Friday, September 19, 2008

Eight-legged essay

The eight-legged essay was a style of essay writing that had to be mastered to pass the imperial examinations during the and Dynasties. It is named so because it was divided into eight sections.

Structure and content

The eight-legged essay was formulated around a rigid, artificial structure, and tested, among other things, the examinees' knowledge of the Four Books and Five Classics and ability to insert classical allusions and idioms at the places deemed appropriate. The structure of much of the essay included heavy parallelism and redundancy, rhetorical features that survive in modern Chinese expository writing. Such parallel expression was considered emphatic and euphonic to the Chinese, rather than wasteful and superfluous as it is in the West.

The eight "legs" or sections were as follows:

* Opening : Two sentences of prose whose function is to broach the topic.
* Amplification : Five sentences of prose, elaborating upon and clarifying the theme.
* Preliminary exposition : Prosaic writing
* Initial argument : A specified number of sentence pairs written in parallel, developing the initial argument. The parallel sentences address the topic and convey similar meanings, with similar structure but different words.
* Central argument : Sentences written in parallel, with no limit as to their number, in which the central points of the essay are expounded freely.
* Latter argument : Sentences written in parallel, with no limit as to their number. Here, points not addressed in the previous section are discussed; otherwise, the writer may continue padding the ideas in the central argument. It is to be written in a serious tone rooted in realism.
* Final argument : Parallel sentence groups, each one consisting of either two to three, or else four to five, lines. Here, the main theme is revisited and loose ends are tied up.
* Conclusion : Prosaic writing where free expression and creativity are allowed. The concluding remarks are made here.

In addition to the rules governing the number of sentences for a particular section, there were also strict limits on the total number of words in the essay.
Certain offensive words and words prone to reveal the candidate’s identity or status were also to be avoided. However, it is not certain exactly when the form became the standard for the civil service examinations. A model form for essay writing issued by Ming T'ai-Tsu in 1370 is much less rigid and precise than eight-legged essays eventually became. It specifies only the topics to be tested in the examinations and the minimum length of the candidates' essays. According to Ku Yen-wu, the form of the essay became more standardized during the 15th century. The term "eight-legged essay" first appeared during the period from 1465 to 1487, and the essay form was first required in the examinations of 1487 and 1496.

Since mastery of the form was a requirement for success in the examinations, commercial printers during the Ming Dynasty began to print successful examination essays as guides for aspiring candidates. The first of these appeared in pirated form during the 16th century. However, the practice gained official approval in 1587, when the government suggested that the best papers of the previous century be reprinted as examples.

Viewpoints on the form

The eight-legged essay was praised by some and was maintained as an integral part of the examination tradition. This is illustrated by an attempt to abolish it during the Qing Dynasty. The government at that time viewed Wang Anshi as having been a bad official. For this reason, an attempt was made in 1663 to abolish the form. However, the weight of tradition made such a change impossible. Candidates in the examinations had been trained in the form, and abolishing it threatened their livelihoods. Examiners could also mark papers written in the form in a uniform manner. Supporters of the form also argued that only the truly skilled could write eight-legged essays of high quality, so the form assisted in seeking out talent. For these reasons, the attempted change did not last, and the form was reintroduced in 1668. Yuan Hung-tao praised the form effusively: "Its style is unprecedented; its diction reaches the limits of a talented writer; its tune changes with the passage of years and months. is able to his unique talent with different techniques". He later declared that "the variety and liveliness of the eight-legged essay is a hundred times more than that of poetry."

In contrast, the eight-legged format is "generally considered pedantic and trite by modern-day scholars" Its use has been criticized as the reason that many successful examination candidates later found themselves unprepared for the more practical requirements of government positions.. In his unfinished autobiography, Chen Duxiu, the co-founder of the Chinese Communist Party, called the form "lifeless".


* Isaac Taylor Headland: ''Court Life in China'' , Chapter 22: ''''

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