Ouyang Xiu Essay On Fundamentals

Ouyang was one of the major players in the Qingli Reforms of the 1040s and was in charge of creating the New History of the Tang Dynasty. He was also regarded as one of the great masters of prose of the Tang and Song era. He was also a noted writer of both shi and ci poetry.

Early life[edit]

He was born in Jishui, Jiangxi[2] where his father was a judge,[3] though his family comes from present day Jishui (then known as Luling), Jiangxi. His family was relatively poor, not coming from one of the old great lineages of Chinese society. Losing his father when he was three, his literate mother was responsible for much of his early education. He was unable to afford traditional tutoring and was largely self-taught. The writings of Han Yu, a literatus from the late Tang Dynasty were particularly influential in his development. He passed the jinshi degree exam in 1030 on his third attempt at the age of 22.[4]

In his youth, be became somewhat notorious for an undisciplined personal life, including frequenting pleasure quarters and keeping the company of courtesans. At the same time, he also associated with like-minded scholar officials, with whom he regularly exchanged ideas on philosophy and literary modes. He preferred guwen (Ancient Prose) from an early age. By the age of thirty, he gave up the impulses of his youth and expressed regret at coming to an understanding of the Way rather late.[5]

Official career[edit]

After passing the jinshi exam, he was appointed to a judgeship in Luoyang,[3] the old Tang Dynasty eastern capital. While there, he found others with his interest in the ancient prose of Han Yu.[5] Politically, he was an early patron of the political reformer Wang Anshi, but later became one of his strongest opponents. At court, he was both much loved and deeply resented at the same time.

In 1034 he was appointed to be a collator of texts[3] at the Imperial Academy in Kaifeng where he was associated with Fan Zhongyan, who was the prefect of Kaifeng. Fan was demoted, however, after criticizing the Chief Councillor and submitting proposals for reform in promoting and demoting officials. Ouyang then submitted a critique of Fan’s principle critic at court. While he earned a demotion to Western Hubei for his troubles, he won praise as a principled official and led to his being a central figure in the growing reform faction.[6]

Threats from the Liao Dynasty and Xi Xia in the north in 1040 caused Fan Zhongyan to come back into favor. He brought Ouyang with him by offering him a choice position on his staff. Ouyang’s refusal won him further praise as a principled public servant who was not willing to take advantage of connections. Instead, Ouyang was brought to the court in 1041 to prepare an annotated catalogue of the Imperial Library.[6]

1043 was the high point in the first half of the eleventh century for reformers. Ouyang and Fan spurred the Qingli Reforms. Fan submitted a ten-point proposal addressing government organization.[7] Among other things, these included increasing official salaries, enforcement of laws, eliminating favoritism, and reform exams to focus on practical statecraft.[8] The reformers, however, were only in ascendancy for two years as the emperor rescinded these decrees of what also became known as the Minor Reform of 1043. Ouyang was a victim who was then demoted to a succession of magistracies in the provinces.[7] Fan and Ouyang were considered to have formed a faction, which by definition was deemed subversive to the government, though Ouyang countered that Confucius himself said that good persons in society would naturally flock together in furtherance of their own goals.[9]

After serving briefly in Chuzhou, Anhui in 1049, he was recalled to the court to serve in an advisory capacity. However, the death of his mother in 1052 forced him to retire for more than two years to carry out his filial obligations.[7]

After returning from his mandatory retirement, he was recalled to court and appointed to be a Hanlin Academy academician. He was also charged with heading the commission compiling the New Tang History, a task not completed until 1060. He also served as Song ambassador to the Liao on annual visits and served as examiner of the jinshi examinations, working on improving them in the process.[10]

In the early 1060s, he was one of the most powerful men in court, holding the positions of Hanlin Academician, Vice Commissioner of Military Affairs, Vice Minister of Revenues and Assistant Chief Councillor concurrently.[10]

Ouyang’s power aroused jealousy. Upon the ascension of the Shenzong emperor in 1067, the name of Wang Anshi came to the attention of the emperor. Ouyang’s enemies had him charged with several crimes, including incest with his daughter. Though no one believed this charge credible, it still had to be investigated, causing him irreparable harm.[11] Consequently, the emperor sent him to magistrate positions in Anhui, Shandong, and Anhui. While a magistrate in Shandong, he opposed and refused to carry out reforms advocated by Wang Anshi, particularly a system of low-interest loans to farmers.[3]

In 1071, formal retirement was granted five years before the standard retirement age.[11]


In his prose works, he followed the example of Han Yu, promoting the Classical Prose Movement. While posted in Luoyang, Ouyang founded a group who made his “ancient prose” style a public cause. He was traditionally classed as one of the Eight Great Prose Masters of the Tang and Song. He is said to be more responsible than any other single writer for developing a new expressiveness in expository prose in a variety of genres.

Among his most famous prose works is the Zuiweng Tingji (literally, An Account of the Old Toper's Pavilion). The Zuiweng Pavilion near Chuzhou is named in his honor[12] whilst the poem is a description of his pastoral lifestyle among the mountains, rivers and people of Chuzhou. The work is lyrical in its quality and acclaimed as one of the highest achievements of Chinese travel writing. Chinese commentators in the centuries immediately following the work's composition focused on the nature of the writing. Huang Zhen said that the essay is an example of "using writing to play around," and Cui Xian was reminded of the spirit of the Jin Dynasty. It was agreed that the essay was about fengyue, the elegant enjoyment of leisure. During the Qing Dynasty, however, commentators began to see past the playfulness of the piece to the thorough and sincere joy that the author found in the joy of others.[13]


See also: History of Chinese archaeology

Ouyang led the commission compiling the New Tang History, which completed its work in 1060. He also wrote a New History of the Five Dynasties on his own following his official service. The book was not discovered until after his death.[14] His style resembled that of the great Han Dynasty historian Sima Qian. He also focused on ethical considerations in historical analysis.[10]

As a historian, he has been criticised as overly didactic, but he played an important role in establishing the use of epigraphy as a historiographic technique. Epigraphy, as well as the practice of calligraphy, figured in Ouyang's contributions to Confucian aesthetics. In his Record of the Eastern Study he states how literary minded gentlemen might utilize their leisure to nourish their mental state. The practice of calligraphy and the appreciation of associated art objects were integral to this Daoist-like transformation of intellectual life.[15]

The Ming dynasty writer Feng Menglong recorded a possibly apocryphal anecdote regarding Ouyang's writing style in his collection of short stories Gujin Tan'gai.[16] As the story goes, during one of Ouyang's trips outside the Hanlin Academy with his associates, they witnessed an unusual event: a horse became spooked, galloped down a busy street, and kicked to death a dog sleeping there. Ouyang challenged his two associates to express this event in writing. One wrote: "A dog was lying in the thoroughfare and was kicked to death by a galloping horse," while the other wrote: "A horse galloped down a thoroughfare. A lying dog encountered it and was killed." Ouyang teased his junior colleagues, "A history book in your hands would remain incomplete after ten thousand volumes." When asked for his own rendering, Ouyang, replying with a smile, wrote: "Galloping horse killed dog in street (Chinese: 逸馬殺犬於道)."


His poems are generally relaxed, humorous and often self-deprecatory; he gave himself the title The Old Drunkard. He wrote both shi and ci. His shi are stripped-down to the essentials emphasised in the early Tang period, eschewing the ornate style of the late Tang. He is best known, however, for his ci, which he was instrumental in raising to the level of being an important and widespread Song poetic style.[17] In particular, his series of ten poems entitled West Lake is Good set to the tune Picking Mulberries helped to popularise the genre as a vehicle for serious poetry.

Ouyang's poetry, especially the mature works of the 1050s, dealt with new themes that previous poets had avoided. These include interactions with friends, family life, food and beverages, antiques, and political themes. He also used an innovative style containing elements that he had learned from his prose writing. This includes his use of self-caricature and exaggeration.[18] Ouyang's poetry bears the characteristic of literary playfulness common to Northern Song poetry. For example, many poems have titles that indicate that they originated in rhyme games, and feature extensive rhyming schemes throughout.[19] Below is one of the many poems Ouyang Xiu wrote about the famed West Lake in Hangzhou.

Deep in Spring, the Rain's Passed (Picking Mulberries)[20]

Original Chinese text



Despite his success in his various endeavors, he did not accumulate great landholdings and wealth and only his third son attained the highest jinshi degree.[21]

He died in 1072 in present-day Fuyang, Anhui. His influence was so great, even opponents like Wang Anshi wrote moving tributes on his behalf. Wang referred to him as the greatest literary figure of his age.

During the Ming Dynasty, Li Dongyang, who rose to be the highest official in the Hanlin Academy, was an admirer of Ouyang Xiu, regarding him as "an ideal example of the scholar-official committed to both public service and literary art", and praising his writings for their tranquility and propriety.[22]

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Ouyang Xiu.


  1. ^Ouyang Xiu was also known as "Ouyang, Lord Wenzhong" (歐陽文忠公) because of his posthumous name.
  2. ^Mote, F.W. (1999). Imperial China: 900–1800. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. p. 120. ISBN 0-674-01212-7. 
  3. ^ abcd"Ouyang Xiu -- Britannica Online Encyclopedia". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 2007. Retrieved 2007-09-30. 
  4. ^[Mote p. 120-121]
  5. ^ ab[Mote p. 121]
  6. ^ ab[Mote p. 123]
  7. ^ abc[Mote p. 124]
  8. ^[Mote p. 137]
  9. ^[Mote p. 135]
  10. ^ abc[Mote p. 125]
  11. ^ ab[Mote p. 126]
  12. ^"Old Toper's Chant". Retrieved March 8, 2011. 
  13. ^Lian, Xianda (2001). "The Old Drunkard Who Finds Joy in His Own Joy -Elitist Ideas in Ouyang Xiu's Informal Writings". Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR). Chinese Literature_ Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR). 23: 1–29. doi:10.2307/495498. JSTOR 495498. 
  14. ^"History of the Five Dynasties". World Digital Library. 1280–1368. Retrieved 2013-09-05. 
  15. ^Carpenter, Bruce E., "Confucian Aesthetics and Eleventh Century Ou-yang Hsiu" in Tezukayama University Review (Tezukayama Daigaku Ronshu) Nara, Japan, 1988, no. 59, pp. 111–118. ISSN 0385-7743
  16. ^歐陽公在翰林時,常與同院出遊。有奔馬斃犬,公曰:「試書其一事。」一曰:「有犬臥於通衢,逸馬蹄而殺之。」一曰:「有馬逸於街衢,臥犬遭之而斃。」公曰:「使子修史,萬卷未已也。」曰:「內翰云何?」公曰:「逸馬殺犬於道。」相與一笑。
  17. ^"Ouyang Xiu". The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry Web Companion. Whittier College. 2004. Retrieved 2007-09-30. 
  18. ^Hawes, Colin (1999). "Mundane Transcendence: Dealing with the Everyday in Ouyang Xiu's Poetry". Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR). Chinese Literature_ Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR). 21: 99–129. doi:10.2307/495248. JSTOR 495248. 
  19. ^Hawes, Colin (2000). "Meaning beyond Words: Games and Poems in the Northern Song". Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies. Harvard-Yenching Institute. 60 (2): 355–383. doi:10.2307/2652629. JSTOR 2652629. 
  20. ^"Ouyang Xiu English Translations". 2007. Retrieved 2007-09-30. 
  21. ^[Mote p. 120]
  22. ^Chang, Kang-i Sun; Owen, Stephen (2010). The Cambridge History of Chinese Literature, Volume 2. Cambridge University Press. p. 27. ISBN 978-0-521-85559-4. 

See also[edit]




  • Biography by James T.C. Liu in Franke, Herbert, Sung Biographies, Wiesbaden, 1976,vol. 2, pp. 808–816.ISBN 3-515-02412-3
  • Carpenter, Bruce E., "Confucian Aesthetics and Eleventh Century Ou-yang Hsiu" in Tezukayama University Review (Tezukayama Daigaku Ronshu) Nara, Japan, 1988, no. 59, pp. 111–118. ISSN 0385-7743

External links[edit]

Ouyang Xiu

Chinese, 1007-1072

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.


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