Wen Fu: The Art of Writing
by Lu Chi (261-303 A.D.)

Lu Chi (261-303 A.D.): Wen Fu

I first came across Lu Chi's Wen Fu: The Art of Letters in the Cornell Olin Library stacks around 1968. The translations was by E.R. Hughes (Pantheon Books, 1951). There was another version titled Essay on Literature written by the 3rd century Chinese poet Lu Chi. It was translated by Shih-hsiang Chen (Anthoensen Press, Portland, Maine, 1953). At the time, I was doing my doctoral research in physical biochemistry, and not interested in poetry or creative writing. The text appealed to me because some of the metaphors on writing seemed similar to cosmology. The passage "Out of non-being, being is born; out of silence, the writer produces a song." sounds like the birth of the universe from the Big Bang— the emergence of galaxies from emptiness. And this uni-verse is one song produced by some Supreme Being or God. When I attended a Robert Bly Poetry Workshop at Asilomar (1988), he used Sam Hamill's translation of Wen Fu as one of his texts. This slim volume of only 40 pages seemed better translated than the earlier bulkier editions. The messages that Lu Chi expounds opened my eyes to good writing as I was just learning poetry at the time. I'm including three of the 16 sections from the book, and hope that lovers of literature will acquire the entiire book for their library. (Peter Y. Chou)

Wen Fu: The Art of Writing (circa 302 A.D.)

I. The Early Motion

    The poet stands at the centre of the universe
contemplating the Enigma. He draws sustenance
from the masterpieces of the past.
    Studying the four seasons as they pass, he sighs.
Seeing the inter-connectedness of things,
he knows the many ways of the world.
    He mourns the leaves torn away by the cruel hands
of autumn; he honours the fragrant tender bud of spring.
    Autumn frost sends a shudder through his heart;
summer clouds can make his spirits soar.
    He learns to recite the classics; he sings
in the clear fragrance of old masters.
    He explores the treasure of the classics
where form and content join.
    Thus moved, he lays aside his books and takes
the writing brush in hand to make this composition.

II. Beginning

    Eyes closed, he hears an inner music;
he is lost in thoughts and questions—
    His spirit rides to the eight corners of the universe,
his mind a thousand miles away.
    And then the inner voice grows clearer
as objects becomes defined.
    And he pours the essence of words,
savouring their sweetness.
    He drifts in a heavenly lake,
he dives to the depths of seas.
    And he brings up living words like fishes
hooked in their gills, leaping from the deep;
    And beauty is brought down like a bird
on an arrowstring shot from passing clouds.
    He gathers his words & images from those unused
by previous generations; his music comes from
melodies unplayed for a thousand years or more.
    The morning blossoms bloom;
soon the night buds will unfold.
    He sees past and present commingle; he sees
the whole Four Seas in the single blink of an eye.

IV. The Satisfaction

    The pleasure a writer knows
is the pleasure all sages enjoy.
    Out of non-being, being is born;
out of silence, the writer produces a song.
    In a single yard of silk, infinite space is found;
language is a deluge from one small corner of the heart.
    The net of images is cast wider and wider;
thought searches more and more deeply.
    The writer spreads the fragrance of new flowers,
an abundance of sprouting buds.
    Laughing winds lift up the metaphor;
clouds rise from a forest of writing brushes.

— Lu Chi, Wen Fu: The Art of Writing,
     translated & afterword by Sam Hamill
     Breitenbush Books, Portland, OR, 1987, pp. 10-11

Book Review of Lu Chi's Wen Fu, translated by E.R. Hughes (1951)
   Journal of the American Oriental Society (1952), pp. 184-188

• Lu Chi's Wen Fu, translated by Shih-Hsiang Chen
   Anthoensen Press, Portland, Maine, 1952)

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