Known as one of the eight great prose stylists of the Tang and Song dynasties, Ouyang Xiu is remembered for both his output and his influence upon the course of literary history. More than any other single writer, Ouyang was responsible for developing a new expressiveness in expository prose, setting prose writing of the Northern Song era on a course markedly different from that of earlier periods.
Ouyang’s voluminous literary production contains expository prose in a large number of distinct genres, including the letter, preface, record or inscription (ji), farewell, tomb inscription, colophon, “poetry talks,” “calligraphy exercises,” and the thesis or discourse (lun). Ouyang produced dozens of pieces in each of these forms. While the lun is the closest approximation of the Western “essay,” any general consideration of Ouyang’s achievement as an essayist must take his work in all of these forms into account. Whatever its origin or utilitarian purpose, Ouyang utilized each form to develop and express his thinking on diverse topics in the manner of the essayist.
Standard evaluations of Ouyang in literary histories identify him as the leader of an 11th-century stylistic revival known as the “ancient prose movement” (guwen yundong). A complex event in the intellectual history of the period, this “movement” had ethical and political dimensions that made it far more than merely a matter of aesthetic preference for one type of prose style over another. Ouyang and his supporters were dissatisfied with the vogue of parallel prose in their day, a style that required language to be cast in a series of paired statements exhibiting rigid grammatical parallelism between the two members and a diction that was heavily reliant upon recondite and elaborate tropes and literary allusion. While not denying that such a style had its place, “ancient prose” adherents decried the requirement that it be used by candidates for the civil service examinations ( jinshi ) and, by extension, throughout the written documentation produced in the huge imperial bureaucracy.
Parallel prose, or the “current style,” as it was called, was attacked as intellectually stultifying or, worse still, morally degenerate: it encouraged attention to scintillating ornamentation at the expense of stress upon the fundamental Confucian values which writing should serve. The “ancient style” alternative that Ouyang and others championed was supposedly a return to the nonparallel rhythms and “unadorned” diction of the Tang statesman Han Yu, which could itself be traced back to ancient classics such as Mencius and The Book of Rites . The defining moment of the movement came in 1057 when Ouyang was appointed to administer the highest examinations. He failed all those who wrote their answers in parallel prose and honored instead young men who showed their mastery in the ancient style. This event is credited with effecting a change in examination standards thereafter, and in seriously weakening, if not ending, the ascendancy of the “current style” for decades to come.
The controversy described here, while undoubtedly real, tends to be exaggerated in modern accounts, the rivalries too sharply drawn. What also tends to be distorted in standard literary histories is the huge gulf between the expository tone and style of Ouyang’s writing and that of his supposed model, the prose of Han Yu. As with most archaizing movements in Chinese aesthetics, while the slogan may have been “return to the past,” what in fact took place was the development of a new style. To be sure, Ouyang did write essays, such as his “Pengdang lun” (1044; “On Factions”) and “Ben lun” (1042; “On Fundamentals”), which project an image of him as a staunch Confucian moralist, much in the tradition of the conventional image of Han Yu. But as soon as one moves beyond these anthology pieces and begins to explore the full corpus of Ouyang’s prose works, a very different impression is formed.
Ouyang managed to cultivate a level of flexibility and informality in expository prose quite unlike what had been previously achieved. A reading of his compositions set against those of any of the great Tang masters, even Liu Zongyuan , will reveal a relaxation of the high seriousness of earlier centuries in Ouyang’s style. This key innovation was already recognized in Ouyang’s time by Su Xun, an important figure in his own right. Su Xun likened Han Yu’s writing to a mighty river which flows with a great surge and conceals terrifying water monsters in its depths, so that anyone who ventures to its banks and gazes into its murky depths shrinks back in fear. Ouyang’s prose he likened instead to a meandering stream, twisting supplely this way and that, never hurried or belabored or intimidating.
Ouyang’s fondness for injecting himself and his own feelings into his prose pieces is an important factor in his distinctive tone. In prefaces, studio records, and even grave inscriptions, Ouyang does not hesitate to speak personally and openly about his feelings for the person or object under consideration. The result is a tone in prose that verges on the lyrical, something that had never been accomplished on any sustained level by previous writers. Ouyang’s most celebrated compositions, the autobiographical ” Zuiweng ting ji ” (1046; “The Old Drunkard’s Pavilion”) and ” Liuyi jushi zhuan ” (1070; “Biography of Recluse Six-Ones”) exemplify this tone, albeit with a special playfulness. Although a detailed study has yet to be done, the particular features of Ouyang’s diction and prose rhythm surely also contribute to his tone. Avoiding archaic language, Ouyang strove for a “plain and bland” ( pingdan ) style, as he did in poetry as well. Consequently, the language of his essays is unexpectedly close to that of Five Dynasties and Song period anecdotal writing ( biji ), which may have influenced Ouyang.
Among the compositions with the greatest literary merit one common trait stands out. Ouyang is adept at selecting a particular object or site (a rock, a studio, a zither, a painting) and writing about his relationship with the subject in a way that endows it with multiple layers of significance or meaning. This method is a departure from the simpler technique of prose parable, widespread in Tang writings, in which the symbolism of the subject eclipses all other meanings. Here too, an affinity may be detected between this richness of meaning in Ouyang’s prose and what we normally expect to find in personal, lyric poetry.
Ouyang Xiu was the first of a number of Northern Song dynasty figures known for their multiplicity of interests and accomplishments in philosophy, classical studies, historiography, poetry, and literary prose. While his output in these other fields is certainly important, and particularly so in the two poetic forms ( shi and ci ), it is arguably as a prose stylist that he was most innovative and most influential. Su Shi , his protégé, became a greater poet, Sima Guang a more important historian, Zheng Yi a more seminal thinker, and Wang Anshi a more original and ambitious, if controversial, statesman. But no writer of the time matched the richness of Ouyang’s collected prose or developed so distinctive a style.