ɡǔwén yùndònɡ 古文运动
Classical Prose Movement
It refers to the literary reform movement in the mid-Tang to the Northern Song period. It opposed rigidly rhythmical prose featuring parallelism and excessive elegance that had been popular in the Six Dynasties, and advocated a return to writing in “truly” classical Chinese. This movement was both intellectual and social in nature. Its representative figures included Han Yu and Liu Zongyuan of the Tang Dynasty and Ouyang Xiu, Su Xun, Wang Anshi, Zeng Gong, Su Shi, and Su Zhe of the Song Dynasty. In this particular context, the notion of classical prose stood in contrast to rigidly rhythmical prose. Classical prose, first proposed by Han Yu, referred to the prose of the Qin, Western Han, and Eastern Han dynasties. It featured poetic lines of flexible lengths with no particular regard for metric pattern and parallel structure. In terms of content, classical prose aimed to express ideas and reflect real life. Rigidly rhythmical prose, on the other hand, was a style of writing popular in the pre-Tang period which had rigid requirement about the use of parallelism, elegant wording, prosody, melody, and allusions. Although there were good works in this genre, most were rigid in form and hollow in content. In view of this, Han Yu called for a return to the literary tradition of the Western and Eastern Han dynasties to reform literary writing. He gained the strong support of eminent men of letters such as Liu Zongyuan. Together, they launched what was later widely known as the Classical Prose Movement. Han Yu took this initiative to combine the reform of literary writing with the revival of Confucian moralism so as to enable literary writing to promote better governance. But rhythmical prose did not die out altogether; it continued into the late Tang period. Northern Song writer Ouyang Xiu, with strong political influence, championed the revival of classical prose. His contemporary Su Xun, as well as his students Wang Anshi, Zeng Gong, Su Shi, and Su Zhe all wrote classical prose with distinctive styles. Influenced by Su Shi, Huang Tingjian, Chen Shidao, Zhang Lei, Qin Guan, and Chao Buzhi also became prominent prose writers. Thanks to the efforts of these literary figures, the Classical Prose Movement flourished in the Song Dynasty.
So often, I have to write just for the purpose of socializing. This makes me feel ashamed. …What good can classical prose do for today’s world? I just hope that there will be people who can truly appreciate our writing. (Han Yu: Letter to Feng Su on Prose Writing)
Su Shi said, “Du Fu’s poems, Han Yu’s prose, and Yan Zhenqing’s calligraphy, by drawing on all that is best in great poets, prose writers, and calligraphers, have reached the highest level of artistic attainment.” (Chen Shidao: Houshan’s Understanding of Poetry)