Traditional Prose

William H. Nienhauser

in Chinese Studies

ISBN: 9780199920082
Published online April 2013 | | DOI:
Traditional Prose

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The modern concept of prose as something completely utilitarian does not apply in China, where the basic meaning of wen 文 (Archaic Chinese: miwun), the crucial morpheme common to various terms that approximate the Western concept of “prose,” was “drawn lines” or “fine patterns.” The term closest to our notion of prose as “the ordinary form of written language” is wenzhang 文章, which appeared as early as the 3rd century bce. However, Chinese prose did not use “ordinary” language, but wenyan 文言, an artificial, written language based on ancient models. Moreover, when a student began to study prose, he noted the figures of speech, imagery, and rhythm of his models. Then he memorized a passage, rehearsed it, and finally recited it for his teacher. Thus, a sense of rhythm comparable to that found in the prose masters of Rome and Greece is found in most Chinese authors and styles. Rhetorical devices were also common both to prose and poetry, and some genres, such as the fu 賦 (prose-poem or rhapsody––not discussed in this bibliography) are hybrids, neither poetry nor prose. Since pre-Qin times (3rd century bce and earlier), two prose styles were evident: one emphasizing clarity and content, the other focused on euphony and prosody. These two came to be known as pianwen 駢文 (parallel prose) and sanwen 散文 (free prose), the former dominant in the Six Dynasties and Early Tang (4th–late 8th century), and the latter becoming increasingly standard, especially in private writings, in the mid-Tang and Early Song dynasties (9th–11th centuries). Official documents and the civil-service examinations, however, continued to employ parallel prose. In the past century the history of Chinese prose has been influenced by the adherents of the Tongcheng 桐城 school, who compiled most literary anthologies available today. These scholars advocated a type of free prose known as guwen 古文 (ancient-style prose), a laconic style deemphasizing rhythm and rhyme, employing fewer grammatical particles, and emphasizing Confucian morality. The gu 古 (ancient) referred to the prose of certain periods of Antiquity, usually the Han (206 bce–220 ce) and Tang (618–907) dynasties, taken as models. This emphasis on guwen essays neglects much of traditional Chinese prose: the two most common types of prose found in the collected works of individuals, for example, are official documents and funerary writings, both written in parallel prose. This approach also slights other major forms of free prose––the philosophical, historical, and fictional.

Article.  10826 words. 

Subjects: East Asian Studies ; Asian History ; East Asian Philosophy ; East Asian Religions

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