Ou-yang Hsiu

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Ou-yang Hsiu

Ou-yang Hsiu (1007-1072) was a Chinese author and statesman. A Confucian scholar-official, he played a distinguished role in government and also excelled as essayist, poet, and historian. His influence on the development of Sung literature was immense.

Though his ancestral home was Luling, Kiangsi, Ou-yang Hsiu was born in Mienchow, in present-day Szechwan. He lost his father at the age of 4 and was brought up in Suichow, in what is now Hupei, under the protection of an uncle. At the age of 10 he discovered Han Yü, the great T'ang writer whose prose in the "ancient style" (ku-wen) and somewhat colloquial poetry were then out of fashion, and aspired to his achievement. In time Ou-yang became the most influential prose writer since Han Yü, establishing ku-wen as the dominant style for all prose writers during the Sung and afterward, and one of the shapers of Sung poetry with its distinctive prosaic and philosophic character. In espousing the Confucian orthodoxy of Han Yü, Ou-yang also became one of the forerunners of Neo-Confucianism. His contributions as a political and moral thinker have been traditionally slighted, however, because he was not in the direct line of Confucianists that led to Chu Hsi, the greatest Neo-Confucian philosopher of the Sung times.

In 1030, at the age of 23, Ou-yang passed the metropolitan civil service examination with the highest honors and earned the chin-shih degree. In the next year he was assigned to a post in Loyang, where he began to attain fame as an essayist and poet. He made friends with Mei Yaoch'en, and together they shaped the Sung style of shih poetry. During his residence in Loyang he also wrote many tz'u poems of a mildly erotic character, which reflect his own experiences with courtesans. In later years his romantic indiscretions served as occasions for his enemies to slander him.

Middle Years

In 1034 Ou-yang returned from Loyang to the capital Kaifeng and served in the Imperial Hanlin Academy. Because he sided with the reformist statesman Fan Chung-yen against the conservative faction at court headed by LüI-chien, he was exiled from the capital in 1036 as district magistrate of l-ling, in present-day Hupei. While there, he began preparing on his own initiative a New History of the Five Dynasties (Hsin Wu-tai-shih), which established his reputation as a historian. The history was subsequently adopted as official history—a unique honor for a work not sponsored by the government.

In 1043, with the reformist faction headed by Fan Chung-yen and Han Ch'i back in power, Ou-yang returned to court. He rose in official eminence and helped formulate a series of bureaucratic reforms. These reforms, however, were opposed by the conservatives, and soon Fan and Han were assigned to posts outside the capital. Ou-yang himself was tried for incest; though the charge was dismissed, he was exiled from the capital for 10 years, during which time he served as prefect of Ch'u-chou (in present-day Anhwei), Yangchow, and other cities. While in Ch'u-chou, he styled himself Tsui-weng (the Drunken Old Man) and erected a pavilion known as the Old Drunkard's Pavilion. An essay descriptive of this pavilion and several others written during this period of exile used to be committed to memory by every schoolboy in China.

Recalled to court in 1054, Ou-yang was again appointed to the Hanlin Academy. He was charged with the task of compiling a New T'ang History (Hsin T'ang-shu), which was completed in 1060. As is the case with most Chinese historiographers, Ou-yang preferred concision to fullness of treatment and adopted a moralistic tone in his interpretation of events. For these reasons neither of his two monumental histories can satisfy the modern historian, but there can be no doubt of his tremendous intellectual energy in being able to prepare two major works of this scope.

Later Years

From 1060 to 1066, during the declining years of Jentsung's reign and the brief reign of his successor Yingtsung (1064-1067), Ou-yang was a highly influential top minister, devising with Han Ch'i a program for orderly, gradual change. The next emperor, Shen-tsung, who ascended the throne in 1067, however, placed his trust in Wang An-shih, who began a drastic program of major reforms in 1067. Ou-yang was opposed to such reforms, though Wang was once his protégé, and he repeatedly requested his resignation.

A malicious censor accused Ou-yang of incest with a daughter-in-law, and though he was cleared, the period of his political power was now over. In 1067 he was made prefect of Pochow, near Yingchow, where he had earlier decided to make his home. In his old age he amused himself with collecting rubbings of ancient writing engraved on stone and metal, thus making for himself a name as an archeologist and classical scholar. In 1071, at 64, he retired from public service, and in the next year he died.

Further Reading

There are selections from Ou-yang's best-known works in prose and poetry in such standard anthologies as Herbert Allen Giles, ed. and trans., Gems of Chinese Literature (2 vols., 1884-1898; 2d rev. ed. 1923), and Cyril Birch, ed., Anthology of Chinese Literature (1965). The only book-length study of Ou-yang in English is James T. C. Liu, Ou-yang Hsiu: An Eleventh-century Neo-Confucianist (1967). While its treatment of Ou-yang as a writer is disappointing, it is a well-balanced critical biography providing thoughtful reconsideration of Ou-yang's many-sided achievements as a statesman, historian, and thinker. □