China’s Classic Literature – Xiwen
Chinese civilization perhaps is the most literature-oriented in human history, but the dominant writing style in China changes over time. Here is a long-established observation that brilliantly summarizes the evolution of China’s literature scene:
楚骚 汉赋 魏晋骈文 唐诗 宋词 元曲 明代话本
It means that the odes of the Warrior States era, the rhymed essays of the Han Dynasty, the couplet-style essays of the Wei-Jin age, the poems of the Tang Dynasty, the verses of the Song Dynasty, the lyrics of the Yuan time, and the novels of the Ming Dynasty represent the highest literary achievements of the corresponding period respectively.
Traditionally Chinese literary critics would regard essays that devote to discussions of big social issues as a higher form of writing than poems that mainly articulate personal feelings, while poetry was viewed as superior comparing to dramas and novels that chiefly narrate stories for entertainment.
Of the essay writing, there is a particular style called 檄文 (xiwen), which is in the form of declarations of political or military actions against those deemed to have committed serious crimes against the community or the nation.
There are about a dozen classic xiwens that are still frequently recited and quoted today, of which the earliest one was penned by Chen Lin of the Three Kingdoms‘ era, targeting Cao Cao, the last prime minister of the Han Dynasty.
The following is the excerpt of the anti-Cao Cao xiwen:
Another widely circulated xiwen is said to be written by Emperor Ran Ming, pledging a resistance war against the cannibal Tartars who invaded China and ate (literally!) hundreds of thousands of Chinese men, women and children.
The following is the excerpt of the anti-Tartar xiwen:
But the most praised xiwen is the one created during the Tang Dynasty by great essay master Luo Bingwang prior to the campaign to topple Wu Zetian, the mighty woman emperor. The xiwen is so superbly composed, that even Emperor Wu herself was tremendously impressed and reproached her prime minister for failing to include such a talented man in her cabinet.
The following is the excerpt of the anti-Emperor Wu Zetian xiwen:
Below is the excerpt of another well-kown xiwen from the founding emperor of Ming Dynasty who expelled the Mongols to the north of the Great Wall.
Regrettably, the New Culture Movement, occurred immediately after the fall of the Manchu‘s rule in the early 20th century, wrongly identified the Manchu heritage as the Chinese culture, and attributed Chinese culture as the cause for China’s collapse, thus called for reforming Chinese civilisation based on the Western standards.
Many sophisticated Chinese traditions have been discarded, including the classic writing, which has been replaced with the oral wrting style. Today Chinese literature classics are no longer intelligible to many China’s tertiary-educated intellectuals. And with the arrival of the Internet age, some cannot even be bothered to write in a proper oral style, but mingle Chinese characters with symbols, numbers or English letters.
Just when China’s literary critics began to wonder whether the nation would eventually lose the ability to write in a Chinese oral style, in recent years, essays crafted in the authentic classic style have emerged in cyberspace, penned by the authors from the young generation.
The following is the excerpt of a xiwen freshly produced by a Chinese from Sichuan named Zhang Peiran.