Friday, September 21, 2007

Lu Chi's Wen Fu

The Art of Writing (circa A.D. 300)

Based on a translation by Shih-Hsiang Chen, 1952, modified after consulting a translation by Sam Hamill, 1991.


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 innumerable.

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.

(Click here for translation)