Liu Zongyuan achieved his reputation as a master essayist mainly because of his accomplishments in guwen (ancient prose). In its literary sense, guwen refers primarily to the prose style of the Confucian classics as well as to literary models dating from the Chinese antiquity to the Han era (206 BCE-220 CE). This style resurfaced in the eighth century as an intentional break with the parallel style which had dominated prose writing since the Six Dynasties period (420-589). Liu and his colleague Han Yu (768-824) fully developed the guwen style in the late eighth and early ninth centuries, and the two were in turn recognized by later generations as the two great Tang period (618-907) guwen stylists.
Liu shared with Han a similar literary-intellectual approach to guwen . Han saw the writing of guwen as both a literary practice and an effort to reflect values, “specifically the values that had guided the sages, the shengren zhi tao (the way of the sage) as they could be inferred from the textual tradition” (Peter Bol, 1992). Liu, too, considered that ” wen , or literature, should illuminate the Tao” ( “Da Wei Zhongli lun shidao shu” [Letter to Wei Zhongli on the Tao of being a teacher]). Unlike Han Yu, however, who restricted himself to the establishment and continuation of the system of the Confucian Tao, Liu Zongyuan’s Tao can be best depicted as eclectic, incorporating the various intellectual values of his time such as Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and legalism. In other words, Liu’s Tao does not restate any specific doctrine but denotes in general the profound significance and multiple functions of literature, and even the sophisticated literary techniques with which literature should communicate. Following this consideration, Liu maintained that “literature has two Tao: 1) to phrase praise and blame based on the tradition of [documentary] compilation and interpretation; and 2) to convey allegorical or metaphorical expressions based on the tradition of [poetic] analogy and inspiration.” This two-Tao theory formulated Liu’s standards of essay writing, with the first Tao emphasizing the didactic and righteous content and flawless reasoning of an essay, and the second Tao emphasizing fluent, beautiful, and subtle rhetoric ( “Yang Pingshi wenji houxu” [Postscript to the collected works of Yang Pingshi (Ling)]).
Liu Zongyuan’s achievement in essay writing – over 500 pieces – was stimulated by his life experience. Like his fellow Tang literary figures, Liu considered his role primarily as a servant of the state. As Charles Hartman (1973) explains, “Only the agony and distress of a ruined or frustrated official career, as in the case of Liu [Zongyuan], could drive the [Tang] intelligentsia into serious literary pursuits.” Liu’s participation in an abortive political reform in 805 cost him his political career in the court. He was exiled as a marshal to Yongzhou, a southern prefectural seat a thousand miles south of the capital. A decade later, he was reassigned as a prefect to Liuzhou, a place even more remote, and eventually died there in 819. Liu’s ten years in exile at Yongzhou contributed the most important part of his essay writing, which demonstrates “the range and the profundity of feelings that a traditional Chinese intellectual was able to attain in adverse circumstances” (Chen Yu-shih, 1988).
The most renowned among Liu’s essays composed at Yongzhou are the nine “records of excursions” ( youji ). Liu’s own despondency colored his view of the wild and luxuriant country landscapes with melancholy. Hence a grand metaphor pervades the entire group of essays, that of “spots of natural beauty isolated and neglected by their creator representing a good man who has been isolated and neglected by his friends and monarch” (William H. Nienhauser, 1973). Isolated in this barbarian place, Liu felt that he and the Yongzhou landscapes “would not once be able to dispose of their talents in the change of a hundred or even a thousand years” ( “Xiao shicheng shan ji” Record of the Mountain of 7Little Rock citadel). The common destiny Liu shared with this landscape endeared him to nature and enabled him to find comfort and pleasure in nature’s serenity. In his loneliness, he felt that only nature could touch his senses and communicate with his spirit. With this body of work Liu established youji as a subgenre and gained himself a position as a major stylist in Chinese literary history.
Another essay subgenre Liu Zongyuan developed at Yongzhou was the fable. Before Liu, the fable had often appeared merely as an illustrative part of Chinese philosophical writings; Liuwas probably the first writer to treat it as a separate and viable literary genre. The 11 fables he composed at Yongzhou are mainly animal stories allegorized into moral or social criticism, often with philosophical dimensions. Among them the most famous are the San jie (Three cautionary fables), including “Linjiang zhi mi” (The deer of Linjiang), “Qian zhi lü” (The donkey of Guizhou), and “Yong mou shi zhi shu” (The rats of a certain family at Yongzhou), in which Liu satirizes three types of morally inferior people represented respectively by these animals. Their tragic endings also signify “the ultimate dominance of nature over human bias and the futility of man’s desire to control his own fate” (Chen Yu-shih).
Liu’s exile involved him with local people and sensitized him to their suffering. As a result, his biographical sketches break the conventional formula of recording only gentlemen’s deeds and instead focus principally on the lives of ordinary people. His historical narratives often protest against social evils and corrupt government, as exemplified in three of his most-read biographies. “Bushe zhe shuo” (The snake catcher’s lesson) relates the story of a man named Jiang whose family for three generations had accepted snake catching as an occupation in lieu of paying land tax. Both Jiang’s grandfather and father were killed by poisonous snakes and Jiang himself only narrowly escapes death. When offered the opportunity to change his assignment back to tax-paying, however, Jiang is reduced to tears, saying “The misfortunes that come with this job are never so grievous as the misfortune that restoration of my taxes would be.” “Guo Tuotuo zhuan” (The biography of Camel Guo) uses Guo’s arboricultural skills as an allegory, arguing that governing people is like planting trees: “One has to follow their Heaven-bestowed characteristics and let their nature develop.” Based on this Taoist principle, Liu criticizes rulers’ intervention in people’s lives. “Tong Ou Ji zhuan” (The biography of child Ou Ji) praises a courageous 11-year-old boy who alone thrashes two kidnappers. The story exposes the evil social phenomenon of abducting young children and selling them into slavery. Liu’s biographical works also include over a dozen epitaphs of women, among them poor local young girls from the Yongzhou area.
Liu Zongyuan molded his guwen style by drawing upon a great range of earlier writings and writers. He transcended the boundaries of different genres and intellectual schools; hence it is difficult align him with any specific precursor. The vitality of the Guliang Commentary (of the Spring and Autumn Annals), the eloquence of the Confucian masters Mencius (c. 372-289 BCE) and Xun Zi (c. 313-238 BCE), the boundless imaginations in the Taoist classics Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi, the sentiments of Qu Yuan’s (343-c. 278 BCE) grand poem Li sao (Encountering sorrow), and the purity of Sima Qian’s (145-86 BCE) Shi ji (Records of the grand historian), all exerted great influence on his essays. Moreover, his political disquisitions absorbed the rigorous reasoning of Han Fei Zi’s (?-233 BCE) legalistic works, and his records of excursions inherited the vivid descriptions and fresh rhetoric of Li Taoyuan’s (?-527 CE) Shui jing zhu (Commentary on the classic of waters). Consequently, Liu’s essays are full of changes in structure and meaning; as the Qing critic Liu Xizai (1978) comments: ” Liu’s compositions are like strange cliffs and peaks unfolding incessantly.”
Many of Liu Zongyuan’s friends regretted that he could never realize his political ambition. However, his colleague Han Yu considered the issue differently, contending that, had Liu Zongyuan not been in exile for so long, he would not have striven to compose literary works great enough to edify later generations. Indeed, any admirer of Liu Zongyuan would not exchange his literary achievements for any possible political achievements, even as a prime minister.