The Chinese poet and critic Lu Chi (261-303) is best known for his Wen-fu, one of the finest works of criticism and esthetics by a Chinese, and a masterpiece in the poetic style of the fu.
Lu Chi, with the courtesy name Shih-heng, was of a distinguished family in the service of the Wu kingdom (south of the Yangtze) during the Three Kingdoms period. Both his grandfather Lu Sun and father, Lu K'ang, were brilliant military leaders and statesmen-scholars for the kingdom of Wu, but soon after Lu K'ang's death its fortunes rapidly declined. Both Lu K'ang's sons, Lu Chi and the year-younger Lu Yün, carried on the martial tradition of the family but a achieved greater fame as men of letters.
When Wu fell before the invading forces of the Chin, Chi, then 19, and Yün escaped to their family estate at Huat'ing in the Yangtze delta, where they lay low for some 10 years. Lu Chi studied hard and wrote an essay on the causes of the fall of the Wu kingdom. In 290 the two brothers went to the Chin capital, Loyang, to seek the patronage of Chang Hua, a high official and the leading writer of his time. Chang Hua appreciated the wit and talent of the brothers, and they soon rose in literary fame as well as official rank.
During the reign of the Western Chin emperor Huiti (290-306), there arose a civil war known as the Rebellion of the Eight Princes, each prince either using the weak emperor as a hostage or trying to supplant him. In 301 Lu Chi got involved in one of these princes' plots to overthrow Huiti and narrowly escaped execution. After leaving the service of another rebel prince in disgust, he finally threw in his lot with Ssu-ma Ying, the prince of Ch'eng-tu.
In 302 the prince started a war with Ssu-ma I, the prince of Ch'ang-sha. Lu Chi was appointed rear general, and he suffered a disastrous defeat in a battle. The prince of Ch'engtu listened to slander, believing Lu Chi had turned traitor, and had him executed along with his two sons and his brother Yün. Chi was only 42 years old.
Poetry and Poetics
Lu Chi excelled in both the shih and fu forms of poetry. Of his some hundred extant shih poems many are direct and moving, but the majority are imitative, devoid of content, and given to rhetoric. It is on his Wen-fu (Essay on Literature) that his fame mainly rests. Comprising 131 distichs and a short prose introduction, it was the most brilliant disquisition on literary creation by a Chinese up to its time. Though Liu Hsieh's Wen-hsintiao-lung far exceeds it in length and comprehensiveness, it remains unsurpassed among Chinese works of criticism for its penetrating insights into the nature of poetic creation. In its best passages one gets the impression of a true poet using dazzling metaphors to indicate the kind of dejection and ecstasy inherent in his attempt to capture the world through words.
Further Reading on Lu Chi
There are three translations of Lu Chi's Wen-fu available: E. R. Hughes, The Art of Letters: Lu Chi's "Wen Fu" (1951); Chen Shih-hsiang, "Lu Chi: Essay on Literature" (1953), reprinted with excisions in Cyril Birch, ed., Anthology of Chinese Literature, vol. 1 (1965); and Achilles Fang, "Rhymeprose on Literature: The Wen-fu of Lu Chi," in John L. Bishop, ed., Studies in Chinese Literature (1965). The translations by Fang and Chen are far more accurate than Hughes's. Archibald MacLeish discusses Lu Chi's poetic theory in his interesting book Poetry and Experience (1961).