Liu Hsieh

Liu Hsieh (ca. 465-522) was a Chinese literary critic. His treatise, "The Literary Mind, " is the most systematic and comprehensive work of traditional Chinese literary criticism and influenced the development of Chinese criticism and poetics.

Liu Hsieh, with the courtesy name Wen-ho, was from Tung-kuan, the present-day Lühsien, Shantung Province. He was only a child when his father died, and he was reared in poverty by his mother, who passed away when he was 20 years of age. Liu Hsieh never married, partly because of his poverty and partly because of his great interest in Buddhism. In his youth he stayed with the monk Seng-yu for over 10 years, assisting him in editing Buddhist sutras. During this period he stored his mind with Chinese classics and literature, for without his wide reading and his deep concern with the contemporary state of literature, he could not have written Wen-hsin tiao-lung (The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons), a critical work of unprecedented length in 50 chapters.

Liu Hsieh must have completed the work before 502, the year which marked the accession of the first emperor of the Liang dynasty in South China to replace the defunct Southern Ch'i dynasty. Under the new dynasty Liu began to serve in several official posts and to gain fame for both his literary discernment and Buddhist piety. The Literary Mind made no impression upon his time, however, until Liu Hsieh submitted a copy to Shen Yüeh, the reigning arbiter of taste, who pronounced on its importance. It was probably after that event that even Hsiao T'ung, an imperial prince and great patron of letters who compiled the classic anthology Wen-hsüan, esteemed him highly. Late in life, Liu Hsieh was commissioned by Emperor Wu to reedit certain Buddhist sutras. Upon the completion of this task he became a monk with the Buddhist name of Hui-ti.

The dynasties under which Liu Hsieh lived belonged to the Age of Disunity, which saw the flourishing of both Buddhism and literary criticism. Though he was a Buddhist, Liu Hsieh's fame rests solely with The Literary Mind. Written in the elegant style of parallel prose, it discusses various types of writing under the broad categories of what we would call imaginative and functional literature.

Like so many Western neoclassic critics who accord Homer a place equal to nature, Liu Hsieh reverse the Confucian classics as masterpieces of literature because they are always in accord with nature. He reproves contemporary writers for their departure from nature in their love of ornamentation. Nature provides the objective correlative for men's feelings, and true literature, the kind of literature in accord with Tao (truth) and the Confucian classics, is always rooted in true feeling. This emphasis on the ultimate lyrical character of literature unifies Liu's many seemingly contradictory criteria employed in the evaluation of literature. He is especially brilliant in his discussion of the rhetoric of composition, linking the creative process to what we would call the power of imagination.


Further Reading on Liu Hsieh

Despite the original's difficult style and ambiguous critical vocabularly, an admirable English translation of Wen-hsin tiao-lung is Vincent Yu-chung Shih, The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons (1959), which also contains a long introduction giving a survey of Chinese criticism up to the time of Liu Hsieh. For further background see Ch'en Shou-yi, Chinese Literature: A Historical Introduction (1961).