The Art of Writing: Teachings of the Chinese Masters. Edited by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping. Published by Shambhala in 1996.

See the publisher's page for this book.




The ancient Chinese regarded the written word as a transformative force able to move heaven and earth and unite the reader with the source of all things, the Tao. The power of writing, especially poetry, is celebrated here in four short texts that present both practical instruction and spiritual insight.

From the preface to The Art of Writing: The Many Faces of Writing

In contrast to the normally austere and humorless Western tradition of the ars poetica, the Chinese, though sometimes equally pedantic, have through many dynasties made their pronunciations on literature witty and aphoristic, magical and profound, spiritual or satiric. The Great Preface to the Confucian Odes, the most ancient anthology of Chinese poetry and wellspring of Chinese poetics and poetic thought, assigns poetry the power and Confucian task to rectify political and social behavior. Poetry "rights what's wrong, moving heaven and earth, spirits and gods." The Taoists assign poetry equal force, but their way is more internal, mystical, paradoxical and humorous. The basic texts of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching and the Chuangtzu, were set down around the second century B.C., with a celebration of whimsy, spontaneity, contradiction, and a metaphysic that often disdains Confucian duty and politics.

In the vein of this ancient tradition are the two Taoist poets who open the book, Lu Ji (261-303) and Sikong Tu (837-908) and who express the craft and power of poetry in beautiful poems that have come to be seen as their masterworks. While Lu Ji's esthetic is deeply Taoist, it incorporates strong Confucian elements as well. He echoes the concerns of the Great Preface: poetry "can save teetering governments and weak armies; / it gives voice to the dying wind of human virtue." He is also deeply engaged with a Confucian respect for the past ("my heart respects conventional rules / and laws of composition"), but he recognizes the need each day to make the poem new.

The extraordinary journeys of the poems of Lu and Sikong take us into the labyrinth of the self and the imagination, and in the process connect us to the hidden source that lies beneath the world. The poet taps this Taoist pattern in nature for inspiration. From what is beyond words, the poet derives speech. As Lu Ji writes, the poet "knocks on silence to make a sound." The poet closes his or her eyes to the sensory world to find a sky and earth inside. In Sikong Tu's series of twenty-four poems on poetry, the elements that the poet manipulates are at the same time literary and mystical. "Someone hidden controls the world," writes Sikong Tu, and in the world of the poem, the poet is the hidden creator. Like Lu Ji questing for the poem and vision through internal space, Sikong Tu takes us on a spirit voyage, whose propelling force is Chi. Chi is a nebulous Taoist term that refers to an indomitable universal energy that, like the Western concept of the soul or spirit (Latin animus, Greek pneuma), is also the animating breath. In these poems we are led, perhaps breathed, along a literary path that is also a spiritual road. Like writing, the Tao is by nature indefinable. It is the creative force that governs and inhabits the world, always changing, always in process, and its many faces can never be wholly known. But the attempt to know the Tao is itself a way. It is the sense of Ithaka in Constantine Cavafy's poem of that name. "Do not hurry the journey," Cavafy advises, "Pray that the way be long, full of adventures, full of knowledge." Arrival is not the end. If you find Ithaka poor, she hasn't cheated you, for in your wisdom you will have learned what Ithakas mean: "Ithaka gave you the beautiful voyage. / Without her you wouldn't have taken the way."

With all its many ports, wild gods and monsters, sensual and visionary cities, the journey reveals its multiple aspects. So these Taoist poets offer no absolute solutions, no rewarding and final ends. Rather, they are practical and spiritual instructors in the many contradictory faces of writing, a unity in paradox of which the way is made.

Chinese writers have also given us more than a thousand years of humorous, sardonic prose commentaries and profound parables about the art of writing. These brief texts, often no more than a few sentences, strive for the evocative compactness of the classical Chinese poem. They are almost unknown in the West, but their insights into fiction and poetry are so clean and essential that, despite centuries and continental distance, they are an immensely practical and fun manual for creative writers today. Taoist contradictions are ever present, as the creating writer is urged to destroy. Like William Faulkner bluntly telling writers to kill their darlings, a piece in Song Zijing's collection reads, "Whenever I see my own work I want to burn the poems I hate. Mei Yaochen congratulates me. 'You have made progress.'" These miniature masterpieces are sometimes hilarious. As Oscar Wilde lampoons the impressionist painters of his day in "On the Art of Lying," the Tang poet Li Shangyin (813-858) satirizes the landscape painters and poets of his day in "Ways to Kill a Landscape." He enumerates some of the ways: wash your feet in a clear spring, dry your loincloth upon the flowers, burn your zither to cook a crane, scream underneath a pine tree.

The imperial system of civil service examinations in China, which endured until the early twentieth century, required scholar officials to be versed in the classics and practitioners of calligraphy and poetry. The cultivated gentlemen of the literati class were supposed to be familiar with several arts: zither (qing), the game of go (weiqi), poetry (shi), calligraphy (shu), and painting (hua); and the arts came to be intimately related. As Lu Juren observes in his piece on artistic enlightenment, "Inspiration enters at the border between hard work and laziness." Thus when a calligrapher relaxes by watching a woman perform a sword dance, he is suddenly enlightened about the nature of his own art. Though many of the passages deal with poetry, creative writers in all genres will enjoy watching this dance of words. In fact, many commentaries edge into short fiction or history as they recount the banquets, conquests, and roadside encounters that took place in China's lost dynasties. "What is the difference between poetry and prose?" Wang Jiling asks. Wu Qiao answers that a writer's message is like rice: "When you write in prose, you cook the rice. When you write poetry, you turn rice into rice wine. Cooked rice doesn't change its shape, but rice wine changes both in quality and shape. Cooked rice makes one full so one can live out one's life span . . . wine, on the other hand, makes one drunk, makes the sad happy, and the happy sad. Its effect is sublimely beyond explanation."

In this humble culinary distinction between the poem and prose narration, we are once again confronted with the ineffability of artistic creation. As Lu Ji concludes in his own preface, "the spontaneous skills needed to carve a new creation are often beyond words. What can be said, however, is verbalized in what follows." In the following pages, China offers us a manual of enlightenment in the ineffable art of writing.
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