post more regularly. Keep it comin’!

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