The Art of Writing
(circa A.D. 300)
Based on a translation by Shih-Hsiang
Chen, 1952, modified after consulting a translation by Sam
I have often studied the works of talented men of letters and thought to myself that I obtained some insight into their minds at work. The ways of employing words
and forming expressions are indeed infinitely varied. But, accordingly, the various degrees of beauty and excellence
can be distinguished from what is common and weak. When by composing my own works, I
become aware of the ordeal. Constantly present is the feeling of regret that the meaning
falls short of the
objects observed. The fact is, it is not so hard to know as it is to do.
I am therefore writing this essay on literature to tell of the glorious accomplishments of past men of letters, and to comment on the causes of failure and success in
writing. Perhaps some day the secret of this most intricate art may be entirely mastered. In making an axe handle by cutting wood with an axe, the model is indeed
near at hand. But the adaptability of the hand to the ever-changing circumstances and impulses in the process of creation is such as words can hardly explain. What
follows is only what can be said in words.
1. The Motive
Standing erect in the center of all, the poet views the expanse of the whole universe,
and in ancient masterpieces his spirit rejoices and finds nurture.
His lament for fleeting life is in observance of the four seasons as
they pass, his regard for the myriad growing things inspires in him thoughts
As with the fallen leaves in autumn's rigor his heart sinks in grief, so is each tender twig in sweet spring a source of joy.
In frost he finds sympathy at moments when his heart is all frigid purity,
or far, far, into the highest clouds he makes his mind's abode.
The shining, magnanimous deeds of the world's most virtuous are substance of his song,
as also the pure fragrance which the most accomplished goodness of the past yields.
The flowering forest of letters and treasuries of classics are his favorite haunts,
where he delights in nothing less than perfection of beauty's form and matter.
Thus moved, he will spread his paper and poise his brush
To express what he can in writing.
2. Meditation Before Writing
In the beginning,
All external vision and sound are suspended,
Perpetual thought itself gropes in time and space;
Then, the spirit at full gallop reaches the eight limits of the cosmos,
and the mind, self-buoyant, will ever soar to new insurmountable heights.
When the search succeeds, feeling, at first but a glimmer, will gradually gather into full luminosity,
when all objects thus lit up glow as if each the other's light reflects.
Drip-drops are distilled afresh from a sea of words since time out of mind,
as quintessence that savors of all the aroma of the Six Arts.
Now one feels blithe as a swimmer calmly borne by celestial waters, and then, as a diver into a secret world, lost in subterranean currents.
Arduously sought expressions, hitherto evasive, hidden, will be like stray fishes out of the ocean bottom to emerge on the angler's hook;
And quick-winged metaphors like birds are brought down from the curl-clouds by the fowler's bow.
Thus the poet will have mustered what for a hundred generations awaited his brush,
creating music that has waited unheard for a thousand ages.
Let the full-blown garden flowers of the ancients in their own morning glory stand;
to breathe life into late blossoms that have yet to bud will be his sole endeavor.
Eternity he sees in a twinkling,
And the whole world he views in one glance.
3. The Working Process
To obtain choice ideas in close observation of things in categories, and elect expressions that will fall in happy order,
All objects visible under the sun or moon will the poet bring into the
all that can give out a sound he will ring to test their resonance.
He makes barren twigs put forth luxuriant foliage as they sway, or by endless waves he traces to the remote fountainhead.
He may either work from the obscure to the obvious,
Or follow an easy course to what is hard to obtain.
Bu illuminating a tiger, the shapes of tame animals are illuminated,
or frightens the surf-tossed gulls with the vision of a dragon.
Sometimes with sure touches and smooth rhythm his ideas in utmost ease flow
on. At other moments, they are beset by mountainous obstacles.
But not until the heart attains calm transparency does thought crystallize
into such words as no man before fancied or pronounced.
Then, both heaven and earth find new embodiment in the shape desired,
and all things become visible under the tip of his brush, which after all parching anxiety and hesitations
is saturated and sweeps forth in a moist wave.
When the substance of a composition, trunk of a tree, is by truth sustained,
style aids it to branch into leafy boughs and bear fruit.
Indeed, feeling and expression should never fail to correspond, as each emotional change wears a new complexion on a sensitive face.
Thought that swells with joy bursts into laughter;
When grief is spoken, words reverberate with endless sighs,
No matter ff the work be accomplished in one flash on the page, or is the result of the most deliberate brush.
4. The Joy of Writing
Writing is in itself a joy,
Yet saints and sages have long since held it in awe.
For it is being, created from a void;
It is sound rung out of profound silence.
In a sheet of paper is contained the infinite,
And, evolved from an inch-sized heart, an endless panorama.
The words, as they expand, become all-evocative,
The thought, still further pursued, will run the deeper,
Till flowers in full blossom exhale all-pervading fragrance,
and tender boughs, their saps running, grow to a whole jungle of splendor.
Bright winds spread luminous wings, quick breezes soar from the earth,
and clouds arise from the writing brushes.
5. On Form
The forms of things differ in a myriad ways,
For them there is no common measure.
Jumbled and jostled in a ceaseless flux,
Living shapes to all their imitations bid defiance.
Words, each with inherent limitations, do only partial service. Meaning
harmonizes and integrates them.
The poet's mind toils between substance and the void.
Every detail in high and low relief he seeks to perfect, so
that the form, although it may transcend the dictates of compasses and ruler,
shall be the paragon of resemblance to all shapes and features imitated.
To ravish the eye, rich ornaments may be prized,
so that it appeals to the heart as true.
Words may in time be exhausted, but not so that their sense is buried.
A far-reaching thought attains its object only in the realm of the infinite.
The lyric, born of pure emotion, is gossamer fiber woven into the finest fabric;
The exhibitory essay, being true to the objects, is vividness incarnate;
In monumental inscriptions rhetoric must be a foil to facts;
The elegy tenderly spins out ceaseless heartfelt grief.
The mnemonic is a smooth flow of genial phrases, succinct but pregnant;
The staccato cadences of the epigram are all transparent force.
While the eulogy enjoys the full abandon of grand style,
The expository must in exactitude and clarity excel.
The memorial, balanced and lucid, must be worthy of the dignity of its royal audience,
Rhetoric with glowing words and cunning parables persuades.
These classifications are meticulous,
Lest passion and thought, given free rein, may wantonly go astray. The maxim: Let truth
be expressed in the most appropriate terms,
while of verbiage beware.
6. The Making of a Composition
A composition comes into being as the incarnation of many living gestures.
It is the embodiment of endless change.
To attain meaning, it depends on a grasp of the subtle,
While such words are employed as best serve beauty's sake.
The interactions of sounds and tones are like
The five colors that enhance each others:
Although they dwell and vanish by no common rule,
And their tortuous, intricate ways permit no liberty,
Yet if a poet masters the secret of change and order,
He will channel them like directing streams to obtain a fountain; but once a false move leads to reckless
The end and the beginning are thrown into confusion, Celestial blue and earthy yellow confounded,
Dull mud and dregs to chaos return. All light fails.
A composition is ruined
When a later passage swells to engulf its forerunners,
Or encroaches on all that follows.
To redeem virtues in words too ill expressed, pleasing but trivial phrases
must be set apart from the company they keep.
For art and merit are by grains and scruples measured; success and
failure are separated no wider than a hair's breadth.
After the choice is made on the most accurate balance,
The master carpenter's tape it must also fit.
Lavish expressions may contain abundant truth,
But fail to direct and drive the meaning home.
What is fully expressed will exclude duality,
And what is worth continuing must not be cut off .
A pithy saying at a crucial point
May whip all parts into a whole.
Though all the words are in nice order arrayed,
Such a "rallying whip" is needed to make them serve.
The utmost is achieved at slightest cost,
When the kernel, unequivocal, suffices.
Sometimes inspired thoughts weave themselves into the finest fabrics and grow ever fresher and more comely as they expand,
glistening with colors of the most exquisite embroidery and tuned to the poignant music of a thousand strings.
But the accomplished piece of imitation must be so perfected
That it is in the ancient tradition, yet remains unique.
Even though all the warp and woof are of my own heart's tissue, in constant fear must I be lest others before me have spun the same.
When honor and integrity are menaced,
I sacrifice sacrifice even my most cherished gems.
Or a thought may, like a lone plant, burst and burgeon with a life all its own,
so individual that on this earth it seems to have no species, until it becomes mirage-like, forever a fugitive from form,
or a phantom voice that no sound audible can echo, a being isolated from all contexts,
that no common words can express.
The heart then feels like a forlorn lover, doomed to desolation, Yet haunted by a meaning evasive, intangible, but never to be shaken off.
Let it, then, be contained like jade in rocks, that a mountain loom in radiance,
or east it like a pearl in water that a whole river gleam with splendor.
For even thorn bushes, when allowed to flourish,
Will by their opulent disarray claim a share of beauty.
In humble tunes that may mingle with the most exalted strains, I find resources, too, for
7. Five Shortcomings
A verse limps and falls short when it is a single train of thought, its vision
hampered by lack of tradition.
It's then like one in mourning around whom the world is mute, The heaven above, out of reach, empty and vast:
A weak string plucked alone, without resonance, its sound into thin air vanishes.
Or a composition is so marred by languid tones
That its words may flash but never rise to glory.
Fair is confounded with foul,
And qualities are drowned in blemishes:
It's as if flutes down the hall pipe hurried notes at random,
Resonant but out of tune, that only throw the hymn into discord.
Or, to attain something unique at truth's expense,
The poet is so bent on a search for the obscure and the trivial
That his words, lacking true emotion,
Will drift, homeless, nowhere to return:
It’s like a lute, too high-strung and hard pressed by rapid fingers;
although the melody is played in tune, it fails to move us.
Or, a work may swing itself into such a symphony
That it rings and clangs with many bewitching colors.
It may thus please the eye and win popular acclaim,
While its lowly tunes are exalted by loud performance.
Beware of resemblance to familiar tunes,
Which, though emotional, are an offense to grace.
Or simplicity is so cultivated that the work is rid of all
trimmings and ornaments, becoming a feast without the relish of seasoned gravy.
A concert of wrought-silk strings that twang with too pure a tone,
although it trills on with endless reverberations,
For all its grace, is without appeal.
8. The Secret of Artistry
Luxuriance and terseness of style,
And the different aspects of form,
Vary according to laws of propriety,
Whose intricacies hinge upon a feeling so subtle:
Once grasped, uncouth language may divulge clever parables,
A truism by light verbal touches is turned into epigram,
The older the model, the fresher the imitation,
The duller the beginning, the more brilliant the final illumination.
Whether this superb artistry becomes apparent at first sight
Or is comprehended only after arduous toils of wit,
It is like the dancer's, whose each whirl of the sleeve is borne by a rhythm,
Or the singer's voice, whose each note responds to the twang of the string,
Guided by a force which even the master wheelwright Pien could not express in words;
Therefore its secret lies beyond smoothest speech.
9. The Source of Literature and Discipline
To the all-pervasive law of grammar and literary discipline
I have devoutly dedicated myself.
In its light I have seen much of the ills in vogue today
And perceived the merits of masters of the past,
Although untrained eyes ridicule an art truly wrought from a master's
Coral gems and jade filigree, however, are in their origins none too rare,
but common as wild beans of the Central Plain that all can gather:
Thus the source of poetry is like the air from the bellows of the eternally generative void,
and it will forever breed with heaven and earth.
But be it soever bounteous and ubiquitous in this world,
Alas, how much of it can my fingers mould?
Dismayed as the holder of a bucket that is too often empty,
I feel harassed by the thought that Great Eloquence is hard to achieve.
Hence limping verses, born dwarfed, are let live,
And perfunctory notes are fiddled to round out a vapid tune.
Often have I finished my work with pangs of remorse;
When has my heart rejoiced with self-content?
I always fear that my work is earthenware, dust-muffled and jarring, coarsely
mocked by tinkling jade bells.
10. The Terror
Such moments when mind and matter hold perfect communion,
And wide vistas open to regions hitherto entirely barred,
will come with irresistible force and then go, their departure none can hinder.
Hiding, they vanish like a flash of light;
Manifest, they are like sounds arising in mid-air.
So acute is the mind in such instants of divine comprehension, what chaos is there that it cannot marshal in miraculous order?
While winged thoughts, like quick breezes, soar from depths of the heart,
eloquent words, like a gushing spring, flow between lips and teeth.
No flower, or plant, or animal is too prodigal of splendor
To be recreated under the writer's brush,
Hence the most wondrous spectacle that ever whelmed the eye, and notes of the loftiest music that rejoiced the ear.
11. Of Inspiration
But there are other moments as though the six senses were stranded,
When the heart seems lost, and the spirit stagnant.
One stays motionless like a petrified log,
Dried up like an exhausted river bed.
The soul is indrawn to search the hidden labyrinth;
Within oneself is sought where inner light may be stored.
Behind a trembling veil truth seems to shimmer, yet ever more evasive,
And thought twists and twirls like silk spun on a clogged wheel.
Therefore, all one's vital force may be dispersed in rueful failure;
Yet again, a free play of impulses may achieve a feat without pitfall.
While the secret may be held within oneself,
It is none the less beyond one's power to sway.
Often I lay my hand on my empty chest,
Despairing to know how the barrier could be removed.
12. The Use of Literature
The use of literature
Lies in its conveyance of every truth.
It expands the horizon to make space infinite,
And serves as a bridge that spans a myriad years.
It maps all roads and paths for posterity,
And mirrors the models of worthy ancients, that the tottering edifices of the sage kings of antiquity may be reared again,
and their admonishing voices, wind-borne since past times, may resume full expression.
No regions are too remote but it pervades,
No truth too subtle to be woven into its vast web.
Like mist and rain, it permeates and nourishes,
And manifests all the powers of transformation in which gods and spirits share.
Virtue it makes endure and radiate on brass and stone. It resounds in an eternal stream of melodies ever renewed on flutes and strings.
Writer: David from Seeraa International
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