The Tongcheng School of Writing
This school of writing represented the Qing Dynasty’s most influential style of classical Chinese writing. Its representative figures were all natives of Tongcheng, Anhui Province, hence the name. It was formed during the reign of Emperor Kangxi (1662-1722) and reached its height during the reigns of Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795) and Emperor Jiaqing (1796-1820). Its founder, Fang Bao (1668-1749), believed that men of letters should follow the style of writing of the neo-Confucian moralists Cheng Hao (1032-1085), Cheng Yi (1033-1107), and Zhu Xi (1130-1200), and that of great men of letters like Han Yu (768-824) and Ouyang Xiu (1007-1072). This set the tone for this school of writing. Among its prominent figures were Dai Mingshi (1653-1713), Liu Dakui (1698-1779), Yao Nai (1732-1815), Mei Zengliang (1786-1856), Fang Dongshu (1772-1853), and Wu Rulun (1840-1903). Writers of this school emphasized that writings should convey moral ideals and be refined and well-laid out in form. Such a style of writing was based on Fang Bao’s “guidelines for writing good prose,” Yao Nai’s stress on “conveying righteous messages, facts and evidence, and rhetoric and technique,” and Liu Dakui’s theory about “a piece of writing and its author’s charm.” The Tongcheng School of Writing inherited Chinese scholars’ tradition of writing in classical Chinese and offered a theoretical summary about prose writing. It enjoyed high prestige until the Revolution in the Literati circle led by Liang Qichao (1873-1929), when it came under attack as a symbol of conservatism.
“Inner strength” is what prose writers endeavor to express. An essay does need to sound vigorous, but it should convey the author’s inner strength. Without it, the so-called vigor of an essay will have no foundation, drifting aimlessly in the air. The author’s inner strength is the soul of the essay’s vigor; the latter is the concrete manifestation of the former. The author’s inner strength is the condensed form and essence of the essay’s vigor. Our ancestors can only pass skills of writing onto us. If a writer fails to capture the essence of writing and obeys only superficial rules, he will only be hindered by them. (Liu Dakui: Occasional Thoughts About Writing)
Good writing involves not only complying with rules but also bold departure from them. Ours is a time of prosperity infinitely greater than any previous era, but there are few men of letters who are good at writing classical Chinese. The two best writers are Vice Minister Fang Bao of the past and our great Lord Liu of today! The best literary prose of the country has probably been written by scholars of Tongcheng origin! (Yao Nai: A Congratulatory Message on Liu Haifeng’s Eightieth Birthday)