“Wen Fu” by Lu Chi, roughly 300 ce

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“Wen Fu” by Lu Chi, roughly 300 CE

  • Lu chi (261-303CE) was born into a military family living in a large estate at Hua T’ing in the delta area of the Yangtze River. His family had served the Emperor Wu well and this steered Lu Chi into a career in the military, for which he may not have been entirely suited. With the downfall of the Wu dynasty and the rise in power of the Northern Court at Loyang, Lu Chi gave his allegiance to the latter, and was subsequently appointed literary secretary to the court. He later returned to Hua T’ing, where he wrote his essay on literature, perhaps in the year 300. Lu Chi was called back into military service to protect Loyang but was badly defeated. His rivals conspired to make Lu Chi appear responsible for the disaster and he was executed. 


  • “In his "Essay on Literature [Wen fu]", Lu Chi (or Lu Ji, or Lu Ki) created an essay in rhyming prose about poetry. It deals with the personal imagination and its activity in the process of composition, treating literature as a calling, as a craft, and as a means to truth. In it, Lu Chi provides an unusual insight into how a professional writer goes about the creative task and gives an account of the intricacies of composition.”


  • Studying the work of the masters

  • Charging the word with energy

  • The beautiful can be distinguished

  • Revising and revising

  • Ideas fall short of subject?

  • Past masterpieces as models

  • Examination of the good and the bad in writing

  • Entered the mystery.

The Early Motion

  • Stands at the center of a universe.

  • Inner-connectedness of things.

  • Season: autumn, spring, summer, winter

  • Recite the classics

Choosing Words

  • Choose our words

  • Light of reason

  • Like following a branch

  • Brings light into great darkness

  • Writing is sometimes level and easy, sometimes rocky and steep

  • All things emerge, from within the writing brush

On Harmony

  • Learning the art of the sublte

  • Ideas seek harmonious existence

  • Recognizing order is like opening a dam in a river.

On Revision

  • Search for the disharmonious image

  • Even with right reason words sometimes clang.

  • Only when the revisions are precise may the building stand.

The Key

  • The ideas may prove trivial

  • Each sentence grows from a well-placed phrase.

Shadow and Echo and Jade

  • Perhaps only a single blossom

  • When the vein of jade is revealed the whole mountain glistens

Five Criteria

  • Music: avoid slack rhythm and lack of tradition

  • Harmony: the flute in the courtyard

  • True Emotions: avoid the needlessly obscure

  • Restraint: seduction, vanity, and vulgarity

  • Refinement: free of false emotion

Finding Form

  • Know when the work should be full and when compacted

The Inspiration

  • Times when the spirit freezes, the writer feels dead

  • Search the depths of the soul.


  • Art of letters has saved governments from ruin and propogates morals.

  • Every day is made newer.

Richard W. Bodman “How To Eat a Chinese Poem” 2005

A Chinese poem, like an artichoke, has an outside and an inside, and the inside is the best.

  • There is the language of abstractions (sorrow, truth, joy, longing) and the language of sensory images (touch of the wind…). The former is easiest for someone non-Chinese to understand, but not very tasty.

  • The latter is tasty, but hard to understand. It involves a range of traditional associations, and one needs to learn how to read them when placed in conjunction.

A Chinese poem does not have a message: it has a taste, a truth that cannot be put into words:

  • Lao Tzu [famous founder of Taoism] said “True words are not beautiful and beautiful words are not true.”

  • Chuang Tzu [the second greatest Taoist of ancient times] said “Words exist to catch meaning: once the meaning is caught, words can be abandoned.”

  • The I Ching [ancient Chinese religious/philosophical text] says “words do not exhaust meaning.”

Laozi or Lao Tzu, lived sometime in between 6th and 4th century B.C.

Confucius Meeting Laotze.

Zhuangzi or Chuang Tzŭ 370 to 301 BCE.

I Ching symbols

  • Chinese poetry often deals with this paradox by presenting the reader with its own paradoxes, often by placing abstract and imagistic language side by side.

T’ao Ch’ien (Tao Qian) (Tao Yuanming)

  • T’ao Ch’ien (365-427 A.D.) was a Confucian gentlemen who retired to write bucolic poetry. His best-known series of poems was titled “On Drinking Wine.” Next page Tao Yuanming by Chen Hongshou

Zhan Ziqian The Spring Excursion Sui Dynasty (581-618)

ZHA Shibiao, The Peach Blossom Spring. (Taoyuan Tu) 1695

  • Juran “Asking about the Tao in the Autumn Mountains.” c. 975 Tang/Song

On Drinking Wine, A.S. Kline translation

God of Chrysanthemum, artist unknown

Tao Yuanming returning to seclusion (click to enlarge)
Li Peng, (Chinese, ca. 1060-1110 CE)
Song dynasty, Ink and color on silk (Freer gallery)

Sweet Osmanthus, Chrysanthemum and Birds by Lue Ji,
Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644)

  • Tao Yuanming drinking in the shade of a willow-tree.

The word “I” is absent in the more literal translation.

  • This, for the Chinese, makes the poet’s personality less obtrusive, and allows the reader to place himself as the subject.

  • It also allows deliberate ambiguities (is it nature or the poet acting?).

Translation: between extremes

  • In translating Chinese poems one should try to go between the two extremes: the staccato quality of the literal translation and a version that solves all ambiguities.

World Without a Self

  • The Chinese critic Wang Kuo-wei comments on the poem that some lines present a “world without a self” for example, “Distantly, I see South Mountain.” [Bodman agrees with this, but thinks it needs explanation.]

Green Hills and White Clouds, by Gao Kogong, 1270-1310 AD.

Bodman’s analysis of the poem

  • In the first two lines the first paradox is presented: how one can live amidst men and not hear the clamor?

  • The poem indirectly states that the narrator is no longer interested in official service.

  • The next two lines imply one does not need to live among the mountains to have the mind of a hermit.

Gu HongZhong
Night Party (partial 1)
"Han XiZai Gives a Banquet" painted by Gu HongZhong (about AD 910-980)
Five Dynasties

A Scholar in His Study
A Sung Dynasty Painting

The New York Chinese Scholar's Garden

The Seven Sages of the
Bamboo Grove

On Drinking Wine, A.S. Kline translation

Mountain Symbolism

  • In the next two lines the chrysanthemums and South mountain represent resistance to time and decay. Chrysanthemum wine is a stimulant to perception.

  • For the Chinese, mountains form a bridge between earth and heaven.

Bodman’s analysis continued

  • The Southern Mountain symbolizes vital power and longevity, and to the poet, a source of life greater than himself.

  • The next two lines bring the theme of return. The sunset and returning birds refer to the poet’s approaching the end of life.

On Drinking Wine, A.S. Kline translation

Wall scroll painted by Ma Lin

1246. Ink on silk.

See the poem as a picture surrounded by a frame that focuses our attention.

  • We see a picture of a scholar in his garden, and then something strange happens as the breeze plays on our face.

  • In this poem the first four lines and the last two are the frame.

  • The central four are the window, the first four introducing us, and the last two sending the reader back to the center.

  • The process of reading is cyclical, not linear.

  • The upper and lower borders of the frame are paradoxes that cause the reader to concentrate on the images.

Frame and Window

  • Chung Jung (a 6th century critic) said “Although a text is finished, there is no end to the meaning…Let all those who taste of it never reach satiety, and those who hear it be moved in their hearts.”

  • In the frame, the words are in general, abstract language that cannot express truth.

  • Within the window, we no longer hear the poet’s voice: we see and feel.

Our Self Lost

  • Suddenly we see with the poet’s eyes, and we have lost our own self.

  • The highest level of the poem is when there is no human subject, no self at all, only direct experience of the breeze and appreciation of the birds.

Liang Kai

Li Bai Strolling

Southern Song Dynasty, 13th century

The window shows us a cycle of movement.

  • We see the poet close up, then the distant mountains, and finally feel the breeze on the poet’s face.

  • The theme of return is implicit in the poem, the poet’s return from city to country, the sun’s return, the poet’s return to nature in death.

The only immortality man can have

The Eye of the Poem

  • Native Chinese readers often look for the poem’s best line, and the most striking word within that line.

  • The most striking word within that line is the “eye” of the poem.

  • The eye gives the body life: it is the word on which the poem’s interpretation hangs.

  • Westerners usually point to the last two lines of the poem as the best.

On Drinking Wine, A.S. Kline translation

The Chinese reader would choose the “Picking chrysanthemums ….” couplet.

  • The second line, “Distantly, I see South Mountain” would be singled out.

  • This line admits many complementary interpretations, as “distantly” describes both the poet’s mind and the mountains.

  • The poet shares detachment with the mountain.

  • Seeing the South Mountain is an act of insight.

  • By putting “distantly” and “see,” “separation” and “closeness” together, the South Mountain seems to jump suddenly before our eyes.

“Chien” to see

  • The choice of chien “to see,” rather than the more usual “wang” “to gaze at,” is to see the world as without a self, without an observer: it implies seeing without consciously trying to see.

  • “chien” is the eye of the poem.

Conclusion: A Chinese poem is like an artichoke: the reader must peel the layers.

  • The poem also operates on us, dismantling our protective shell of intellect, slowing our constant flow of thought.

  • We are drawn into a world in which the moment is eternal and the self is forgotten.

  • The poem has eaten us.

Liang Kai

Southern Song Dynasty, 13th century

Gao Qipei  ”A Pine Branch from Finger Paintings and Assorted Subjects.” (Song zhi) Before 1714

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