Hsiao p’in

What’s a hsiao p’in, you ask? In China in the 1500’s, a number of writers began to write short prose pieces that were casual, spontaneous, informal. Reacting in part against the longer, cool, formal writing of the preceding century, they developed a shorter, warmer, individualistic style of prose writing. For subject matter, they wrote about their travels, they wrote about paintings and literature, they wrote little character sketches and breif biographies, and they wrote many pieces that are essentially personal-sounding letters meant to be read by a wider audience.

Sounds a lot like some people who write blogs. Last month in this blog, I said I tend to write for this blog as if I were writing a letter to someone. I’ve also done a little travel writing for this blog, and I do write about arts and culture. Maybe what I’m doing is a kind of Western hsiao p’in.

Nor is this kind of writing limited to blogs. My sister Jean, a writer, has been working with her husband Dick, a photographer, on exhibits that combine Dick’s photographs with short prose pieces by Jean–not unlike Chinese colophons for paintings. Gary Snyder, know for his poetry, has published a number of books of short prose pieces, some of which read like hsiao p’in — maybe intentionally so, since Snyder is well-read in Far Eastern prose and poetry.

I know I’m tired of overly ambitious long novels. I’m also tired of overly ambitious contemporary American poetry, which mostly sounds overly mannered to me. I like reading (and writing) informal, unconventional, short prose. Not that I want to call this a trend. Nor do I want to have a trendy name for it. Let’s just read these things, and write this way, and leave it at that.

For more on Chinese hsiao p’in, I’ve been reading Vignettes form the Late Ming: A Hsiao-p’in anthology, trans. intro. Yang Ye, University of Washington, Seattle, 1999.