Liu Tsung-yüan (773-819) was a Chinese poet and prose writer. A major figure in the neoclassic movement of the T'ang dynasty, he is the acknowledged master of an important genre of Chinese literary prose, the landscape essay.
Liu Tsung-yüan was born in the suburb of Ch'ang-an, the capital, where his father was a minor official. At age 20 he passed the literary examination and earned the chinshih degree, one of the high graduate degrees. Three years later he was appointed collator at the Imperial Secretariat and began his official career.
Short Political Career
Liu Tsung-yüan's growing literary reputation and political activity won him many friends of similar mind and aspirations, including Han Yü and Liu Yü-hsi. Together with the latter, he joined a political faction that advocated radical reform of the government, which was then in the hands of corrupt officials allied with palace eunuchs and military governors.
Upon the ascension of a new emperor in 805, Liu's faction seized power, and he was promoted to an important secretariat position on the Board of Rites. His political success was short-lived. With the failure of the party 6 months later, he was demoted, together with seven other young reformers, to posts in the outlying districts of the T'ang empire.
For 10 years, from 805, to 815, Liu Tsung-yüan stayed as subprefect of Yung-chou in remote southern Hunan. There he led the life of a political exile but made the best of it by visiting scenic mountains and streams in the surrounding region and engaging in literary writings. During this period he produced some of his best poetry and prose. In his poems he showed himself to be a superior lyricist who, while continuing the early traditions of Chinese nature poetry, endowed it with feeling and sensibility. Likewise, his informal prose writings, such as the eight landscape essays on Yung-chou, are characterized by an exquisite style, sensitivity to natural beauty, and an undercurrent of poignant emotion.
A sense of frustration and resentment pervades Liu's letters, in which he mourned bitterly the premature death of some of his young friends, seeing in their fate his own. A biting satire, piquant but not vitriolic, prevails in his animal fables and biographical sketches. Another aspect of his work, his perceptive, logical, and almost scientific mind, is shown in such historical and philosophical discourses as Fei Kuo-yü, a criticism of some absurd and illogical passages in the Kuo-yü, a historical work of the classical period; T'ientui, an answer to the riddlelike verse questions which Ch'ü-Yüan, a 4th-century B.C. poet, poses to heaven on the legends of creation and other ancient myths; and Fengchien lun, a political treatise in which Liu stresses the inadvisability of applying to the T'ang society of his time the outmoded feudal system.
In spring 815 Liu and the other subprefects were summoned back by the Emperor to Ch'ang-an. He was filled with the hope of reprieve and a new position at court, but to his disappointment, he was sent farther away from the capital as governor of Liu-chou in Kwangsi Province, an aboriginal region infested with malaria and other subtropical diseases. The people there were superstitious and impoverished, and banditry was rife.
During his governorship Liu was able to adopt reform measures to improve the people's livelihood and welfare. He established schools, repaired city walls, increased farm production, dug wells, and planted trees. Most importantly, he abolished slavery, to which children of poor families were sold so that they could ransom themselves with the wages they earned from work. Although busy with administrative duties, he continued unabated his literary activities. Highly regarded as a Buddhist scholar, he was asked to compile an inscription on the monument of the sixth Ch'an patriarch, Hui-neng, who attained great popularity a hundred years after his death and was honored posthumously by the Emperor. Liu's prominence as a writer also attracted many young men who sought eagerly to learn from him.
During an amnesty in 819, the Emperor finally agreed, upon the intercession of Liu's friends at court, to recall him to the capital. But before the imperial edict reached Liu-chou, Liu Tsung-yüan, whose health had been failing, had died, on October 27. In his epitaph on Liu Tsungyüan, Han Yü pointed out that if not for his political failure and life's hardships, Liu would probably not have had the time and occasion to produce such a wealth of great literature. As it is, the two friends together contributed to the revival of classical Chinese prose, which excels in simplicity, clarity, and vigor, and brought it to the height of its development in the T'ang dynasty.
Further Reading on Liu Tsung-Yüan
Few of Liu Tsung-yüan's poems and essays have been translated. Background on his life and work can be found in Herbert A. Giles, A History of Chinese Literature (1923); Dora Evangeline Edwards, Chinese Prose Literature of the T'ang Period A.D. 618-906, vol. 1 (1937); Ch'en Shou-Yi, Chinese Literature: A Historical Introduction (1961); Ch'u Chai and Winberg Chai, eds. and trans., A Treasury of Chinese Literature (1965); and Liu Wu-chi, An Introduction to Chinese Literature (1966).