Lu Ji (261-303) — the author of the Chinese work Wen Fu, or Rhapsody on Literature — was a poet, not a theorist, at least insofar as we understand the term today. His Wen Fu, however, remains one of the key texts in classical Chinese literary thought. In this piece, Lu Ji presents the process of writing in quasi-metaphysical terms, discusses certain technical aspects of the writer’s craft, and bemoans the elusive nature of inspiration. The poem’s date of composition is uncertain: it was probably written somewhere between the years 280 and 300. What does seem certain, however, is that Lu Ji wrote nothing else like it over the rest of his career.
The fu form — variously translated as “rhapsody”, “rhymeprose”, or “poetic exposition” — is essentially a verse essay on a premeditated topic, sometimes including a prose preface, sometimes not. Fu tend to be highly baroque and allusive, and the Wen Fu is no exception. I have generally not provided glosses, notes, or alternative readings; for readers who want such things, I recommend David R. Knechtges’ translation in his Wen Xuan (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, c1982-c1996, vol. 3, pp. 211-232) or Stephen Owen’s detailed commentary in his Readings in Chinese Literary Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992, pp. 73-181). Either of those will do the job far better than I can.
Rhapsody on Literature
Whenever I read the works of talented writers, I feel I am given insights into the ways they used their minds. Their ways of using words and crafting phrases are greatly varied indeed! But even so, the beautiful and ugly, the good and bad, can be distinguished and discussed; and every time I set out to compose, I see this even more. Yet always I worry that the ideas I present won’t match the things I am trying to describe, and that the words I use won’t come up to what I mean; for it is never the theory that is difficult, but the practice. I am therefore writing this Rhapsody on Literature to recall the splendid skill of writers past, and to discuss the causes of good and bad writing. Perhaps one day it will be said that I have expressed all its mysteries. I am using an axe to carve an axe-handle, and my model is not far away; but still it is very hard to use words to express how skilful hands can craft changes. Nevertheless, all that I can say in words is set forth in this essay.
Standing in the centre of all things
and watching in the darkness,
the writer feeds his feelings and will
with the great works of the past.
Moving with the four seasons, he laments their passing;
gazing on the myriad things, countless thoughts arise.
He mourns the falling leaves in cruel autumn
and rejoices in the soft twigs of sweet spring;
his shivering heart takes the frost to itself;
his spirit, remote, turns its gaze to the clouds.
He declares the great deeds of the world’s virtuous men
and sings the sweet scent of the men of the past;
he wanders the woods and storehouses of letters,
praising the fine balance of beauty and craft.
Thus moved, he spreads his paper, raises his brush,
and expresses these things in writing.
In the beginning,
he draws back his seeing and hearing,
lost in thought, searching everywhere;
his spirit speeds to the eight horizons
and his mind ascends to the uttermost heights.
Having accomplished these things,
his feelings grow from a first-light glimmer
into full brightness,
and ideas, becoming distinct,
make each other still clearer.
He sips the sweet wine of a multitude of words
and savours the moist fragrance of the six arts;
he may float placidly in the Celestial Pool
or plunge to wash in the primordial spring.
So sunken expressions struggle forth
like hooked fish drawn from the deepest of depths;
and floating brilliance flutters down
like arrowhit birds tumbling from the highest of clouds.
He gathers lines lost for a hundred generations,
harvests rhymes forgotten for a thousand years.
Passing over flowers unfurled to the morning,
he awakens buds not yet roused at dusk;
in an instant he beholds the past and the present
and, in an eyeblink, touches the four seas.
choosing his ideas, he arranges them neatly;
testing his phrases, he sets them in order;
he strikes open all that holds visible form
and plucks the strings of all things that give sound.
Taking a branch, he shakes its leaves;
following waves, he seeks their source;
exploring the hidden, he finds what is plain;
pursuing the easy, he attains what is hard.
Now a tiger changes, and beasts are disturbed;
a dragon appears, and birds ripple away.
Now things are at peace and the going is easy;
other times they clash, and discord ensues.
He clears his mind completely, focusing his thoughts;
refining his concerns, he puts them into words.
He cages all heaven and earth in form,
crushes the ten thousand things with his brush-tip.
At first words hang back, as though on dry lips;
at last they flow gracefully beneath the moist brush.
Like a firm trunk, reason supports substance;
like hanging branches, craft and skill bear fruit.
True feeling and expression are never at odds,
and thus every change can be seen in his face:
if his thoughts turn to joy, he must smile;
as soon as grief is mentioned, he will sigh.
Sometimes, tablet in hand, he writes without effort,
or, brush in mouth, his mind’s far away.
There is joy to be found in this work;
thus sages have firmly esteemed it.
Examining emptiness, he calls existence forth;
knocking on silence, he searches out sound.
He contains an endless distance within a foot of silk;
he pours forth a torrent from the inch-space of his heart.
Words, though vast, are growing ever greater;
thoughts press on, piercing ever deeper.
Sweet flowers now spread their fragrance;
green twigs grow in abundance.
Bright winds fly and whirl upward;
dense clouds rise from the literary grove.
Ten thousand different forms exist;
things don’t share the same measure.
Disordered, confused, scattered and fleeting,
their shapes are hard to describe.
Fine phrases demonstrate skill and technique,
but meaning controls them, and makes one a master —
so between presence and absence, the writer presses on;
between shallow and deep, he refuses to yield.
Departing from the square, withdrawing from the round,
he tries to show things fully, to take description to its limits.
Those who would dazzle the eyes prize extravagance;
those who would satisfy the mind value aptness;
those who speak fully encounter no impasse,
and those who express themselves well broaden minds.
Poems spring from emotion, and are richly adorned;
rhapsodies shape objects, shining out clearly.
Epitaphs balance form against substance;
laments are taut and twisted with sorrow.
Inscriptions, in few words, say much, mild and smooth;
admonitions, though measured, speak clear and strong.
Tributes are relaxed and lush in their phrasing;
Treatises are refined, both subtle and flawless.
Memorials are placid, proper and insightful;
discourses dazzle and perplex.
Though there are differences between these,
they all forbid deviance, keeping licence in check.
Every phrase needs a point, and reason must rule;
there is no need for long-windedness.
Things present themselves in many ways;
forms, too, undergo many changes.
In joining one’s ideas, skill comes first;
in putting words together, beauty is foremost.
Tones and sounds should be set in alternation
like the five colours, supporting one another:
though their comings and goings bear no fixed pattern
and are hard to manage, like a rocky path,
if you can grasp the changes and keep the proper order
it will be like opening a channel to a spring.
But if you miss your chance, though you realize it later
you’ll be joining the end to the head,
disordering the sequence of black and yellow —
all will be muddy and blurred.
At times, looking back, what you’ve written constrains you;
at times, looking forward, future sections are infringed.
Phrases may falter, though the reasoning be sound;
words may run smoothly, though the meaning be impeded.
If these two are avoided, twice the beauty;
if both occur together, twice the harm.
Weigh the merits of each with the tiniest measures;
decide with a hair’s breadth which stays or goes.
As long as your choice has been balanced precisely
and conforms to the marking line, it will fit well.
At times your style is luxuriant and your reasoning is rich,
but your ideas aren’t sufficiently clear.
You cannot conclude with two different meanings;
you cannot expand what’s been fully expressed.
Place evocative phrases in crucial positions —
they will serve as whips for the whole piece;
however well your other words are arranged
these are needed for maximum effect.
Your achievement will be great and the difficulties few,
so take just what’s enough and don’t change it.
At times crafted thoughts blend into a fine fabric,
limpid and lovely, gorgeous and bright;
shimmering like a cloth of many colours,
sorrowful as the sound of many strings.
But if what I am trying to say lacks distinction
and accords, unwittingly, with some ancient work,
then though my own heart holds the shuttle and loom
others have, alas, gone before me,
and if honesty is harmed and integrity transgressed,
then however much I love it I must give it up.
At times a flower will rise, or a grain stalk will stand
apart from the others, separated from the sense;
like a shape that can’t be followed
or a sound that can’t be echoed,
it stands out, unique, on its own,
not woven in with ordinary tones.
Then the mind feels desolate, lacking a match,
while thoughts keep circling, refusing to give up.
But still mountains shine when their stones contain jade,
and rivers enchant when their waters hold pearls;
there’s no need to cut down either hazel or thornbush,
for roosting kingfishers can grant them splendour.
So joining a folk song to a noble melody
can in fact enhance the work’s greatness.
you may have entrusted your words to truncated verses:
facing a land of few footsteps, they arise alone.
They look down into stillness, without friends;
they gaze upon emptiness, with no purpose.
They become like a side string, strung on its own:
though it contains pure song, nothing responds.
you may have given your lines to worn-out tones:
your words, though delicate, are empty, lacking splendour.
Beautiful and ugly are confused in one form;
good substance, encumbered, is made defective.
They become like lower-hall pipes played too fast:
though they respond, there is no harmony.
you may have abandoned reason while keeping affectation,
vainly seeking emptiness, pursuing the obscure:
your words hold little feeling, and are lacking in love;
your phrases drift aimlessly, never returning.
They become like thin strings set on bridges too tight:
though there is harmony, no one is moved.
you may have rushed to set down sweet harmonies,
attending to sounds so bewitchingly fair.
Pointlessly you please the eyes and pander to vulgar tastes,
but though the pitch be high the tune is worthless.
Remember “Sweet Dew” and “Among the Mulberries” –
the music might be moving, but it lacks dignity.
you may have attained a chaste emptiness with gentle restraint,
getting rid of all complexity and excess.
Lacking even the bland taste of ceremonial broth,
it’s like the limpid echoes of vermilion strings.
But though, when one sings, three sigh in response,
for all its dignity, it lacks beauty.
As for how it should be cut, whether loose or constricted,
or how it should be formed, gazing forwards or back:
in line with what is fitting, suit your writing to each change,
every shift containing subtle moods.
Sometimes words are clumsy, though the message is astute;
sometimes reasoning is plain, though the phrasing is nimble;
sometimes following the old produces something new;
sometimes moving through the imprecise makes things clearer.
Sometimes an overview can provide crucial insight;
sometimes the essence comes only after careful study.
It’s like a dancer flinging her sleeves to the beat,
or a singer’s voice sent forth in response to the strings.
It’s what Wheelwright Bian couldn’t put into words;
even the finest discourse can’t capture its essence.
General statutes of phrasing and rules for writing
are truly things my heart has admired.
I am well acquainted with this age’s common failings;
I know what is good in the works of former worthies.
Though something may yet come from the depths of gifted minds,
still it may suffer the jeers of foolish eyes.
Such adornments of agate and embellishments of jade
are like beans in the middle of the plain;
like the great bellows, never fully emptied,
they grow together with heaven and earth.
But though they teem and flourish in this age
I sigh, for they aren’t enough to fill both my hands.
I grieve, for too often, my raised bottle is empty;
I suffer, for fine words are hard to put together.
So I stumble among rhymes that are too short,
complete my songs with mediocre sounds.
At the end of each piece, always some regret remains;
how may my heart be filled? When can I be satisfied?
I fear to be a drum-pot covered in dust,
an object of scorn for the ringing jade.
As for the meeting of inspiration and response,
and the distinction between blockage and flow:
if it comes, it can’t be halted,
if it goes, it can’t be stayed.
Hidden, it’s like a vanished shadow;
moving, it’s like an echo’s rise.
When the instruments of heaven rush swiftly and smooth,
what chaos cannot be ordered?
Winds of thought come forth from the breast,
streams of words flow between lips and teeth;
they flourish and grow with such rapid luxuriance
only brush and silk can trace them.
Words flash and gleam, overflowing the eyes;
tones splash and tumble, filling the ears.
But when the six emotions languish and stagnate,
when, though the will strives, the spirit remains,
you are left immobile as a withered tree,
hollow and empty as a dried-up stream.
Drawing the soul in, you explore hidden depths,
and gathering the spirit, you search within yourself;
but reason is darkened, and shrouds itself further;
thought wriggles and struggles, as though being dragged.
So at times your feelings are spent and much is regretted;
other times you write at will, and errors are few.
Although these lie within myself,
though I marshal all my strength, they’re beyond me;
and so there are times
when I stroke my empty breast and sigh,
for I don’t know the causes of blockage and flow.
Literature’s function is to support
all of the natural principles.
It covers ten thousand miles, unobstructed;
it acts as a ferry over millions of years.
Looking forward, it gives models
to future generations;
looking back, it contemplates
images of the ancients.
It rescues the way of Kings Wen and Wu,
which was in danger of falling;
it promulgates their influence,
keeping it from fading.
No road runs so far that it cannot work it in;
no principle is so subtle as to be beyond its grasp.
Its moisture matches the clouds and rain;
its changes are like those of demons and gods.
Covering metal and stone, it propagates virtue;
through pipes and strings, it flows new every day.