Yi Fa / Guidelines for Writing Good Prose
Yi fa refers to the guidelines and criteria for prose writing advocated by Fang Bao (1668-1749) of the Qing Dynasty, which concerns content, structure, and editing. He held up the structural composition of the historical texts The Spring and Autumn Annals and Records of the Historian as examples of fine prose, and popularized them. Yi (义) refers to content and meaningfulness, with an emphasis on substance and logic; fa (法) refers to structure and writing techniques, with an emphasis on appropriate language and sequence. Yi is primary and fa adjusts accordingly to express the content in a flexible and varied way, so as to ensure that the author’s opinion is clearly stated and the argument is powerful. The concept of yi fa is the cornerstone for the prosewriting theory of the Tongcheng School of the Qing Dynasty.
Confucius understood the need to rule with benevolence, and took this message to over seventy different rulers, but no one heeded him. So he went westward to the Court of Zhou to consult its archives. There he carefully went through the documents and compiled the historical accounts and ancient stories of the State of Lu into the The Spring and Autumn Annals in chronological order. He started from the first year of the reign of Duke Yin of Lu, and finished with the year in which Duke Ai of Lu caught a qilin, a legendary animal. He condensed the texts, eliminated repetitions and redundancies, and thus laid out the yi fa for writing historical annals. (Sima Qian: Records of the Historian)
The example set by The Spring and Autumn Annals was later commented on by Sima Qian, and since then, all who wrote good prose have followed these guidelines. Yi is described in The Book of Changes as “texts and speech should be meaningful,” and fa, “texts and speeches should be logical and orderly.” These are like woof and web, and only then can a good text be written. (Fang Bao: On Rereading “Profit from Trade” in Records of the Historian)