Biji 筆記 "brush notes" are a literary genre of prose writings that were not subject to a strict compository pattern. The themes of biji literature are endless and reach from historiographic notes to scholarly themes and novellas. The genre itself was developed during the Southern Dynasties period 南朝 (420~589), perfected during the Tang 唐 (618-907), and flourished during the Song period 宋 (960-1279), when the term biji was first used to signify the genre.
The oldest book using the term was Song Qi's 宋祁 3-juan long Biji 筆記. The term biji or alternatives (suibi 隨筆, bitan 筆談, zashi 雜識, zhaji 劄記, congtan 叢談, zaji 雜記, bilu 筆錄, suoyan 瑣言, manchao 漫抄, jianwenlu 見聞錄) does not necessarily occur in the titles. Some Chinese literary historians derive the biji texts from the ancient genre of xiaoshuo 小說 "petty talks" that was popular since the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE).
Ming 明 (1368-1644) and Qing 清 (1644-1911) period writers continued using the biji style as their preferred genre of prose writings. Famous brushnote books after the Song period were Wang Hun's 王琿 Yutang jiahua 玉堂嘉話 and Tao Zongyi's 陶宗儀 Chuogenglu 輟耕錄 from the Yuan period 元 (1279-1368), Lu Rong's 陸容 Shuyuan zaji 菽園雜記, Lang Ying's 郎瑛 Qixiu leigao 七修類稿, Zhu Guozhen's 朱國禎 Yongzhuang xiaopin 涌幢小品, Shen Defu's 沈德符 Wanli yehuo bian 萬曆野獲編 from the Ming period, and Liu Xianting's 劉獻廷 Guangyang zaji 廣陽雜記, Wang Shizhen's 王士禛 Chibei outan 池北偶談, Li Dou's 李斗 Yangzhou huafang lu 揚州畫舫錄, Dai Lu's 戴璐 Tengyang zaji 藤陽雜記 or Jaoliyan's 昭梿 Xiaoting zalu 嘯亭雜錄 from the Qing period.
Historiographic themes play an important role among Song period biji texts. They constitute therefore an important source for the study of Song history. In contrast to official histories, the biji texts had a far more personal note, and were often written on the base of personal experience, and so constitute a kind of eye witness literature. Among the oldest biji texs of the Northern Song period 北宋 (960-1126), quite a few write about events and history of the Tang and the Five Dynasties 五代 (907-960) periods, like Zheng Wenbao's 鄭文寶 Nantang jinshi 南唐近事 and Jiangnan yuzai 江南餘載, Zhang Ji's 張洎 Jiashi tanlu 賈氏談錄, or Qian Yi's 錢易 Nanbu xinshu 南部新書.
From the reign of Emperor Renzong 宋仁宗 (r. 1022-1063) on the biji texts were more concerned with contemporary matters, and often gave an overview of the great matters of politics, like Sima Guang's Sushui jiwen 涑水紀聞. This book, as well as Ouyang Xiu's 歐陽修 Guitianlu 歸田錄, were revised by the emperor and had therefore the status of officially acknowledged histories, yet were called "miscellaneous" histories (zashi 雜史).
Li Jian's Shiyou tanji 師友談記 is a record of the themes of the many discourses among the eminent scholars Su Shi 蘇軾, Fan Zuyu 范祖禹, Huang Tingjian 黃庭堅, Qin Guan 秦觀 and Zhang Lei 張耒. The content of their discussions is a very important source for many aspects of Northern Song period history, like the creation of the system of state examinations. Wang Bizhi's 王辟之 Shengshui yantan lu 澠水燕談錄 is divided in 17 chapters that cover various themes with which the contemporary scholars and the court were concerned.
Other important Northern Song period biji texts with historiographical character are Wang Junyu's 王君玉 Guolao tanyuan 國老談苑, Fan Zhen's 范鎮 Dongzhai jishi 東齋記事 (about the empire of Later Shu 後蜀), Zhang Lei's Mingdao zazhi 明道雜誌 (about the city of Huangzhou 黃州 and the literary life there), Fan Gongcheng's 范公偁 Guotinglu 過庭錄, Wang Wei's 王暐 Daoshan qinghua 道山清話, or Peng Cheng's 彭乘的 Moke huixi 墨客揮犀.
After the Song court had fled to the southeast and founded the Southern Song dynasty 南宋 (1127-1279), the contents of the biji texts changed to historical memories of the glorious age of the Northern Song, which is reflected in books like Zhu Bian's 朱弁 Quwei jiuwen 曲洧舊聞 or Shao Bowen's 邵伯溫 Shaoshi wenjian lu 邵氏聞見錄. These two texts are quite trustworthy because they were written in a time when the memories about the life at the northern court were still lively.
With the growing distance to these events, biji writers became more concerned with the politics of the Southern Song court and the reasons for its success and failure. Such books are very reliable historical sources because they are written with great detail, like Wang Mingqing's 王明清 Huichenlu 揮麈錄, Ye Shaoweng's 葉紹翁 Sichao wenjian lu 四朝聞見錄 or Yue Ke's 岳珂 Tingshi 桯史.
Brush notes are also an important source concerning the history of literature. Substantial information about Su Shi's writings can, for instance, be found in Zhao Lingzhi's 趙令畤 Houqinglu 侯鯖錄, where the story of Su Shi's dream of his wife in Changhua 昌化 is recorded, or He Wei's 何薳 (He Yuan) Chunzhu jiwen 春渚紀聞, where it is described how Su Shi wrote poems and created paintings. The Houqinglu also includes information about the Tang period novella Ying Ying zhuan 鶯鶯傳 and to Bai Juyi's 白居易 poem Pipa xing 琵琶行.
Some poems of the female writer Li Qingzhao 李清照 are described and rated in Zhang Duanyi's 張端義 Gui'erji 貴耳集. The extravagant spending at the court of Emperor Gaozong 宋高宗 (r. 1127-1162), and the power of his Counsellor Qin Hui 秦檜 are described in Lu Ji's 陸遊 Laoxue'an biji 老學庵筆記. This book also discusses some poems written during that time. Books and paintings are described in Zhou Mi's 周密 Qidong yeyu 齊東野語, but also political matters of the Southern Song, like the arrestation and mutilation of the female singer Yan Rui 嚴蕊 by the Neo-Confucian "saint" Zhu Xi 朱熹, a story which became the blueprint for a chapter in Leng Mengchu's 淩濛初 Erke pai'an jingqi 二刻拍案驚奇. Another biji text written by Zhou Mi is Guixin zashi 癸辛雜識.
A number of Southern Song period brushnotes are decidacted to the theme of literature and particularly poetry, like Luo Dajing's 羅大經 Helin yulu 鶴林玉露. Some of them are dealing with ancient literature, for instance, Wang Dang's 王讜 Tangyulin 唐語林, Kong Pingzhong's 孔平仲 Xu shixuo 續世說, Song Minqiu's 宋敏求 Chunming tuichao lu 春明退朝錄 or Ye Mengde's 葉夢得 Shilin yanyu 石林燕語.
A third group of biji texts is decidacted to the daily life. They describe the bustling life of the flourishing cities in the lower Yangtze region or the ancient capital of the Northern Song, Kaifeng 開封 (modern Kaifeng, Henan). Such texts are Dongjing menghua lu 東京夢華錄 by Meng Yuanlao 孟元老, Ducheng jisheng 都城紀勝 by a writer called Guanpu naide weng 灌圃耐得翁, the Xihu laoren fansheng lu 西湖老人繁勝錄 by the anonymous Xihu laoren 西湖老人, Wu Zimu's 吳自牧 Menglianglu 夢粱錄, or Zhou Mi's Wulin jiushi 武林舊事. Of these, the Dongjing menghua lu is a description of Kaifeng, while the other texts speak about the Southern Song capital Lin'an 臨安 (modern Hangzhou 杭州, Zhejiang).
The famous Mengqi bitan 夢溪筆談 by Shen Kua 沈括 is a quite outstanding text because it is on the one hand descriptive and treats a lot of themes from various scholarly discplines like science, history, astronomy, literature, arts, and so on, and on the one hand provides critical commentaries to old stories. The heterogenous character of the book makes it an early representant of the style of congtan 叢談 "thicket discussion", in which many different themes are touched, without any clear connection. This style became more popular during the Southern Song period and can be found in books like Hong Mai's 洪邁 Rongzhai suibi 容齋隨筆 that is concerned with history, classic texts, philosophy and poetry.
Wang Yinglin's 王應麟 Kunxue jiwen 困學紀聞 focuses on history, but does not write exclusively on that topic. Wang Guanguo's 王觀國 Xuelin 學林 is decidated to the study of the Confucian Classics and the great histories, as well as with phonetics and the use of Chinese characters. A similar mixture of themes can be found in Huang Chaoying's 黃朝英 Jingkang xiangsu zaji 靖康緗素雜記, Kong Pingzhong's Henghuang xinlun 珩璜新論, Wu Ceng's 吳曾 Nenggaizhai manlu 能改齋漫錄, Wang Mao's 王楙 Yeke congshu 野客叢書 (which is not a collectaneum!), or Yao Kuan's 姚寬 Xixi congyu 西溪叢語.
The most important Qing period writings of this mixed and universal style are Gu Yanwu's 顧炎武 Rizhilu 日知錄, Zhao Yi's 趙翼 Gaiyu congkao 陔餘叢考, Wang Mingsheng's 王鳴盛 Eyipian 蛾術篇, Qian Daxin's 錢大昕 Shijiazhai yangxin lu 十駕齋養新錄, and Yu Zhengxie's 俞正燮 Guisi leigao 癸巳類稿 and Guisi cungao 癸巳存稿.
The literary quality of "brush note novellas" (biji xiaoshuo 筆記小說) is rather mediocre in comparison to the earlier Tang period zhiguai stories 志怪, or the later great romances. Hong Mai's Yijianzhi 夷堅志 is a loose collection of stories of many different origins and literary standards. Many of these appear to have rather been sketched than composed. Yet seen from the content, Song period stories include a much greater spectrum of themes than those of earlier ages, and those written in an excellent style demonstrate that Song period writers were able to expand the narrow descriptive frame of stories into a style that it much closer to the modern sense of "romance".
Examples for this literary progress can be found in Wu Shu's 吳淑 Jiang-Huai yiren lu 江淮異人錄, e.g. the story Hongzhou shusheng 洪州書生 "The student of Hongzhou". Some stories in the Yijianzhi can also be rediscovered in the Erke pai'an jingqi, like the story Yang chou ma 楊抽馬. The story Taiyuan yiniang 太原意娘 is to be found in the Song period pinghua story 平話 Zheng Yijiang zhuan 鄭意娘傳.