One of the things I have been doing for fun this summer is reading Family Instructions for the Yen clan 顏氏家訓by Yen Chih-t’ui 顏之推 (T’eng Ssu-Yu trans Leiden 1968) Yen Chih-t’ui (531-591 C.E.) was a literatus and court official under the Liang dynasty the Northern Ch’i, the Northern Chou and the Sui. He wrote extensively on religion, etymology, phonology etc.
He was also apparently a blogger, or at least that is what I gather from reading the section in the Family Instructions entitled “On Essays”
As for writing essays to mold your own nature and spirit or to give others unembarrassed advice, if you penetrate to the interesting part, it is also a pleasure. If you have leisure after your other activities you may practice essay writing.
Being able to write good essays does not necessarily bode well for your career. He points out that “many men of letters have suffered from a light (mind) and a sharp (tongue).” He then lists a litany of famous essayists who came to bad ends, including Ch’u Yuan who ended up drowning himself when the king disregarded his words, Li Ling, a general who was captured by barbarians, Feng Ching-t’ung who was not promoted and then was dismissed because of his unstable personality and Wu Chih who calumniated and alienated his fellow countrymen. Perhaps most interesting was Tso Ssu who, in order to produce good poetry had his house and garden furnished at every turn with tables and materials for writing so that he could write down his ideas whenever they occurred to him. (obviously he needed wi-fi in the house) When Tso Ssu finished his fu poem describing the capitals of the Three Kingdoms so many people wanted to copy it that there was a shortage of paper in Loyang. (sort of an early version of a server overload.)
While there are some essay-writers who have come out well, both in a career sense and in a moral sense most of them come out badly.
. . . a body of essays exhibits the writers interests, develops his nature, and makes him proud and negligent of control as well as determined and aggressive.
The main problem is that they seem to get wrapped up in their own wonderfulness
A proper expression of one fact or a clever construction of one sentence make their spirits fly to the nine skies, and their pride towers over (the other writers) of a thousand years. They read aloud again and again for their own enjoyment, forgetting other persons nearby. Moreover, as a grain of sand of a pebble may hurt a person more than a sword or spear, their satirical remarks about other persons may spread faster than a storm.
Some of them in fact get so tied up in themselves they loose all touch with reality. Specifically, they can’t tell if they are writing nonsense or not.
In this world I have seen many people without the slightest literary talent who consider themselves elegant, flowery stylists, while spreading their awkward and stupid writings. . .Recently in Ping-chou an aristocratic scholar liked to compose ridiculous poems, challenging Hsing, Wei, and other eminent writers. All of them mocked and falsely praised him; but he was so excited that he prepared feasts to entertain those with literary reputations. His wife, an intelligent woman, admonished him against (this folly) even with tears. The gentleman said with a sigh, “Even my wife cannot appreciate my talents; how can I expect much from strangers?”
Yen also includes various small tips about writing. One should avoid the use of the phrase 敬同 -respectfully echoed (indeed). One should also beware of misusing literary allusions. This is more tricky than you might think, since “”the miscellaneous tales of the many schools of philosophy are occasionally different, and their works have usually been lost or unavailable.” He then lists a series of little errors he has found in the writings of others. Needless to say he thinks these errors of his opponents are worth being preserved for the next thousand and a half years, and so he includes them, supposedly as a form of instruction, but I think just as a bit of pettiness.
It really is a fun book.
I love using these kinds of sources with students, when I’m not doing a “dynasty-a-day” survey, or when I’m assigning essays….