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:

陈琳之《讨贼檄文》节选

盖闻明主图危以制变,忠臣虑难以立权。是以有非常之人,然后有非常之事;有非常之事,然后立非常之功。夫非常者,固非常人所拟也。

操矫命称制,遣使发兵。恐边远州郡,过听给与,违众旅叛,举以丧名,为天下笑,则明哲不取也。即日幽并青冀四州并进。其得操首者,封五千户侯,赏钱五千万。部曲偏裨将校诸吏降者,勿有所问。广宜恩信,班扬符赏,布告天下,咸使知圣朝有拘迫之难。如律令!

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:

天王冉闵之《驱胡令》节选

前晋八王乱起,华夏大伤,胡夷乘乱而作,扰乱中原,屠城掠地。永兴元年,羯狗之暴,以汉为“羊”,杀之为粮。永嘉四年,围猎汉民,王公忠烈射死者十余万。不日,狄虏匈奴,四面纵火,烤汉为食,死者二十余万。

而今之中原,北地沧凉,衣冠南迁,汉家子弟几欲被数屠殆尽。中原危矣!大汉危矣!华夏危矣!

闵自知一人之力,难扭乾坤。九州各方,如有道合者,举义共赴戮狄,以挽吾汉之既倒,扶华夏之将倾。

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:

骆宾王之《讨武曌檄》节选

伪临朝武氏者,人非温顺,地实寒微。加以虺蜴为心,豺狼成性。犹复包藏祸心,窥窃神器。

因天下之失望,顺宇内之推心,爰举义旗,以清妖孽。

公等或居汉地,或叶周亲。一抔之土未干,六尺之孤何托?倘能转祸为福,送往事居,共立勤王之勋,无废大君之命,凡诸爵赏,同指山河。若其眷恋穷城,徘徊歧路,坐昧先几之兆,必贻后至之诛。请看今日之域中,竟是谁家之天下!

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.

朱元璋之《北伐檄》节选

予本淮右布衣,因天下大乱,为众所推,率师渡江,居金陵形式之地,得长江天堑之险,今十有三年。予恭承天命,罔敢自安,方欲拯生民于涂炭,复汉官之威仪。虑民人未知,故先逾告:兵至,民人勿避。予号令严肃,无秋毫之犯,归我者永安于中华,背我者自窜于塞外。

如蒙古、色目,虽非华夏族类,然同生天地之间,有能知礼义,愿为臣民者,与中夏之人抚养无异。故兹告谕,想宜知悉。

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.

张沛然之《讨蔡檄文》节选

清廷二百年,软痈遍布,魇魇惺惺,浑浑噩噩。是时华夏虽有万夫之愤,而一步难行。及臻嘉兴红船摇,井冈火色起,英雄破茧于绝地,智士涅槃于死机。长江一渡,十月开新。

时蒋氏窃据东南,恃美跋扈。其后绿党参议,一意卖国。苏、彭跳梁之辈,陈、吕待宰之族,悉数粉墨登场,虚语诳言,炫其蛙燕之辞;破船陋舰,张其犬彘之勇。却不知倭人阴狡,全岛害络析于总参二署;美帝凶狂,整境豺营曝于火箭雄军。

呜呼,吾名沛然:川西钝子,蜀北愚夫。生于四线小城,长于三本大学。尝以事问周匝之人,无不伤怀震怒。乃知之:天下苦台独久矣!

今我中国,北斗参碧落,蛟龙下黄海,歌声飞瓦肆,义语荡勾栏。俯观之际,将有大同世界;抬望之间,可期丽日蓝天。中华民族之伟大复兴,一定实现!勿谓言之不预也!

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