shī qióng érhòu gōng 诗穷而后工
Difficult Situations Drive Writers to Produce Quality Poems.
A poet will be able to produce a quality poem only when he is in a difficult and perilous environment, feeling suffocated with pent-up anger and frustration. The word qiong (穷 difficulty) does not mean the physical deprivation of material means but refers more broadly to adverse situations in life. Gong (工 quality) means artistically refined and beautiful. This idea was put forward by Ouyang Xiu (1007-1072), a renowned leader in the literary world of the Northern Song Dynasty. He believes that adverse situations will enable poets to transcend the desire for worldly gains and assist them to depict with sophistication and insight scenes and people in the real world that have a universal significance. Ouyang Xiu’s theory not only continues but also develops Sima Qian’s (145 or 135? -? BC) “Write to give vent to indignation” and Han Yu’s (768-824) “Cry out against injustice.” This concept no longer focuses on expressing the poet’s own indignation or frustration but seeks instead to shed light on the way a great poem comes into being. Later on, the proposition became a mainstream theory in literary criticism regarding the origins of literary masterpieces.
I hear that poets seldom fare well in their pursuit of official positions. Many suffer ups and downs. Is that really true? Maybe it is because poems circulated among people are mostly written by those frustrated in their ambitions. Perhaps they are more likely to produce quality poems when they suffer ill fortune. It seems it is not writing that brings people ill fortune, but, rather, poets are better able to produce exquisite poems when they suffer ill fortune. (Ouyang Xiu: Preface to The Collection of Poems by Mei Yaochen)