An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Gui Youguang 歸有光

Dec 11, 2015 © Ulrich Theobald

Gui Youguang 歸有光 (1506-1571), courtesy name Xifu 熙甫, style Zhenchuan 震川 or Master Xiangji 項脊生, was a writer and literary theoretician of the Ming period 明 (1368-1644). He hailed from Kunshan 昆山, Jiangsu, and obtained his juren degree in 1540. He tried eight times to pass the metropolitan examination, but always failed. In 1542 he moved to Jiading 嘉定縣, where he became a private teacher. In 1565, aged sixty sui, he tried for the ninth time, and finally passed the metropolitan examination on the third rank, rewarded with the post of magistrate (zhixian 知縣) of Changxing 長興, but three years later he was demoted because of irregularities (among other, the use of his native dialect from Jiangsu), and appointed assistant prefect (tongpan 通判) of Shunde 順德, where he took over the horse administration (mazheng 馬政). He announced to the throne that he desired to be dismissed, but no successor could be found. Only in 1570 he was transferred to the post of assistant minister in the Court of the Imperial Stud (taipusi cheng 太僕寺丞) in the southern capital Nanjing 南京, where he participated in the compilation of the "veritable records" of Emperor Shizong 明世宗 (r. 1521-1566, Shizong shilu 世宗實錄). Just a lear later he died of exhaustion. His collected writings are called Zhenchuan xiansheng ji 震川先生集. Important writings of him are Sanwu shuili lu 三吳水利錄, Zhuzi huihan 諸子匯函 and the commentary Yijing yuanzhi 易經淵旨.
Gui Youguang was an important essayist and an important member of a group of writers who promoted the study of Tang and Song period literature (Tang-Song pai 唐宋派). He criticized the "later seven masters", mainly Wang Shizhen 王世貞, who were of the opinion that the apogee of prose literature had been during the Han period. Gui instead suggested that imitating the Han period style meant just to plagiarize (piaoqie 剽竊) and resulted in just mediocre (yong 庸) or even preposterous (wang 妄) products, while the finest works had been written by the masters of the Tang 唐 (618-907) and Song 宋 (960-1279) period who created the so-called old style (guwen 古文). His own writings consequently show the influence of writers like Ouyang Xiu 歐陽修 and Zeng Gong 曾鞏, yet without wholly covering Gui's own style, which resembles the "pure conversations" (qingtan 清淡) of the third and fourth centuries, with short sentences, but a rich language, to describe matters in detail and vividly. Wang Xijue 王錫爵 wrote in his eulogy to Gui Youguang that his expression of joyful or sad thoughts went beyond common words. Essays like Xiangjixuan zhi 項脊軒志 or Hanhua zang zhi 寒花葬志 describe every-day items and objects, but represent an own world that is thoroughly unique in Chinese literature. Such are the descriptions the memory of his relatives and friends in the Xiangjixuan zhi. The brevity of his language, combined with a richness in detail, can be found in the essays Xianbi shilüe 先妣事略, Siziting ji 思子亭記 or Nü ererkuang zhi 女二二壙志, and the mastering of blurring the difference between the description of real landscapes with worlds of phantasy in the Baojie shanju ji 寶界山居記 and the Juchuangji 菊窗記. In the reports Beiwo shilüe 備倭事略 and Kunshan xian wokou shimo shu 昆山縣倭寇始末書 and Juandai chengzi 蠲貸呈子 he described lively the impacts of pirat attacks on the coastal cities of his home province, and from many other texts the conditions of daily life of the common people are revealed.
Wang Shizhen, although he was attacked by "Master Zhenchuan" highly praised Gui (Gui Taipu zan 歸太仆贊), who did not minutely carve out things, but had his own way of writing that surpassed that of any contemporary writer, and was the only one that be compared with the writings of Han Yu or Ouyang Xiu. Gui's writings influenced the so-called Tongcheng School 桐城派, which was founded during the Qing period 清 (1644-1911) and was represented by Fang Bao 方苞, Liu Dakui 劉大櫆, Yao Nai 姚鼐 and Zeng Guofan 曾國藩. Even if Huang Zongxi 黃宗羲 called him the "greatest writer of the Ming period" he criticized that in Gui's writings traces of the eight-legged essay (baguwen 八股文) were to be found which had to be trained by those desiring to pass the state examinations. This was to be seen in the themes he chose as well as in the composition of his essays. The larger amount of his 774 prose writings were commentaries to the Confucian Classics (jingjie 經解), prefaces and postscripts (tiba 題跋), discourses (yilun 議論), congratulatory texts (zengxu 贈序, shouxu 壽序), tomb inscriptions (muzhi 墓志), inscriptions on stone steles (beiming 碑銘), texts for offerings (jiwen 祭文), descriptions of conduct (xingzhuang 行狀) and systematic discussions (zhiyi 制義, i.e. in the baguwen style), all of them literary types with very standardized formats. The collected writings also include 113 poems.

Bao Chang 鮑昌 (1986). "Gui Youguang 歸有光", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, part Zhongguo wenxue 中國文學 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, 208.
Lin Fei 林非, ed. (1997). Zhongguo sanwen da cidian 中國散文大辭典 (Zhengzhou: Zhongzhou guji chubanshe), 287.
Zhao Zecheng 趙則誠, Zhang Liandi 張連弟, Bi Wanchen 畢萬忱, eds. (1985). Zhongguo gudai wenxue lilun cidian 中國古代文學理論辭典 (Changchun: Jilin wenshi chubanshe), 124.