Tag Archives: Chinese writers

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.

Nature and a creator

Liu Zongyuan (773-819) is considered one of the great prose writers in Chinese. I was in an odd little bookstore over the weekend and happened to find a paperback titled Poetry and Prose of the Tang and Song (translated by Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang, published in 1984 by Panda Books, the English-language publishing arm of the Chinese government). In this book is a wonderful short essay by Liu Zongyuan, in which he describes climbing Stone Town Mount, past a small stream, scrambling up rocks that “look like a city wall,” and arriving at the top to be greeted with a view into the far distance. But more fascinating than the distant view is the summit itself:

“Although there is not soil, the fine trees and slender bamboos which grow there are more curiously shaped and firmly rooted than most. Some are high, some are low; some grow in clumps, and others stand apart as if planted by a skilful hand.

“Indeed, I have long been curious to know whether or not a Creator exists; and this sight made me feel that there must surely be one. It seems strange, though, that such wonders are set not in the heart of the country but in barbarous regions like this, where hundreds of years may pass before anyone comes along to appreciate them. This is labor in vain, which hardly befits a god, so perhaps there is none after all!”

In this short passge, I think Liu Zongyuan raises some good issues for those of us trying to do ecological theology. Liu says we can probably neither prove nor disprove the existence of a creator from Nature. We like to think Nature is set up for our especial benefit, but that is open to question. We like to think whatever a god does is for our especial benefit, but that too is open to question. Liu goes one to finish his essay thus:

“Some say, ‘This [the beauty of the summit] is done to comfort good men [sic] who are sent here in disgrace.’

“Others say, ‘This climate does not produce great men, but only freaks of nature. That is why there are few men south of Chu, but many rocks.’

“I do not hold, however, with either view.”

In other words, Nature does not exist for the pleasure of human beings. Nor can we judge Nature solely by human standards.