The term "essay" originates with Michel de Montaigne in 1580, when he published Essais. The term "essay," then, describes a genera of literary endeavor (See Hardson's "An Essay on the Essay"). Montaigne's essays demonstrated a narrative deductive rather than inductive approach to examining and explaining experience. The eight-legged Confucian examination response is more an example of a prescribed organizational pattern than it is an essay in the broader understanding of the term, something more akin to the modern five-paragraph essay in that conforming to the criteria demonstrated an aspiring scholar's ability to explain ideas within the confines of an authorized or expected pattern. Accordingly, we must use the term "essay" loosely in this instance.
With that in mind, the eight-legged essay (Chinese: 八股文; pinyin: bāgǔwén) was a style of essay writing that had to be mastered to pass the imperial examinations during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. It is named so because it was divided into eight sections.
Structure and content
The eight-legged essay was formulated around a rigid, artificial structure. It tested, among other things, the examinees' knowledge of the Four Books and Five Classics and ability to insert classical allusions and idioms at the places deemed appropriate. The structure of much of the essay included heavy parallelism and redundancy, rhetorical features that survive in modern Chinese expository writing.
The eight "legs" or sections were as follows:
|Opening||破題 pòtí "break topic"||Two sentences of prose whose function is to broach the topic.|
|Amplification||承題 chéngtí "carry topic"||Five sentences of prose, elaborating upon and clarifying the theme.|
|Preliminary exposition||起講 qǐjiǎng "begin speak"||Prose text|
|Initial argument||起股 qǐgǔ "begin section"||A specified number (4, 5, 8 or 9) of sentence pairs written in parallel, developing the initial argument. The parallel sentences address the topic and convey similar meanings, with similar structure but different words.|
|Central argument||中股zhōnggǔ "middle portion"||Sentences written in parallel, with no limit as to their number, in which the central points of the essay are expounded freely.|
|Latter argument||後股 hòugǔ "after portion"||Sentences written in parallel, with no limit as to their number. Here, points not addressed in the previous section are discussed; otherwise, the writer may continue padding the ideas in the central argument. It is to be written in a serious tone rooted in realism.|
|Final argument||束股 shùgǔ "tying-up section"||Parallel sentence groups, each one consisting of either two to three, or else four to five, lines. Here, the main theme is revisited and loose ends are tied up.|
|Conclusion||大結 dàjié "big knot"||Prose text where free expression and creativity are allowed. The concluding remarks are made here.|
In addition to the rules governing the number of sentences for a particular section, there were also strict limits on the total number of words in the essay. Certain offensive words and words prone to reveal the candidate’s identity or status were also to be avoided.
Words, phraseology, or references to events that occurred after the death of Mencius in 298 BC were not allowed, since the essay was supposed to explain a quote from one of the Confucian classics by "speaking for the sage"; and Confucius or his disciples could not have referred to events that occurred after their deaths.
The eight-legged essay format was invented by the Song Dynasty reformer Wang Anshi. However, it is not certain exactly when the form became the standard for the civil service examinations. A model form for essay writing issued by Emperor Taizu of Ming in 1370 is much less rigid and precise than eight-legged essays eventually became. It specifies only the topics to be tested in the examinations and the minimum length of the candidates' essays. According to Gu Yanwu, the form of the essay became more standardized during the 15th century. The term "eight-legged essay" first appeared during the period from 1465 to 1487, and the essay form was first required in the examinations of 1487 and 1496.
Since mastery of the form was a requirement for success in the examinations, commercial printers during the Ming Dynasty began to print successful examination essays as guides for aspiring candidates. The first of these appeared in pirated form during the 16th century. However, the practice gained official approval in 1587, when the government suggested that the best papers of the previous century be reprinted as examples.
A sample essay
The following is a translation of an original eight-legged essay, written by Wang Ao (1450-1524), who was considered to be a master of the form. It should be noted that this format is slightly different than the one described above; Xugu is added while Shùgǔ is omitted. Xugu acts as a prelude to the main theme.
"If the people enjoy sufficiency how could the ruler suffer from insufficiency?"
When the people below are rich, the ruler at the top will naturally be rich.
This is so because the wealth of the ruler is something kept by the people. If the people are already rich, how can it stand to reason that the ruler alone is poor?
Yu Jo spoke from profundity the idea of the oneness of the ruler and the people in his advice to Duke Ai. The implication was that the Duke's proposal to increase the taxation was due to the insufficiency of his revenues for state expenditure; to insure the sufficiency of state expenditure, then, what could take precedence over measures to insure sufficiency for his people?
- the farming lands were tithed with a sincere wish to be thrifty in expenditure and to be considerate in showing love to the people,
- the one-tenth tax on the agricultural produce were levied with no scheme to exploit the people and to seek extravagance for the person of the ruler himself;
- the exertions of the people would not be burdened with excessive taxations,
- the accumulation of the people's property would not be exhausted by undue demands;
- within common households there would be enough savings and accumulation, leaving little worry over caring for parents and raising the young,
- in the ordinary farms there would be abundant grains and millets, warding off the anxieties of nurturing the living and of honoring the dead.
If the people are enjoying sufficiency, for what conceivable reason should the ruler be left alone in poverty?
I know that
- what was kept in the common households would all be available to the ruler, without its being hoarded in the treasury to enable the ruler to claim, "This is my wealth";
- what is stored in the farm and fields would all be accessible to the ruler, without its being accumulated in the vaults to enable the ruler to claim, "These are my possessions."
With inexhaustible availability, what worry is there for failure to respond to demand?
With inexhaustible supplies, what anxiety is there for lack of preparedness in emergency?
The sacrificial animals and ritual cereals are plentiful to be used in religious offerings; and the jades and silks are abundant to be used as tributes and diplomatic gifts. Even if these were insufficient, the people will naturally supply them in full. Wherein will there be a shortage?
Food and delicacies, beefs and drinks are abundant for entertainment of state guests; carriages and horses, arms and equipment are enough for the preparation of wars and defense. Even if these were insufficient, the people will take care of the needs. Wherein again will there be insufficiency?
Oh! The establishment of the tithe was originally for the good of the people, but in this very usage lies the sufficiency of national expenditure. Where then is there any need to increase taxation to attain national wealth?
The eight-legged essay was praised by some and was maintained as an integral part of the examination tradition. This is illustrated by an attempt to abolish it during the Qing Dynasty. The government at that time viewed Wang Anshi as having been a bad official. For this reason, an attempt was made in 1663 to abolish the form. However, the weight of tradition made such a change impossible. Candidates in the examinations had been trained in the form, and abolishing it threatened their livelihoods. Examiners could also mark papers written in the form in a uniform manner. Supporters of the form also argued that only the truly skilled could write eight-legged essays of high quality, so the form assisted in seeking out talent. For these reasons, the attempted change did not last, and the form was reintroduced in 1668. Yuan Hung-tao (1568–1610) praised the form effusively: "Its style is unprecedented; its diction reaches the limits of a talented writer; its tune changes with the passage of years and months. [Every writer] is able to demonstrate his unique talent with different techniques". He later declared that "the variety and liveliness of the eight-legged essay is a hundred times more than that of poetry."
In contrast, the eight-legged format is "generally considered pedantic and trite by modern-day scholars", and it had its critics during the time of its dominance as well. As early as the 17th century, the form's adoption was blamed for the decline of classical poetry and prose during the Ming Dynasty. The critic Wu Qiao wrote that "people exhausted themselves on the eight-legged essay, and poetry was only composed with their spare energy". Writing at the same time, the political theorist and philosopher Huang Zongxi echoed these sentiments. Its use has been criticized as the reason that many successful examination candidates later found themselves unprepared for the more practical requirements of government positions. In his unfinished autobiography, Chen Duxiu, the co-founder of the Chinese Communist Party, called the form "lifeless".
- Imperial examination
- Ming Dynasty
- Qing Dynasty
- Great Learning
- Doctrine of the Mean
- The Scholars (novel)
- Five paragraph essay
- Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities (KSA)
- "Leg" is a mistranslation of 股 (gǔ) which literally means leg, but is used primarily as a derived metaphor meaning "section." The stock market for example is 股市 "leg market" in Chinese.
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- Isaac Taylor Headland: Court Life in China (1909), Chapter 22: The Court and the New Education